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The 1960s were a decade of intellectual and political ferment on college campuses. Anti-war, feminist, and racial justice movements all found a foothold in higher education, with student activists often playing a pivotal role in social movements that extended far beyond the university. A crucial condition for the student radicalism of the time was the affordability of public higher education and the recent dissolution of barriers that prevented students of minoritized backgrounds from attending college. Today, these conditions have all but disappeared. Collectively, college graduates owe some $1.6 trillion in student debt. The most elite institutions have been cordoned off from students of working class backgrounds by astronomically high tuition fees. Even public universities demand staggering rates from their students. When did this change occur, and why? Retired professor of history Ellen Schrecker joins The Chris Hedges Report to explain the long assault on public, affordable higher education detailed in her new book, The Lost Promise: American Universities in the 1960s.

Ellen Schrecker is a retired professor of history at Yeshiva University. She is the author of several books on McCarthyism and higher education.

Studio Production: Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Adam Coley
Audio Post-Production: Tommy Harron


Chris Hedges:  The integrity and quality of public education in the US has been under assault for decades. As Ellen Schrecker documents in her new book, The Lost Promise: American Universities in the 1960s, the American dream of high-quality, affordable, mass higher education is no longer within reach of many Americans. Tuitions once low, if not free, have soared, and with them tremendous student debt. Although the Biden administration has made an effort to reduce some of this debt, millions of students, graduates, and dropouts still owe a staggering $1.6 trillion. State legislators and the federal government have dramatically slashed funding to public universities, forcing them to seek support from corporations and reduce most faculty to the status of poorly paid adjuncts, often lacking benefits as well as job security.

Nearly 75% of the instruction at colleges and universities is in the hands of adjuncts who have no hope of being granted tenure. Public institutions, which serve 80% of the nation’s students, are chronically short of funding and basic resources. Higher education has evolved even at major research universities into primarily vocational training, no longer a vehicle for learning – Instead, one about economic mobility. The assault sees elite schools, where tuition can run as high as $80,000 a year, cater to the wealthy and the privileged, locking out the poor and the working class.

Joining me to discuss the crisis in higher education is Ellen Schrecker, retired professor of history at Yeshiva University and the author of numerous books, including her latest, The Lost Promise: American Universities in the 1960s.

In the book, you argue that the upheavals on campus in the 1960s laid the groundwork for the assault against higher education. But before we go into that, you contrast what was happening in the US and at the universities with the early periods of the Cold War. You note that there was no blacklist. The expansive job market not only enabled the protagonists in your book to find new academic positions once they were removed, but removed the fear that had previously constrained colleagues from making a fuss. More professors were willing to stand up for sanctioned colleagues, refusing to countenance violations of academic freedom and professional autonomy. You, at one point in the book, called this the golden age –we’re talking about the 1960s – Of higher education.

But just to begin, what did we come out of? Because people had to sign loyalty oaths in the 1950s. I remember Sheldon Wolin telling me that he’d signed one in the military. It doesn’t make any difference if he signed one to teach at Berkeley. But just set the stage before we go into the ’60s.

Ellen Schrecker:  Sure. What the ’60s followed was McCarthyism, which I have written about as well. And during the late ’40s and 1950s, there was a massive political chill on American campuses. We all know about Joe McCarthy and, have you no decency, sir? And we know about J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, who was collecting political information of conservative nature for more than 100,000 people at least. This was a period of repression. There were congressional investigations, there were blacklists. In my own work, I interviewed more than 100 faculty members who lost their jobs for political reasons during the late ’40s and 1950s.

The irony here is that at the same time that Hoover and McCarthy were running roughshod over the First Amendment, colleges and universities were experiencing their golden age. They were experiencing a moment when the American people were incredibly supportive of higher education. The GI Bill after WWII brought a whole new cohort of students on American campuses, which were no longer mainly for the elite, but were educating middle-class, lower middle-class, not too many working-class or lower-class Americans, and were expanding enormously, as were faculty members, who really benefited from this so-called golden age. There was money being thrown at people, myself included, to go to graduate school, to get a PhD, and then, as people today would be salivating about, people could get jobs.

Chris Hedges:  Well-paying tenured jobs.

Ellen Schrecker:  Well-paying tenured and tenure-track jobs. And as you noted earlier, if they were fired for political reasons, they would find another one. There were so many jobs…

Chris Hedges:  Which wasn’t true in the ’50s. And I remember from your earlier book on McCarthyism, which I didn’t know until I read your book, the FBI would go even into high schools with lists of professors or teachers that they wanted removed without any evidence at all, and these people would be instantly dismissed and then they were blacklisted. They couldn’t get hired anywhere else.

Ellen Schrecker:  Right. But by the mid ’50s, higher education, especially, of course, in the sciences, was considered a matter of national security. So they were really throwing federal money. States were looking to build up their universities, they wanted to have the prestige as well as the winning football teams, and it was really a genuine golden age for people who were interested in ideas. It was very exciting to be a graduate student in the late 1950s and early ’60s.

Chris Hedges:  I want to, just as an aside, talk about the historically Black institutions, because you mentioned Philander Smith College in Little Rock, and that because of antisemitism, Jewish refugees often ended up at these institutions. This is not in your book, I just happen to know. Also, a lot of blacklisted professors ended up at colleges like Philander Smith in Little Rock, and Philander Smith College is where the radical theologian James Cone was educated, and I just thought that was fascinating, that because of antisemitism, and because of McCarthyism, and because historically Black institutions were considered marginalized and second-tier, you often had these tremendous faculties on them at that particular time.

So let’s start with the beginning of the unrest in the universities who spend a lot of time in the book talking about the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley and the importance of teach-ins, which I didn’t quite get until I read the book, how important those were. So perhaps you can speak about that.

Ellen Schrecker:  Okay. But I want to speak, since you actually discussed those Black colleges and universities.

Chris Hedges:  Sure.

Ellen Schrecker:  The HBCUs are, of course, where the ’60s began to a large extent. Because it’s the students at schools like Fisk University in Nashville or Morehead and Spelman in Atlanta that really jump-started the Civil Rights Movement in a way that brought political activism, first to their own campuses and then to the rest of the country. And one of the things I discovered was that most of the leaders of what we might call the academic left had, in one way or another, been involved with the Civil Rights Movement before the Vietnam War, before the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. They had been working with the main civil rights organizations fighting for racial equality. So it’s incredibly important  to make that connection between the movements of the later ’60s on American campuses and then, of course, the repression against them, to make that connection between the political awakening after McCarthyism and the Civil Rights Movement.

And I can remember I interviewed a very active sociologist named Dick Flacks, who told me that when he was in graduate school at the University of Michigan, he went out on the street and saw a group of students and faculty members picketing in front of the Woolworth’s store, which was a national chain that had been boycotted by the Civil Rights Movement, and he said, oh, finally there’s some political action happening on campuses. And that was incredibly important.

Chris Hedges:  Well, two of the important figures in your book, Staughton Lynd, who we just lost, unfortunately, and Howard Zinn, I think they were both at Spelman, both fired because they were doing precisely that with their students.

Ellen Schrecker:  Exactly. They desegregated the Atlanta Public Library. Howard Zinn would take his students, and they just went in, and student after student would ask for a copy of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Then finally the Atlanta Library officials decided they were more trouble than they were worth, and so they desegregated the place. So Zinn was incredibly important in the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war movement, and is a main history-maker as well as a historian. Staughton Lynd, the same thing, although Lynd was not fired by Spelman.

Chris Hedges:  He was fired, pushed out of Yale eventually.

Ellen Schrecker:  Yeah. What happened was he quit. He quit as a protest against the firing of Howard Zinn and was immediately hired by Yale. So this is somebody who is not exactly a slouch as a historian. He’s quite reputable, and wrote a very important book on the American Revolution. And what we’re seeing there is a connection between the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war movement, and lots of people who were active during the ’60s did get their start picketing Woolworth’s.

Or even more important, like Mario Savio, who was the leader of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, went south in the summer of 1964 in a project called Mississippi Summer to help register African American men and women as voters in Mississippi. They lost the right to vote, and what this Mississippi Summer project was trying to do was gain attention because there was so much political repression in Mississippi and so much violence. People were being killed for trying to register to vote. And so the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, devised this program of sending white well-connected college students to do voter registration in Mississippi to get some attention, and it certainly worked. And many of those, shall we say, veterans from the Mississippi Summer, from the Civil Rights Movement in the North as well, became very active in the following decade.

Chris Hedges:  That’s also true for William Sloane Coffin, who you write about in the book.

Ellen Schrecker:  Exactly.

Chris Hedges:  Let’s talk about the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley. It occupies a pretty important chunk of your book.

Ellen Schrecker:  Right. Well, you don’t ordinarily have such a dramatic change in the political climate as you do with the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. It launched the student movement. It was the first time in American history where students engaged in non-violent direct action directed against their own universities on political issues. This politicized American students, who until then, maybe they were interested in left things, maybe they were interested in Cuba, maybe they were interested in anti-nuclear weapons, in the anti-nuclear peace movement. But Berkeley did it. Berkeley said, your university is behaving in an undemocratic manner. This was what the Free Speech Movement was about. The university would not let student groups on campus recruit students for off-campus political activities. It was incredibly repressive, much more so than you would expect, because Berkeley was a major school, and most people thought of it as a rather liberal place by the late ’50s, although during the height of the McCarthy period, it had a loyalty oath for faculty members that led to firings and a blacklist.

But by the mid ’60s, Berkeley was a political scene. People were going there and they were radicals, and then people who got there who weren’t radicals got radicalized. So Berkeley was a hotbed. And then, boom, a group of like 1,000 students sat down around a police car that was taking a civil rights activist to the local jail because he had violated the university’s regulations on recruiting students for off-campus political activities, and that did it. The university cracked down on student leaders. Student leaders fought back, organized the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, and forced the university to revise its procedures for on and off-campus political activities. In other words, the Free Speech Movement was fighting about free speech. It wasn’t a very radical demand. They weren’t demanding curricular changes, the hiring of certain radicals, or anything like that. All they wanted was to have the same political rights as any other American.

Chris Hedges:  You write in the book, “As a result, the authorities paid insufficient attention to the content of student demands while seriously overreacting to their style.” This is, of course, a political figure like Ronald Reagan rides this into the governorship and, eventually, the presidency. So you’re right that it wasn’t particularly radical in any way, but it got a lot of coverage. I think there’s a picture of Mario Savio standing on top of that police car, right?

Ellen Schrecker:  Sure.

Chris Hedges:  And that really triggered the rightist forces that had been in sympathy or, in many cases, actually participated in McCarthyism.

Ellen Schrecker:  Exactly. There was, beginning with Berkeley, a real backlash against the students. What they were doing was not necessarily legal. They were trespassing. They had taken over the administration building at Berkeley. This had never happened before, not for any political cause, and so the administration at Berkeley was blindsided. They hadn’t expected this. They didn’t know what to do. One of the themes of the book is simply that this was unprecedented. This was the first time in history that university administrators had to deal with left-wing radicals who were disrupting classes, who were taking over buildings, who were demonstrating, who were doing things that the administration wanted stopped. This was really bad publicity.

Chris Hedges:  I just want to talk about the role of the FBI. They start disseminating all sorts of allegations to figures within the administration. For instance, the vice chancellor, Alex Sherriffs, who became Reagan’s top advisor in education, said that this was a communist radical bloc. None of this was true, of course. That the elements of the Free Speech Movement were practitioners – These are FBI words – Tactics of Fidel Castro and Mao Zedong. And this charge, this demonization of the students was picked up by the media, and you’re right that there was not much sympathy within the public for the students. They did a very effective job at marginalizing them on a national level.

Ellen Schrecker:  Yeah. This was done from the start with the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. Clark Kerr, the president of Berkeley, who was one of the first victims of the backlash against the student movement, was being fed stuff through this guy Sheriffs, who was a vice chancellor at Berkeley. And Sheriffs was being fed stuff by the FBI about these so-called communist connections of these crazy students, and Clark Kerr, to his discredit, parroted that stuff and talked about it.

The main evidence they had for these communist connections was the fact that one of the leaders of the Free Speech Movement was an undergraduate student named Bettina Aptheker, whose father was a well-known or publicly-known communist historian. Therefore, they claim that the communists are in charge. Well, Bettina Aptheker was not only one of the few women in the leadership of the Free Speech Movement, but she was one of the most moderate figures in that group. She was somebody who didn’t shout slogans or anything. She said, look, we’re just asking to be given our rights, and let’s work this out.

And ultimately, the cavalry that came to the rescue of the students was the faculty. This is very important. There was an important vote by the Berkeley faculty senate about two months into the Free Speech Movement, when the campus was just doing nothing but holding meetings. The faculty held a meeting and voted in favor of revising the school’s regulations for political activity on campus and managed to convince the Board of Regents, which was the final authority to make those changes, and the Free Speech Movement ended with a victory, with a new, more democratic form of campus regulations.

Chris Hedges:  And this leads into the anti-war movement. And of course, students are directly affected by the war. Much of the anger on campuses is about collaboration between universities and the war industry, including the manufacturing of chemical agents such as Agent Orange, etc. And you said the escalation of the war brought about the creation of a new form of protest, the teach-in, which you place a lot of importance on, you consider a very important moment. One of the things I found moving, by the way, is the way the students would react to the teach-ins, that it suddenly gave a vitality to their university experience, almost euphoric in the sense that professors came out of the classrooms. These things were often done outside the confines of the university. They would last, I think at one point you said like 30 hours or something?

Ellen Schrecker:  That was at Berkeley.

Chris Hedges:  At Berkeley. Talk about that.

Ellen Schrecker:  Sure. Well, one of the things that I discovered in my research was that at the time the Vietnam War really escalated, which was in the early spring of 1965, which is, what, three months after the end of the Free Speech Movement, okay? So, boom, there’s the Free Speech Movement, and then all of a sudden there’s Vietnam.

And what I discovered was that nobody knew anything about Vietnam. It had been a French colony, it had fought for more than a decade against the French after WWII to win its independence. It was led by communists, so the American foreign policy establishment, especially in the aftermath of McCarthyism, which had a large component of attacks on the Truman administration for “losing China.” We have to understand there was a major revolution in China. Communists came to power so there was this sense in the Johnson administration, we can’t lose another country, because the Truman administration was under such heavy attack. We don’t want to go through that again. Little did they know that they were doing something that would, in fact, lead to a massive anti-war movement.

But anyhow, in the beginning, nobody knew anything about Vietnam. My late husband wrote the first bestselling book. It was a collection of documents and articles about Vietnam that was published in the summer of 1965. It became a bestseller because nobody knew anything.

Chris Hedges:  Ellen, I want to stop you there because I only have five minutes left. And so you saw the rise of the anti-war movement. The same tactics were used to demonize the campus radicals, if we want to call them that, that were used in the Free Speech Movement, and this led to tremendous blowback against the universities. Just briefly tell us what the blowback was and where we are now.

Ellen Schrecker:  Okay. Well, we’re skipping many things.

Chris Hedges:  I know. Well, it’s a long book. People are going to have to read it.

Ellen Schrecker:  Oh, good idea. And eventually it’s going to come out on paper.

Chris Hedges:  Okay.

Ellen Schrecker:  So anyhow, what happened was the Berkeley Free Speech Movement made the career of Ronald Reagan, a lot of other rather opportunistic politicians followed suit, and within a few years, by the early 1970s, there were laws on the books against student radicals. They criminalized anybody who rioted on campus in certain states, they took away their state funding, but especially, they took away funding for the institutions across the board. They were still expanding in size, but the percentage of their budgets that were being supplied by the states and federal government also declined. And so where did these schools get the money to continue? Student tuition. That’s where this massive debt, $1.6 trillion, was accrued. Universities raised tuition and they cut courses, and the cutting of courses led to a hollowing out of the faculty. They did not replace full-time tenure track and tenured professors. When they retired, they simply hired adjuncts, part-time workers, or people on one- or two-year contracts, none of them with any academic freedom, none of them with the ability to criticize what’s going on.

Chris Hedges:  Ellen, I just want to stop there because I only have a minute. They also purged the universities, which you write about. They would drive people out, like Staughton Lynd was driven out of Yale, and they wouldn’t tell them that they were being purged for their political positions. Like McCarthy, although it wasn’t overt, large numbers of faculty who had been politically engaged were pushed out.

Ellen Schrecker:  Well, they weren’t pushed out. That’s what differentiated the ’60s and early ’70s from McCarthyism, because universities were still expanding, and so people could get jobs. Now, they wouldn’t get very good jobs often, but they were able to get jobs at these expanding colleges, the second-tier, third-tier public universities. And in fact, Staughton Lynd was an exception because he really was blacklisted. But I’ve seen cases of somebody who was fired once, twice, three times and still got a job. So it was a different era. But then, as people retired, they were not being replaced, and so you now have a ‘gig professoriate’ as we call it, and these are people who are paid so badly and have so little economic security that they really can’t give their students the education that those students deserve. They have to teach at one, two, three different schools. They don’t have offices, they don’t have the library privileges, they can’t do research. And what we’re seeing is a decline in the quality of higher education as well as a rise in the cost.

And then because these things are happening, institutions of higher education are becoming increasingly unpopular to the extent that you now have opportunistic politicians, like our dear governor in Florida, Ron DeSantis, cracking down on them politically for things that they’re not even doing. And we’re seeing a real existential moment, I would call it, within the world of higher education that’s terrifying.

Also, there’s an undercurrent here of racism, and I want to stress, and I’m not sure I even stress it enough in the book, this connection between this country’s racial problems and the problems of higher education. And that’s a theme we have to pay a lot of attention to today.

Chris Hedges:  Great. We’re going to stop there. That was Ellen Schrecker on her new book, The Lost Promise: American Universities in the 1960s. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at

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Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of show The Chris Hedges Report.