By Francine McKenzie
This letter is a response to Will Langford’s essay Congress 2020, Interrupted.
Ken Hilborn was a member of the History Department at Western from 1961-1997. He died in 2013. In his will, he left a bequest to the University of Western Ontario to reward academic achievement amongst history students.
While Hilborn was a faculty member, his controversial and objectionable views provoked critical responses from faculty and students. Few current members of the History Department knew Ken Hilborn or were aware of his political and personal beliefs. After Asa McKercher’s essay appeared in ActiveHistory in September 2019, the department discussed the implications of having student awards created through his bequest and decided that the awards should stay.
Will Langford’s recent essay is a more direct criticism of the History Department’s ‘commemoration’ of Hilborn. Lest outward silence be mistaken for indifference, I will explain why the department decided to maintain the Hilborn awards. My explanation is short. A longer explanation might be interpreted as an apology for Hilborn and that is not my intention.
The Hilborn awards do good, now and forever. With the funds that Ken Hilborn donated, the History Department has created six undergraduate and graduate awards that support internships and other global opportunities, allow students to attend conferences and travel for research, and reward academic achievement. Students are able to deepen their international perspectives, take advantage of opportunities that are personally and academically enriching, and produce excellent scholarship. Some of the recipients of the Hilborn awards work on projects that are antithetical to Hilborn’s personal and political views. That is also for the good. While the Hilborn awards are on a much more modest scale than Rhodes scholarships, the comparison is useful: The Rhodes Trust does not endorse Cecil Rhodes’ views; the History Department doesn’t endorse Ken Hilborn’s views.
The Hilborn awards can and should be turned into an opportunity for reflection and improvement. Issues of commemoration are dealt with explicitly in the undergraduate and graduate programs in Public History at Western. As a department, and in consultation with our students, we will consider how we can better acknowledge Hilborn’s beliefs, career and activism so that the awards in his name advance our historical consciousness.
Perhaps this can be a learning opportunity for ActiveHistory, too. As a site that combines academic and journalistic practices, it has a real impact on historical discussion in Canada. Neither the authors of the essays nor the editors of ActiveHistory asked the department for comment – a basic journalistic principle. A dialogue might stimulate useful discussion about the challenges we face in telling our own histories.
Professor & Chair
Department of History