Letter to the Editor: The history department on “’60s at 50” symposium

We, the faculty of the Department of History, write to you to express our deep concern about the ongoing “’60s at 50” symposium sponsored by the Bucknell Project for American Leadership and Citizenship (BPALC). The stakes of this symposium are high. How past historical moments are represented within the public sphere is inextricably entwined with our present identities as well as our future directions.

BPALC claims that its symposium brings “nationally known speakers” with “established records of informed scholarship” to campus. BPALC promises that these speakers, and the Bucknell faculty with whom they are in dialogue, will present divergent and conflicting perspectives on the ’60s. With respect to the first claim, the invited speakers represent a narrow ideological interpretation of the 1960s that in no way reflects the current state of scholarship in this field. With respect to the second claim, the Department of History—which houses three experts on this transformative decade—could in fact have contributed precisely such “differing and conflictual perspectives” about the 1960s to this event.  However, at no point was the Department or any of its individual members consulted, informed of, or invited to participate in this symposium.

This is not merely a question of collegiality. Legitimate scholarly inquiry rests on a system of disciplinary expertise, and honest efforts to invigorate intellectual life on campus will draw upon that expertise. The lack of even one academic historian as a speaker, organizer, or commentator belies the symposium’s professed commitment to intellectual diversity and integrity. Instead, the pool of invited speakers consists largely of conservative political ideologues. The inclusion, to take but one example, of an apologist for the Vietnam War, yet not a draft resister or a Vietnamese refugee, is a clear indication of whose agenda this symposium furthers. In our view, this is academic malpractice counter to the pursuit of truth that is every university’s mission.

The Department is equally troubled by the lack of transparency as well as faculty input into the symposium’s funding sources. At a moment when the University speaks of making “tough choices,” it seems prudent to inquire after our institutional priorities. The BPALC website states that the first talk was “sponsored by the Office of the President, the University Lectureship Committee, and the Howard I. Scott Chair.” The ULC, the only one of those bodies representative of faculty governance, grants $1,500. Where is the rest of the money coming from? Just one of the later symposium speakers publicly lists a speaking fee of $10,000-$20,000 per appearance. Do the faculty as a whole believe that Bucknell should direct significant funds towards speakers without substantive vetting of their expertise by those most qualified to do so?

The ability of the BPALC to circumvent reputable historical analysis and debate is part of the legacy of the decade. The triumph of law and order governance; the systematic decimation of organized political protest; the simultaneous embrace of “colorblind” rhetoric and pursuit of deeply racist policies by both political parties: these are but a subset of the transformations in American society beginning in the 1960s facilitating the current colonization of its legacy by a narrow conservative agenda.

In solidarity,

The Faculty of the Department of History

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