The most influential college you've never heard of, why it folded, and why it matters

Josef Albers’s color-theory class at Black Mountain College. Courtesy Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina, Asheville, NC.

“When you really understand that each color is changed by a changed environment, you eventually find that you have learned about life as well as about color.” – Josef Albers, professor at Black Mountain College

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill claims the title of oldest public university in the United States, having graduated its first class in 1795. In the centuries since, the state has added sixteen more campuses to the UNC system, including five historically black colleges and universities. The system, especially its flagship school, is the pride of the state: journalist John Gunther called it “a kind of intellectual capital for the whole South” in 1947; half a century later, historian John Egerton described it as “the single most glowing exception to broad-based mediocrity in the Southern academic world.”

But following a GOP takeover of the NC state legislature in 2010, the exception is beginning to look more like the rule. Legislators have slashed per-pupil funding (down 25 percent from 2008 levels) and raised tuition rates (up 35 percent in the same period); by 2014, when most states had begun reinvesting in higher education as the recession eased, North Carolina remained one of only eight still cutting per-student spending—effectively restricting access to higher education for the state’s poorer residents.

The GOP majority also appointed a much more conservative Board of Governors, many members of which contributed substantially to the election campaigns of their new bosses. These overseers of NC higher education, with hardly an academic among them, have used questions of scholastic cost to demand an enhanced focus on return on investment, reorienting UNC toward explicitly economic outcomes.

In late 2015, the board requested the resignation of president of the UNC system Tom Ross, despite lauding his work, and appointed Margaret Spellings, George W. Bush’s Secretary of Education, as his successor. Spellings is more of a piece with the board’s educational philosophies. Under the younger Bush, she was a principal architect of the No Child Left Behind Act, notable for its heavy focus on testing and metrics and the subsequent national drop in classroom hours dedicated to history, the arts, languages, and music.

She has only just assumed office, but her connections to exploitative for-profit colleges and her references to students as “customers” (not to mention anti-gay politics in years past) have agitated students and faculty alike. In late January, police arrested four protesters who disrupted a meeting of the Board of Governors in Chapel Hill; on March 1, Spellings’ first day as president, students across the state staged a walkout against her stewardship.

The troubles facing colleges and universities in North Carolina, and across the United States more broadly, are three-fold, argues history professor Michael Behrent. Ballooning student debt, increased reliance on underpaid contingent (or adjunct) faculty, and the rise of a cumbersome administrative class represent a shift toward a university model that looks increasingly like a business. As student “customers” are charged ever more, power and pay have moved from academic workers to academic management.

But 60 miles southwest of Behrent’s home at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, a bygone experiment in education provides a radical counterpoint to today’s headwinds. While more renowned in art-historical than educational circles, Black Mountain College operated as a faculty-owned and –run school from its tumultuous founding in 1933 until its closure 24 years later.

Despite a lack of accreditation and chronic underfunding, the school turned out some of the most notable painters and poets (and sociologists, and mathematicians) in mid-century America—while approaching education holistically and largely ignoring achievement metrics altogether. At BMC, seemingly every facet of traditional schooling was open for discussion. Today, it stands in stark contrast to the educational world that ultimately consumed it.


Eureka Hall at the site of Black Mountain College. Image courtesy Justin Laidlaw.

Black Mountain College nowadays calls to mind not so much a school as a home of the mid-century avant-garde. The thumbprint of the college on the artistic history of the United States is vivid: its creative cross-pollination gave rise to the first “happening” in 1952, a multimedia event spearheaded by experimental composer John Cage and that included the work of choreographer Merce Cunningham and painter Robert Rauschenberg. The history of performance art owes them a great debt. A very poor Willem de Kooning, a towering figure in American art and a leading practitioner of the Abstract Expressionist style, came for summer institutes with his wife Elaine, a painter, alongside other New York art world luminaries—painters Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell, and textural photographer Aaron Siskind. The mad-genius engineer Buckminster Fuller put together his first geodesic dome on campus. In later years, a literary emphasis gave rise to the Black Mountain School of poetry.

As history recycles its grist, the school is now coming into renewed focus. This past year, Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof exhibited a show honoring the contributions of Germans, many fleeing the Nazis, to the community, while Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art put on a BMC general retrospective. In Asheville, North Carolina, 15 minutes from the erstwhile campus, the Black Mountain College Museum shows the work of artists connected to the school.

I stopped in and spoke with program director Alice Sebrell. She discussed the school’s seat-of-its-pants approach, pointing to its resourcefulness as a product of its Depression-era genesis. Rauschenberg, for example, was on trash duty with his partner Susan Weil, and on runs to the dump, he would repurpose some of the refuse for his work. Now he is known for this innovative use of materials. As we chatted, Hilary Rice, the daughter of painter and BMC alum Dan Rice, burst into the space to happy hugs all around. Her dad, she said, cited Black Mountain as “the place he became an artist.”

We moseyed across the street to a new gallery that the museum is opening this spring—austere, white-walled, expectant. I wondered aloud why there seemed to be so much recent interest in BMC and its constituents; museum development and outreach coordinator Lydia See cited the school’s “utopic quality” as representative of a lifestyle gaining cultural cachet. The museum, like the school, melds art and life in a community—progressive, funky Asheville—where that is a cherished virtue. It is not, she said, “a place where history goes to die. It’s an inclusive, open, educational focus based on the legacy of the school … People in Asheville are trying for an imbrication of art and life, weaving in aspects of aesthetic life to the everyday.”


But Black Mountain College was not, strictly speaking, an art school. And it certainly didn’t start that way. In 1933, classics professor John Andrew Rice tossed the snowball that kicked off a decades-long avalanche, foregoing more pointed Latin and Greek coursework at Rollins College to lead his students on Socratic journeys about topics from religion to “What is Art” and bad-mouthing academic hierarchy. The Rollins College president, a self-proclaimed “experimenter in education,” was nonetheless displeased. For this curricular skullduggery, and for Rice’s generally winking attitude toward authority, he had Rice fired.

Popular as Rice was, his exit caused a scandal. When the dust settled, eight professors had left Rollins, and a number of students with them. After some uncertainty, Rice and his colleagues decided to put their rebellious philosophies to test. Thanks to a local professor, property was located in western North Carolina, a grand colonnaded hall atop an Appalachian hill in the shadows of the Blue Ridge; funders were secured to support the endeavor; teachers were recruited. From a pedagogic schism, Black Mountain College was born.

The goal was from the outset to approach education in an unregimented way. There were no required courses, no extensive examinations, no formal grading. The school was not even accredited, “graduating” only sixty students throughout its lifetime. Yet its alums were accepted by graduate schools and as transfers, from Harvard to Princeton to the Pasadena Playhouse College of the Theatre, despite their lack of certificates.

To ensure an open curriculum, the founders decided to avoid top-down control, instead granting ownership of the school to the whole faculty evenly, including new hires. Meanwhile, the school decided to make no decisions without student input—student officers could be present at faculty meetings and would sit on the governing Board of Fellows (constituted otherwise of a subgroup of the professoriate). Discussions of school policy were typically open affairs attended by all. Collectivism was applauded; democracy reigned.

This opened space for BMC’s idea that learning and living should interlace. As Louis Adamic, who spent three months at the school as a curious visitor, described the method in a breathless 1936 article for Harper’s: “At BMC there is no head-cramming. There education is experience that involves in action the whole person.”

To that end, Rice and his cofounders made art a core piece of the Black Mountain experience, in an effort to get each student to “put the same faith in doing that he has been taught to have in absorbing,” as an early school catalogue put it. Serendipitously (for Black Mountain, anyway), the year of the college’s founding, the Nazis closed down the radical Bauhaus art school in Germany. Josef and Anni Albers, looking to escape the rising tide of fascism, agreed to come on at BMC to teach art, despite the fact, as Josef wrote, that he did not “speak one word English.” In subsequent years, many Germans would follow.

The Albers’ arrival was a coup for the school. It immediately provided a strong artistic spine and influenced the pedagogy greatly: Josef was a champion of a humanistic approach to education, of art as a way to engage the world completely. So while art was central, everyone was not to become an artist, per se; instead, art looked more like the core of a liberal arts education today. BMC alum Will Hamlin described the result to historian Martin Duberman: “I think we had this in common with the painters and weavers and musicians, that we were trying to make some kind of order out of things, I mean really trying, not just pretending to be… I think we were—with a few exceptions—really working at creating our own universes of meaning.”


The decision to avoid any sort of administrative board cut both ways. The educational model was open as the sky. But the school was constantly scrambling for money, seemingly always on the verge of closing—although it still maintained a pay-what-you-can system (sometimes counterbalanced by accepting wealthier students for that reason alone).

The “precariousness, though deplored and decried at the time, may well have contributed to the community élan,” as Duberman writes. “The severity of the struggle for economic survival helped to knit the community together.” The upshot was a focus on collectively tending to the college: a work program was instituted early on, and students and professors alike worked a farm that provided food for sustenance and sometimes sale, constructed new school buildings, washed dishes, and maintained the grounds. This was cause for grumbling in some corners—it was work, after all—and romantic reverie in others. Rice, the school’s cheeky founder, perhaps summed up the ambivalent attitude best in his autobiography. “Untoiling poets may sing of the dignity of toil;” he wrote, “others know there is degradation in obligatory sweat.”

Nevertheless, there was definite communal buy-in among the Black Mountaineers. When psychologist John Wallen joined the faculty in 1945, he broadened the question of collective responsibility by reaching out to the largely bemused and distrustful surrounding community. (There was a bit of a cultural gap between the school and its environs. A maintenance man on BMC’s first campus described the student body to me as many contemporary locals would: “nothing to do but moonshine and sex.”)

In many ways, the experiment was successful. Students volunteered in town, worked in the Southern Negro Youth Conference, registered voters, gathered signatures for petitions. But it was also short-lived, as Wallen left BMC contentiously not two years into his appointment, taking his ideals with him.

Still, while insulated at times from its surroundings, the school tackled the social issues of its day. It offered a home to German Jews, artists and intellectuals during another era when immigration vexed the United States. In 1944, ten years before Brown v. Board of Education, Alma Stone, a Black musician from Georgia, attended BMC’s summer institute in the Jim Crow South. The following summer black artists began to teach, and Black students enrolled full-time, some back from the war on the GI Bill. When the students went into town, they abided by segregation laws; but when outsiders came to Black Mountain for concerts, theater productions, and the like, everybody sat where they pleased.


Democracy proved hard. Immediately upon BMC’s founding, a more powerful group of faculty emerged at its helm: John Rice, Josef Albers, engineer Theodore Dreier, a few compatriots. Soon, some of their colleagues began to resent the group’s authority as at odds with the school’s mission; when Rice had a very public affair with a student in the late ’30s, it provided a catalyst to put him on leave for a time. He never returned.

Sans affair (although that continued to happen every so often), this process repeated itself throughout the school’s history: groups of professors were forced out or resigned, sometimes taking significant portions of the student body with them. Eventually even Albers fell victim to such a dispute after a younger crop of professors decided that he and his ilk had become too stuffy.

The infighting shaped life at the school and gives a sense of the easy-come-easy-go nature of the work. Professors were appointed initially to two-year terms, and later to one-year terms; there was no tenure. Faculty could be asked to leave for the vaguest of reasons—complaints about classroom technique became shorthand for any number of nebulous collegial gripes. Yet because they were part of steering the college, because of their great freedom in implementing their visions of education, professors came. And they stayed.

Josef and Anni Albers, despite the consistently meager pay, taught at the school for 16 years. Co-founder Theodore Dreier, too. Poet Mary Catherine Richards stayed seven years and continued to be involved with the school after she left. The poet Charles Olson stayed six years, until the school closed. (Some students stayed about as long.) The pay was bad, yes. But to be architects of education, rather than grunts on its front line, was for many worth the shortfall.

Albers’s exit in 1949 began the last, most incandescent period of BMC’s history, under the rectorship of Olson, a six-foot-seven-inch whirlwind of a man. After a (comparatively) more staid period in the late ‘40s, the school under Olson lived up to its ideals of radical experimentation. Any semblance of traditional course structure was scrapped, seminars ran until the wee hours of morning, the lines blurred fully between students and faculty. The literary arts took central importance, and the “Black Mountain School” of poets emerged, buoyed by Robert Creeley’s publication of the Black Mountain Review, a journal whose contributors also included Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

The Olson years were BMC magnified: yet more cash-starved, yet more experimental, yet more soul-searching. Yet more famous alumni—painter Dorothea Rockburne emerged from this period as well—yet more piercing thought. But the lack of structure had its costs; dwindling enrollment meant emptier coffers, and finally, in 1956-7, the school’s closure. Professors and students spun off to more traditional universities, to new experiments in communal living, to Abstract Expressionist New York and the San Francisco of the Beats.


Black Mountain College’s troubles stemmed from staunch opposition to centralized hierarchical governance. The UNC system’s current issues lend credence to those fears. Early last year, after the NC Board of Governors reviewed 240 academic institutes and centers across the UNC system, they decided to close down three—the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity, at UNC Chapel Hill; East Carolina University’s NC Center for Biodiversity; and North Carolina Central University’s Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change.

Gene Nichol, the head of the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity, has slammed the state legislature and McCrory’s administration in recent years in a series of op-eds for the Raleigh News & Observer. The axing of his Center came despite it drawing no money from the state for operating fees; that the shutdown was not political beggars belief. (UNC administration and the Board of Governors did not respond to requests for comment.)

Across the Triangle, NCCU’s Institute likewise drew no state money for its work on voting rights and civic participation. Such work is timely: North Carolina passed the most stringent voter ID laws in the nation, which were just struck down in federal court; and a federal court just ruled that two of its congressional districts were unconstitutionally gerrymandered. NCCU professor and former Institute director Jarvis Hall believes that the board targeted his center for its work with progressive groups, including the Moral Monday protests that swept the state in 2013 and ‘14. “Essentially, it was a political decision,” wrote Hall by email, “not one of efficiency nor cost cutting as was claimed by the Board of Governors.”

Hall is further concerned about the prospects for students at HBCUs under Spellings’s watch. “It would be an understatement to say that HBCUs certainly did not thrive under policies and budget decisions while she was the Secretary of Education,” he notes. And given its lack of members with HBCU experience, Hall worries that the board will not be attuned to the unique exigencies of the schools. In an interview with The Nation, Nichol is more blunt in his assessment of the current board and legislature: “They govern for the white, wealthy, straight Christians, mostly for the males, and all the rest be damned.”


Michael Behrent, the history professor at App State, believes that the changes in how public universities are funded represent an “economic and political model that is hostile toward the very idea of public institutions”—and one hostile to the teaching staff upon whose services it relies. Altha Cravey, a geography professor at UNC-CH, is similarly discontented with what she sees as abuse of the professoriate. She cites data from UNC showing that 59 percent of the faculty at Chapel Hill are now in non-tenure-track positions, versus only 12 percent in 2003.

In late 2015, the Board of Governors voted in a closed-doors meeting to give 12 chancellors across the UNC system pay raises of between eight and 19 percent, representing in each case tens of thousands of dollars. UNC faculty and staff received one-time bonuses of $750, but no raise. Cravey worries that administration is “being pulled in this corporate and right-wing direction, and we’re being pulled in this deprofressionalized, powerless direction… So we have less in common, and even when we do sit down together, less meeting of the minds.”

Behrent and Cravey are both members of Faculty Forward NC, a group organizing contingent faculty across the state in hopes of securing better working conditions. In North Carolina, though, statutes stipulate that public employees cannot bargain collectively, nor can they strike—thus the disruptive actions at Board of Governors meetings, in hopes of publicity.
Meanwhile, the fight for better faculty work conditions pivots in the state to private schools. At Duke University, in Durham, tenure-track positions have expanded by 11 percent over the last ten years, while non-tenure-track positions have grown six times as quickly.

In March, Duke non-tenure-track faculty voted overwhelmingly to form a union, even while the administration decried the move as an adulteration of the direct relationship between the school and its professors. (Duke administration declined to comment for this piece.) But as MJ Sharp, an adjunct professor at Duke, wrote in a recent op-ed in Facing South, “people in positions of extreme vulnerability (semester-to-semester contracts with no health benefits, for example), whose present employment and future advancement depend entirely on the goodwill of the person above them in the hierarchy, are not in a position to advocate for themselves with anything like the boldness and passion required.”

The future of academic work is at stake. The midcentury model of shared faculty governance in higher education is eroding, replaced by a top-down, corporate technocracy. There is nothing guaranteed about tenure, about faculty self-determination, about long-term job security; these are conditional, historical facts, but not necessary features of the academy. If current trends continue, an entire generation of academics will come of age in a world in which the gulf between the tenured and non-tenured is entrenched, in which work is precarious and low pay, in which profits flow upwards toward administrators. The corporate university could become the new norm.


Black Mountain College reminds us that there are other ways forward. Much of the writing on the school (including, at times, mine) tends toward hagiography. The big-name artists! The freedom! The death before its time! And BMC certainly is easy to idolize as a bastion of progressive values—America’s Bauhaus—while of course the reality, as ever, was more complicated. But despite the rifts within the faculty that developed every so often, and the stress of such an uncertain existence, what stands out in reading accounts of the school,in speaking to children of alumni or to those now unpacking BMC for a new generation, is the enthusiasm that pervaded the place. Education can take many forms, and the discussion of how best to approach it is dynamic and endless. But the flame of excitement ought to count for something.

I visited Black Mountain’s second campus on a snowy day earlier this year, surrounded by blue-tinged mountains looming in the mist. It is now a boys’ summer camp, situated beside a placid lake drained for the winter. Cracks in the mud, mussels yawping in the milky gray light. Two frescoes painted beneath the main campus building—built by faculty and students—had faded through the decades. Crunching around the gravel paths in the nearby hills, I stumbled across George Pickering, the man who purchased the school’s land. He recounted the day that Charles Olson came to his door to sell, “looking like God.”

“I wish I hadn’t bought them out,” he told me, gravel-voiced. “I wish I had given them some money to keep them afloat.” Shaking his head, he walked inside his house. And there the campus sat, echoing quietly across the state.