The Lost Promise: American Universities in the 1960s
By Ellen Schrecker.
University of Chicago Press, 2021.
Hardcover, 616 pages, $35.

Reviewed by Ethan Schrum.

Should academic departments and scholarly societies issue position statements on current political matters? The practice is increasingly common today, but it still sparks debate. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Princeton University’s McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, Robert P. George, argued against the practice. His Princeton colleague David Bell, a former dean at Johns Hopkins, took to the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education to make a similar argument.

This current debate has roots in the late 1960s, as Ellen Schrecker shows in her sprawling book, The Lost Promise: American Universities in the 1960s. In one of the book’s most original chapters, she draws heavily on archival sources and interviews to produce a portrait of the New University Conference (NUC), an organization of self-described “radicals” in academia, which existed from 1968 to 1972. Famed leftist academics Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn were among those who helped organize the group. One of the NUC’s most important goals was to “create radical caucuses within the disciplines” (Schrecker). Despite the NUC’s short life span, Schrecker argues that “it did have an impact” through the radical caucuses, some of which remain active today. 

The first radical caucuses actually launched in 1967, a few months before the NUC, as a response to major scholarly societies refusing to promulgate resolutions opposing the war in Vietnam. Only the American Anthropology Association and the American Philosophical Association (Eastern and Western Divisions) had issued statements against the war. In 1968, the American Physical Society membership defeated a constitutional amendment allowing the organization “to consider resolutions ‘on any matter of concern to the society.’” That led to the creation of a radical caucus, Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action, which later merged with another organization, Science for the People.

These radical caucuses also created a template for another feature of today’s academic landscape, the disruption of speakers by protesters. The Sociology Liberation Movement “commandeered the presidential panel” of the 1969 American Sociological Association meeting “to demand a memorial tribute for the Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh.” In addition, radicals “disrupted a panel [featuring] the conservative physicist Edward Teller,” one of the leading developers of nuclear weapons, at the 1970 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting. Disrupting the business meetings of learned societies was another favorite tactic for the radicals.

Schrecker also uses an impressive array of archival sources to tell the story of another group founded in 1968 that proved influential for academic politics, the University Centers for Rational Alternatives (UCRA). This account draws on personal papers from famous academics such as UCRA founder Sidney Hook, David Riesman, and Oscar Handlin, along with published memoirs, letters, and interviews with other luminaries such as Carl Schorske, C. Vann Woodward, and H. Stuart Hughes (it is unclear whether all of these people actually joined UCRA). In addition, Schrecker pulls together information from obscure published sources from the era to tell the history of the UCRA. This group lasted a few years longer than the NUC, and Schrecker asserts that “its ideological campaign had considerable success.” (The UCRA opposed student demands for greater influence in matters of “curriculum and faculty appointments,” which “would destroy the university.” UCRA members complained in 1969 of “an intransigent moralism promoting the cleansing of the campus of ‘institutional racism.’” Schrecker dubs the UCRA as “conservative” in the sense of seeking to conserve the tradition of the university, but some of the members would not have used that term to describe themselves in a broader sense. 

Despite the book’s sprawl, readers will not find in The Lost Promise a comprehensive treatment of the most influential voices of the period about the university and politics from which to understand today’s issues more deeply. George and Bell in their recent essays both cite the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report of 1967 on institutional neutrality in political matters. Curiously, Schrecker does not mention the Kalven Report, even though she spends several pages describing one of the main events that triggered the writing of the Kalven Report, namely Chicago’s 1966 debates on whether the institution should collaborate with the military draft for the Vietnam War by providing class rank information about its students to the federal government. 

Nor does Schrecker discuss Derek Bok, perhaps because his long presidency of Harvard did not begin until 1971. Yet Bok provided one of the more prominent commentaries on universities taking political positions. Indeed, one of Bell’s major arguments in 2023 is similar to Bok’s from his 1982 book, Beyond the Ivory Tower: “Institutional statements on injustices in the outside world may help to create an official orthodoxy that will inhibit assistant professors and other vulnerable persons in the university from expressing contrary opinions.”

How do these important issues fit into the big picture of The Lost Promise? Schrecker says she is telling a “declension” story. What, exactly, does the title mean? On one hand, she indicates that it concerns the disappearance of the respect given to universities by a broad public until the 1960s. On the other hand, it seems to be the idea of the New Left “that their intellectual efforts could influence the powers that be and move both the university and perhaps even the whole country toward justice and true democracy.” Perhaps a third meaning emerges when Schrecker observes: “Lost in the turmoil of the sixties was the promise that the university could make the American dream come true.” 

Most history books (my own included) are autobiographical in some sense. The Lost Promise, though, is more overt than most, especially in its first half. The book seems to be an attempt to wrestle with the author’s own disappointment about how her hopes for the university’s role in American life have not come to fruition. We learn that her late husband, Marvin Gettleman, put together a three-week tour of Cuba in 1960 for American scholars to learn about the revolution there. A few years later, Gettleman edited a book, Vietnam: History, Documents, and Opinions on a Major World Crisis, which sold about 600,000 copies and became a touchstone of the anti-war movement. Schrecker tells of attending a late 1962 lecture at Harvard critical of President Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, attending the international day of protest against the Vietnam War at the Pentagon in October 1967, and writing letters to draft boards during the Vietnam War. 

The description of the academic response to the Vietnam War takes up about a third of the book—and Schrecker emphasizes “how thoroughly the Vietnam War permeated the waking lives of student and faculty dissidents.” In this long section, the book loses its focus on how universities lost their promise, which points to a larger problem of the work—the difficulty of maintaining focus on a central argument in such a sprawling book. Schrecker admits that her “biggest challenge has been shaping all [her material] into a coherent whole.” The Lost Promise is a valuable compendium of the political experiences of mostly left-leaning academics during the long 1960s, but it is less successful as an argument about the changing nature of the university.

In addition, conservatives (and others) might find some of Schrecker’s conclusions to be odd. She states that the academy’s “internal struggles during the 1960s” left it unable to defend itself against a “conservative onslaught against it.” It is fair to wonder what university Schrecker is looking at. Most scholarly societies and highly-ranked universities are dominated by perspectives from the political left, which leads to the kinds of political statements they issue. Yet Schrecker somehow seems to think that the left has lost the universities to a conservative political assault.  

Ethan Schrum is associate professor of history and director of the Humanities Program at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California. He is the author of The Instrumental University: Education in Service of the National Agenda after World War II. Follow him on Twitter @SchrumEthan.

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