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What Happened? Higher Education in the Long Sixties

By Jennifer Ruth

cover image of The Lost Promise (protest signs)The Lost Promise: American Universities in the 1960s by Ellen Schrecker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021.

In the fall 2021 issue of Dissent magazine, Timothy Shenk wonders “what higher education looked like to a smart kid in the early 1960s” compared with what it must look like to one today. The first kid saw something “wealthy, expanding, dynamic”—“an ideal place [for students] to start their long march through the institutions.” Today’s student, however, sees “a place where most people are trying their best but nobody has any real sense of what it’s all supposed to add up to.” The latter student probably doesn’t know all the reasons why there is no there there, but Shenk rattles off a few: “slashing of state funding for higher education; skyrocketing student debt levels; the waning of tenure-track positions and the rise of the adjunct; the declining position of the humanities and social sciences . . . and the metastasizing of a bloated administration.”

So, what happened? Distinguished historian Ellen Schrecker’s new book, The Lost Promise: American Universities in the 1960s, explains what happened in two senses. The book completes a kind of out-of-order trilogy, one that began with No Ivory Tower’s examination of the McCarthy period, continues with The Lost Promise’s focus on the 1960s and early 1970s, and takes us through the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s in The Lost Soul of Higher Education, published in 2010. In The Lost Promise, Schrecker surveys the key developments on or affecting campuses during the 1960s. She describes the extraordinary growth and concomitant bureaucratization of universities; the flagrant violations of academic freedom in the South and the establishment of Black studies programs in the West and Northeast; the growing awareness of the disastrous nature of the Vietnam War and the subsequent antiwar teach-ins; the eruption of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley and the faculty’s complicated responses to it; and the increased collaboration between the federal government and faculty researchers, particularly in the sciences, as well as the growing criticism of that collaboration. She also speculates on what these events have to do with the betrayal of the promise that higher education held for idealistic faculty members and students at the decade’s start.

To illustrate the strong position enjoyed by higher education at the start of the 1960s, Schrecker begins The Lost Promise with an example of growth that is representative of many institutions around the country: Brockport Collegiate Institute, founded in 1835. The fortunes of this small college, which was called Brockport State Normal School from 1866 to 1942 and then Brockport State Teachers College, began to change after it joined the State University of New York system in 1948. By the end of the 1960s, it had 5,500 students, 350 faculty members, and a dramatically expanded physical campus with new residence halls, a college union, a library, and numerous other buildings. After World War II, with stunning growth at institutions across the country in faculty appointments, student enrollments, and physical infrastructure, Schrecker writes, “the academy embraced a new democratic mission.”

But with growth came new pressures. Universities embraced “a new set of competitive values.” Tension developed between a younger generation of faculty who internalized the new model, with its greater research expectations, and an older generation that was continuing to operate under old rules. Administrators faced the problem of “how to transform the culture of an institution without causing so much dissension that it becomes dysfunctional.” This point, made early in The Lost Promise, demonstrates one of Schrecker’s strengths: she attends to the way change reverberates for multiple university constituencies and expertly articulates the complicated and sometimes volatile dynamics that result.

Tensions only intensified as national politics played out on campuses. Finally recovered from the McCarthy chill of the 1950s, faculty members spoke out about the suppression of academic freedom at southern colleges and universities that were viciously fighting integration. Some took inspiration from Cuba as a model for liberation and said so. When students protested at Berkeley, faculty members there formed a “Committee of 200” to support students’ right to demonstrate and pressured the administration into conceding that right. Of course, faculty members were far from a united voice in these and other situations that arose in the 1960s, and the charged debates and bitter disagreements among them make for lively reading. Readers might discern Schrecker’s sympathy for the elements pushing for progressive change, but she remains remarkably balanced in her presentation of often profound dissension, and readers emerge with a strong sense of what was believed to be at stake for everyone involved, regardless of where they fell on the political spectrum.

Having lived through the period herself, having interviewed 134 others who also did, and having read a mind-boggling number of letters, memoirs, monographs, and journalistic essays, Schrecker brings campus events alive—sometimes humorously so. When Fidel Castro spoke at Harvard in 1959, for example, Schrecker strained to hear amid a crowd of ten thousand: “Castro spoke in English with a heavy accent . . . he kept talking about how much his revolution owed to the ‘Jews’ of Cuba and his hope that the ‘Jews’ of America would continue to support it. After he finished, [Harvard’s dean of faculty McGeorge] Bundy very conspicuously thanked him for his remarks to the ‘youth’ of America.”

Well-placed quotations give the book texture and nuance. Here, late historian Carl Schorske, who left Berkeley for Princeton in 1969 after having been heavily involved with the Committee of 200 during the Free Speech Movement, recalled the hothouse atmosphere: “You have somebody at your right who thinks you’re a Maoist, and you have somebody at your left who thinks you’re a fascist. And you’re in the middle between the two, and every man in the whole community has exactly the same experience.” These moments of lived experience woven into the larger narrative make this definitive account a deeply pleasurable read.

So, was a decade that started out so promisingly and fostered such vibrant activity ultimately a dead end, a promise lost or betrayed? Yes, in many respects—the most important one being, in Schrecker’s mind, the abandonment of the possibility of free universal higher education. The sensationalized battles on campuses—the often exaggerated or distorted accounts of turmoil and conflict—caused the public to lose faith in higher education, Schrecker argues. “Although a college degree had become essential for entrée and survival within the middle class,” she writes, “the institutions that purveyed it had lost their aura.” Of course, it was not just the alleged bad behavior of faculty and students that undermined universities in the public eye. A political and corporate campaign to defund public education by demonizing universities and the bleeding hearts and tenured radicals supposedly harbored therein began in earnest at this time—and continues to this day (see Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains and Isaac Kamola and Ralph Wilson’s Free Speech and Koch Money). It didn’t help when faculty themselves piled on, such as when Allan Bloom, who codirected a center at the University of Chicago bearing John M. Olin’s name and subsidized by millions of dollars from his conservative foundation, published The Closing of the American Mind.

The backlash against the university that settled in by the mid-1970s was driven largely by conservative forces, but left-liberal and radical faculty had their own reasons for disillusionment. Schrecker writes, “To a certain extent, the university’s failure to counter the deleterious stereotypes undermining its credibility revealed the declining status of the institution. Not that the academic community of the so-called golden age had ever realized the post-war liberal vision of a democratized system of higher education. Its complicity with the warfare state, along with its failure to honestly confront its own structural racism and sexism, had destroyed whatever trust an entire generation of left-liberal and radical academics had in the moral integrity of the educational institutions that housed them.”

Yet an irony or paradox adheres to The Lost Promise in that this riches-to-rags story leaves readers not dispirited but inspired. The detailed account of faculty members across the country at big and small institutions, some giants in their fields and some whose names mean nothing today, all rising together to meet various crises, again and again, reminds us that faculty members can have a voice beyond academic journals and college classrooms. The sheer number of committees formed, statements issued, teach-ins held, petitions signed, faculty senate resolutions passed, marches and demonstrations organized, and ads placed is energizing, regardless of the success of any single event or group in achieving its goal. And, very often, these activities did succeed in meaningful ways. Take the teach-ins about Vietnam, which “brought the war to the attention of thousands of students and faculty members [and] . . . also offered a coherent narrative that explained why the war was both unwinnable and wrong.” The time we live in today, in which partisan forces seek to delegitimize universities and in which we have good reason to worry about the health of our democracy, is not unlike the 1960s. We need to take collective action much the way our peers did more than fifty years ago. The Lost Promise is an indispensable and comprehensive survey of higher education in the 1960s, but it also shows us a possible way forward if we choose to take it.

Jennifer Ruth is a professor in the School of Film at Portland State University. She is the author of three books, most recently It’s Not Free Speech: Race, Democracy, and Academic Freedom, coauthored with Michael Bérubé.

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