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The Lost Promise

American Universities in the 1960s

The Lost Promise is a magisterial examination of the turmoil that rocked American universities in the 1960s, with a unique focus on the complex roles played by professors as well as students.

The 1950s through the early 1970s are widely seen as American academia’s golden age, when universities—well funded and viewed as essential for national security, economic growth, and social mobility—embraced an egalitarian mission. Swelling in size, schools attracted new types of students and professors, including radicals who challenged their institutions’ calcified traditions. But that halcyon moment soon came to a painful and confusing end, with consequences that still afflict the halls of ivy. In The Lost Promise, Ellen Schrecker—our foremost historian of both the McCarthy era and the modern American university—delivers a far-reaching examination of how and why it happened.

Schrecker illuminates how US universities’ explosive growth intersected with the turmoil of the 1960s, fomenting an unprecedented crisis where dissent over racial inequality and the Vietnam War erupted into direct action. Torn by internal power struggles and demonized by conservative voices, higher education never fully recovered, resulting in decades of underfunding and today’s woefully inequitable system. As Schrecker’s magisterial history makes blazingly clear, the complex blend of troubles that disrupted the university in that pivotal period haunts the ivory tower to this day.

616 pages | 23 halftones, 1 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2021

Education: Higher Education

History: American History


“A powerful presentation, personal yet balanced, of an important time in recent US history. Required reading for anyone eager to understand the complex forces shaping American higher education. . . . Schrecker presents a clear picture of a tumultuous decade, synthesizing her vast research in the era’s newspapers and journals and extensive interviews.”


Library Journal (starred review)

"Ellen Schrecker has been writing about American higher education for decades. . . although it may seem to readers that Schrecker’s book is perfectly timed for the decade we are living in. . . [In The Lost Promise] 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. . . . 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. . . . 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."


"In 621 detail-rich pages, Schrecker uncovers an extraordinary range of activist faculty and student groups that sought nothing less than to ensure that colleges and universities lived up to their high-minded values and became truly democratic institutions responsive to all their stakeholders’ voices. Self-styled insurgent sociologists, radical historians, activist literary critics, economic rebels and an array of gadflies dot her chapters. If you fear that academic freedom is at risk today, you only have to read Schrecker’s book and the travails of Angela Davis, Bruce Franklin, Eugene Genovese, Staughton Lynd, Michael Parenti and dozens of others to see how grave the stakes were half a century ago. . . . As someone who vividly recalls the ’60s and witnessed the tail end of those campus conflicts and controversies, Schrecker’s interpretation strikes me, to use the appropriate 1960s phrase, as right on."

Inside Higher Ed

"The Lost Promise is a distinctive history. By keeping her focus on university and college campuses and those who lived, studied and worked there the author has created a panoramic narrative that connects the upsurge in campus political activity with the fast-changing world of the 1960s and early 1970s. She seamlessly weaves the politics and culture of the period into the fabric of upheaval and change experienced in academia."


“For some, the ‘60s were a time of troubles when universities failed in their mission of ‘indoctrination of the young’. Others saw escape from indoctrination as a long step towards civilizing a conformist society. Ellen Schrecker’s careful and enlightening account of the universities in the ‘long sixties’ unravels many of the complexities of these turbulent years and their dramatic impact on American society and culture.”

Noam Chomsky, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

"In her new, deeply researched book, Ellen Schrecker has done a superb job excavating faculty and administrative moves during the 1960s, especially in her detailed work on what  happened on several campuses usually left unexplored elsewhere. This is essential reading for anyone who wants to grasp the interplay of campus forces as the universities fell from Cold War grace. One need not fully embrace her brilliant idea that the universities’  failure to reach consensus in that decade incapacitated them to withstand the fierce political pressures that battered the universities in subsequent decades—for myself, I don’t see how such a consensus was achievable—to learn from and appreciate this splendid work of scholarship."

Todd Gitlin, Columbia University

"Ellen Schrecker, the doyen of the political history of higher education, has produced another masterpiece. The Lost Promise debunks the popular image of the 1960s university as one of unremitting student rebellion, wild-eyed tenured radicals, and cowering administrators. The truth is more complicated and far more interesting. Instead, universities were sites of intense struggles over democracy, war, race, sex, corporate power, and mostly over the university itself: the battle over pedagogy, academic freedom, disciplines, relations between knowledge and social movements, and how to pay for higher education. Schrecker’s deeply researched, authoritative, and sobering account demonstrates how the dream of radicalizing academia was crushed—hastened by financial crises and largely politically-motivated disinvestment—ushering in today’s neoliberal university."


Robin D. G. Kelley, University of California, Los Angeles

“In this monumental and gripping work, Schrecker shows that to understand the challenges facing higher education today we must grasp the nettle of the 1960s. The Lost Promise provides peerless illumination of the era that so shaped our own. It should be read by everyone in—or concerned about—the state of our embattled colleges and universities.”

Nancy MacLean, Duke University

The Lost Promise is a thunderous exclamation mark to a brilliant career that further cements Schrecker’s status among the very finest historians of America’s twentieth century. Impressive in its scope, uncanny in its research, and gorgeously written, this book is a true tour de force.”

Jeremy Varon, The New School for Social Research

"The Lost Promise is the most thorough analysis of higher education during that consequential decade. . . . Moving beyond the predictable attacks from the Right, Schrecker delivers one of the most ambitious indictments against the academy from centrists and liberals by highlighting their culpability as internal agents in the downfall of the once revered ivory tower."

American Education History Journal

"The Lost Promise is an indispensable and comprehensive survey of higher education in the 1960s, but it also shows us a possible way forward if we choose to take it."


"Schrecker packs a great deal of important information in this well-written book. . . Her research is prodigious. . . and the scope of the analysis extends beyond the 1960s as Schrecker explores the aftermath of that contentious decade."

History of Education Quarterly

"Among other things, The Lost Promise is a useful catalog of the many social and political engagements these students and professors pursued in the early 1960s."


Table of Contents

Introduction: Universities in the Long Sixties

Part I: Expansion and Its Discontents
1: “Good Times for Scholars”: The Golden Age of American Higher Education
2: “Memory of an Earlier Age”: The Remnants of McCarthyism in the Academic Community
3: “The Pre-Sixties”: The Liberal Moment on Campus
4: “The Berkeley Invention”: The Student Movement Begins

Part II: Responding to Vietnam
5: “Not Only Politically Disastrous but Intrinsically Wrong”: Early Opposition to American Intervention in Cuba and Vietnam
6: “The Most Worthwhile All-Nighter”: Teach-Ins and the Antiwar Movement’s Pedagogical Moment
7: “To Take a Stand”: The Academic Community Wrestles with the War, 1965–67
8: “Everything Felt Illegal”: Academics and Direct Action
9: “An Inescapable Responsibility”: Universities and the War Machine
10: “To Confront Campus Militarism”: Opposing the War Machine

Part III: Handling Student Unrest
11: “We Have No Power”: What the Students Wanted
12: “Disorderly Behavior”: Students Disrupt the Academy
13: “Intellectuals Falling Apart”: Divided Faculties Confront the Students

Part IV: The Academic Left and Right Confront the Sixties
14: “The Struggle for a Democratic University”: Radicals Challenge the Disciplines
15: “The Field Is to Some Extent Ours”: Radicals Rethink the Disciplines
16: “Cause for Concern”: Violations of Academic Freedom during the Late Sixties and Early Seventies
17: “Revolt of the Rationally Committed”: Intellectuals and the Media Construct a Scenario of Student Unrest
Epilogue: Academic Reform and Political Backlash
A Bibliographic Essay



Once upon a time in the not-so-distant past, American higher education got a lot of respect. From the mid-1950s through to the early 1970s, colleges and universities were at the center of American life. Even as many campuses were wracked by turmoil, they were also experiencing what has come to be seen as a golden age— at least for white men. Faculty positions were considered prestigious, and the academic community as a whole— faculty, students (both graduate and undergraduate), researchers, administrators, and intellectual hangers-on— seemed to be engaged in an exciting collective endeavor to improve their institutions and perhaps even make the world a better place.

But it didn’t last. The contradictions within the academic community ultimately brought that halcyon moment to a painful and confusing end— with consequences that haunt us to this day. By the mid-1970s, colleges and universities no longer had the universal approval they once possessed. How and why that happened is the subject of this book.

It is a chronicle of declension, a sobering story of how a seemingly indispensable social institution attained a position of power and approbation— and then lost it. While today’s colleges and universities, undermined by decades of disinvestment and disrespect, now struggle simply to survive, during the early 1960s the academy’s influence extended far beyond its campuses. Especially after Sputnik, higher education emerged from the anti-intellectualism of the McCarthy era, where professors were scorned as eggheads (if not subversives) and students engaged in panty raids not politics. Many in the academic community believed that they and their institutions were not only crucial to America’s national security, but also central to economic progress. Showered with money by foundations and governments at every level, universities entered an era of unprecedented expansion.

The period I’m calling the long sixties was also when the academy became the repository of the American dream, not only of upward mobility, but also for many of a more egalitarian society that would challenge the racial and gender intolerance and inequality that had for so long impeded human progress. As the quintessential liberal institution during the heyday of American liberalism, higher education attracted idealistic people— students and faculty alike— many of whom still trusted the authorities and their promises. Others, however, sought to shake up their campuses and disciplines. Gravitating into what was to become the New Left, radicals and left-liberals wanted higher education to become a force for liberation available to all comers. Believing in the power of ideas, they felt 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.

That did not happen, of course. In retrospect, it’s clear that the university never had as much power and autonomy as its members and critics assumed. Its enormous expansion and its accompanying optimism, as well as the pervasiveness of its own ivory tower myth, blinded the academic community— left , right, and center— to its own limitations. As institutions doubled and tripled in size, they were transformed, attracting the academically ambitious and often the unconventional, while putting a new emphasis on research instead of teaching. The ensuing cultural conflicts and turf battles, not to mention the growing political disagreements over Vietnam, race, and other divisive issues, made it impossible for the academic community to develop a coherent response to the challenges it faced—from women, African Americans, and its own radicals as well as from conservative politicians and an increasingly hostile public. The situation was completely unprecedented. As in a recurring bad dream, the academic community was facing the final exam without having taken the course.

Even today American universities are still, by some measures, number one in the world. It is a ranking built on misconceptions, or perhaps the realization that higher education elsewhere also has its defects. Even before COVID- 19, the academic community was suffering. With the traditional liberal arts in decline, and underpaid and exploited part-time and temporary instructors supplying 75 percent of the teaching staff, only a handful of colleges and universities provided their graduates with much beyond technical training and considerable debt. But it didn’t need to be that way.

I admit to overstating my case. Still, it was hard to lose a dream and to do so suddenly. At some point around 1965, the bright promise of an expansive and liberating system of mass higher education darkened. The war in Southeast Asia and the failure of the political establishment to grant real equality to its citizens of color disabused and radicalized an entire generation of students and professors. Although most of the problems of racism, sexism, the Cold War, and economic inequality could not have been solved by educational reforms, left-wing critics deemed the university complicit in them. As a result, when some academic leaders could not or would not satisfy the radicals’ mostly reasonable demands, their campuses seemed to spin out of control, destroying much of the public’s previous confidence in higher education. The university was soon hollowed out and assaulted by the right-wing enemies of liberal culture, and it never recovered.

There are two interrelated strands to this story— growth and turbulence. In the sixties, colleges and universities expanded so exponentially that their traditional folkways simply imploded. Many institutions would have been disrupted even if the rest of the United States had been calm. But it was not. Despite— or perhaps because of— the country’s relative affluence, the struggle to fulfill the democratic promise of higher education in the face of racism, sexism, and US warmongering ensured turbulence.

It is impossible to stress enough how thoroughly the Vietnam War permeated the waking lives of student and faculty dissidents during the long sixties. It was distressing to find out from newspapers every morning that our country had killed hundreds or perhaps thousands of men, women, and children the day before. Our shame, our anger, and ultimately our inability to stop the horror destroyed our trust in the liberal order. That disillusionment marked an entire generation. Whether it was biologists discovering that the US Army was using their research to destroy crops in Southeast Asia or professors refusing to flunk students who might then be drafted— the war ultimately forced faculty members of all political persuasions to face unwelcome, but unavoidable, moral choices.

The university’s long sixties occurred in several phases, beginning in the mid-1950s when the academic community emerged from its encounter with McCarthyism to enter a decade of optimism and expansion. By the middle of the sixties, events off campus— the Vietnam War and the struggle for racial equality, in particular— were to politicize higher education, even as its explosive growth was creating unforeseen tensions. For the next five to ten years, confrontations took place at many, though by no means all, institutions. Finally, after one last burst of conflict, the unrest ended in the early 1970s as the war wound down and the buoyant economic expansion of the previous decade sputtered to an end, inaugurating a new era of austerity.

But because so much change occurred so quickly during those years, there is no coherent narrative, no single story that traces how one thing led to another. Everything seemed to be happening at once. Though petering out, the trauma endured. The events of the long sixties hung over higher education for the next half century, while the backlash they incurred spilled over into the rest of society— poisoning its political discourse and paving the way for decades of neoliberal policies designed to shrink the public sector—its institutions of higher learning, in particular.

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