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Symposium headlined by antiwar activist deemed too ‘conservative’ by faculty department

Organizers defend ideological diversity of invited speakers 

Bucknell University’s Project for American Leadership and Citizenship is holding a year-long symposium titled “The ‘60s at 50,” which will analyze the legacy of the 1960s through a series of conversations and events.

Beyond the historical discussion, though, is an intent “to model the civil argumentative exchange between individuals with different perspectives that adheres to the academic virtues and values we cherish at Bucknell.”

According to the private Pennsylvania university’s history department, however, the symposium is illegitimate because it “consists largely of conservative political ideologues.”

It kicked off last month with a former president of Students for a Democratic Society, the 1960s antiwar civil-rights group not known for its conservatism.

The sponsors of the symposium have pushed back, noting its invited speakers are evenly balanced between left and right.

Emory University English Prof. Mark Bauerlein, who spoke last week, told The College Fix the history department’s complaints are “hot air.”

“There is no better sign of the intellectual deterioration of the humanities than the protest of the faculty when a conservative is invited to campus,” the author of “The Dumbest Generation” wrote in an email. “How anti-academic can you get?”

Bauerlein wondered “what the professors fear,” while another organizer told The Fix the history department previously spurned the project’s offer to cosponsor another event.

History department publicly criticizes symposium

The Bucknell project, a collaboration of faculty, students and alumni, draws on classical liberal arts and “Great Books approaches” to develop civic and economic leadership skills.

One of its preoccupations is studying the “virtues, practices, conditions, and contexts” that sustain the American constitutional order, according to its website. The project also has a viewpoint diversity statement that emphasizes its interest in promoting “perspectives not often heard at the modern liberal arts college.”

The yearlong symposium started Oct. 18 with a lecture by Todd Gitlin, a journalism and sociology professor at Columbia University. He spoke on his experience leading Students for a Democratic Society and the consequences of the 1960s for America.

It concludes in March with another Ivy League professor, the economist Glenn Loury of Brown University. He was featured in a short documentary on Brown’s attitude toward free speech two years ago and wrote “The Anatomy of Racial Inequality.

Bucknell’s history department submitted an unsigned letter “in solidarity” to The Bucknellian after Gitlin’s talk but before Bauerlein’s, expressing “deep concern” about the symposium’s narrow selection of speakers.

“BPALC promises that these speakers, and the Bucknell faculty with whom they are in dialogue, will present divergent and conflicting perspectives on the ’60s,” it reads.

Yet these speakers “represent a narrow ideological interpretation of the 1960s that in no way reflects the current state of scholarship in this field.” The department also claims none of its members was “consulted, informed of, or invited to participate in this symposium.”

The symposium’s “professed commitment to intellectual diversity and integrity” rings hollow when there’s not “even one academic historian as a speaker, organizer, or commentator” on the schedule, according to the letter.

Ignoring the headliner Gitlin, whose talk was supported by Bucknell’s sociology department, the unnamed faculty said the speakers were largely “conservative political ideologues.”

The inclusion of “an apologist for the Vietnam War, yet not a draft resister or a Vietnamese refugee,” illustrates the “academic malpractice” of the symposium. It runs “counter to the pursuit of truth that is every university’s mission.”

The letter concludes by accusing BPALC of circumventing “reputable historical analysis and debate”:

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.

Symposium’s organizers respond

A week later, the organizers wrote a response in The Bucknellian under their own names, pushing back on claims the symposium has a conservative bias.

Half of the invited speakers are “reasonably classified as on the right, though they are not a monolithic group,” and the other half “occupy positions on the political left.”

The organizers said Gitlin “still today writes, thinks, and fiercely advocates as a man of the left,” and his curriculum vitae “on the left is arguably longer and more substantive than that of just about anyone on this campus.”

June Carbone, a University of Minnesota law professor who is speaking next year, advocates “universal access to contraception and health care,” and has her work “frequently invoked by progressive journalists.”

Brown’s Loury, who is African American, “has witheringly criticized the American prison system for disproportionately incarcerating black people” and blamed continuing racial inequality on “race-tinged psychology of perception and valuation.”

Whatever the complaints of the unidentified history professors, they didn’t affect Bauerlein’s talk the following week, he told The Fix. It was “[t]otally uneventful” and “had a good crowd and a lively and collegial discussion.”

Eight members of the history department did not respond to email requests for comment on the letter and the symposium. B. Ann Tlusty, the department chair, did not respond to multiple inquiries about the symposium or the department’s claim that it was not included in the planning or the events.

Seeking to promote viewpoint diversity

One of the organizers of the symposium told The Fix in a phone interview that BPALC is not politically slanted either left or right, but seeks to promote viewpoint diversity.

“Generally speaking, we would love to collaborate with the history department on things,” said Alf Siewers, a professor of English. “That love may or may not be returned.”

He also said that last year, BPALC sponsored a symposium on the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution and asked the history department if they wanted to cosponsor it.

“They responded and seemed to be irritated about our sponsoring that event,” he said. “That seemed to indicate that we weren’t getting some love from that direction.”

Siewers stressed that he respects and appreciates his colleagues in history, but noted the department increasingly focuses on modern history and has no conservative faculty.

The response from the university has been more positive, though, as evidenced by the Office of the President’s sponsorship of the first two symposium events.

“I think that we’ve gotten support from the university as a whole for the effort to highlight viewpoint diversity on campus and civil discourse,” Siewers said.

MORE: How a decades-old syllabus inspired ‘the hardest course you’ll ever take’

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