Ellen Schrecker has been writing about American higher education for decades and is an expert on McCarthyism. She is the author of important books such as No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities as well as Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Her newest book is The Lost Promise: American Universities in the 1960s (University of Chicago Press, 2021). In the book, Schrecker explores how the turmoil of the 1960s — including protests over the Vietnam War and racial inequality — manifested on college campuses, led to internal power struggles, and most importantly, resulted in the demonization of higher education by the political right.
Although it may seem to readers that Schrecker’s book is perfectly timed for the decade we are living in, she began writing the book years ago, before the unrest, political upheaval, and threats to free speech on campuses that have happened recently. She started The Lost Promise in 2010 when her late husband had grown ill. Schrecker was looking for her “next big project,” and she says, “this project chose me.” She conducted countless oral histories for the book, with people across the political and activism spectrum, to get a deeper understanding of what was really happening at colleges and universities during the 1960s. She also read a breathtaking number of letters, memoirs, and other documents to thoroughly immerse herself in the era.
As Schrecker stated, she approached the topic as someone who “wasn’t really a participant” in the movements of the 1960s. She was more of a “observer” in the university, noting, “I was a faculty wife and a Ph.D. student.” She finished her degree in 1974. Schrecker is now considered the most prominent historian of the political history of higher education. According to Robin D.G. Kelley, a historian at UCLA, in The Last Promise, Schrecker “debunks the popular image of the 1960s university as one of unremitting student rebellion, wild-eyed tenured radicals, and cowering administrators.” Instead, she presents a much more complicated story — one in which constituents of colleges and universities regularly participated in deep struggles over war, corporate power and greed, democracy, race, and sex. Although college and university faculty are often accused of being almost entirely on the left, Schrecker shows the nuance and deep diversity of thought and action. She demonstrates how regardless of a professor’s political leanings — during the 1960s — they were attacked from all corners.
From Kelley’s vantage point, and Schrecker’s as well, those portrayed in her book are fighting over the very purpose of the university. Issues that are still contested, and still vitally important today — such as what can be taught, academic freedom, free speech, access, and the high cost of higher education — were central to conversations during the 1960s as well.
As an active member of the American Association of University Professors an organization that vehemently protects faculty tenure and academic freedom, she demonstrates — with ample evidence — the value of academic freedom in teaching and research, and details how it has been under attack from a myriad of groups. She also shared stories of professors who lost their jobs or were threatened for speaking out on issues ranging from war to racism to the corporatization of higher education. Faculty today have these same concerns.
To Schrecker, academic freedom is essential to the soul of the university, and without it the intellectual work of higher education, including inspiring the next generation of great thinkers and innovators, cannot be accomplished. Rigorous debate — even deep intellectual disagreement — is at the core of the university, according to Schrecker, and attempts from the left or the right to curtails this kind of debate — as we learn from her examination of the 1960s — do not serve universities or the nation well.