by Asa McKercher
In 2016, Western University’s Department of History announced the establishment of a variety of graduate awards and scholarships named for Kenneth Hilborn, who had bequeathed $1 million to the university in his estate. A faculty member at Western from 1961 to 1997, Hilborn (PhD, Oxford) was of a generation where one could apparently secure tenure without having published a scholarly, peer-reviewed book. Rather, in the early part of his career, Hilborn’s writing – and here is where I am familiar with him given my research on Canadian international history – consisted mainly of op-eds focused on the Cold War and Canada’s foreign policy. A fixture in Canada Month, a long forgotten conservative – small ‘c’ and quite opposed to the federal Progressive Conservative Party – magazine, he maintained a column offering strident anti-communist positions and criticisms of the Pearsonian status quo (multilateralism, peacekeeping, less than full-throated support for the United States). Hilborn also devoted his time to defending the white minority regimes in Southern Rhodesia and South Africa. While his defence of apartheid was ostensibly rooted in his anti-communism, it is telling that his columns on this subject were often reprinted in the Canadian Intelligence Service, a newsletter published between 1951-2005 by Ronald Gostick, whose hatreds included communists, socialists, Pierre Trudeau, Jews, race-mixing, and fluoride.
I was reminded of Hilborn the other day because of two recent events: revelations that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab secretly took donations from child sex-trafficker and plutocratic financier Jeffrey Epstein; and the Vancouver Sun’s publication of an op-ed repeating white nationalist talking points about immigration and diversity. Marc Hecht, the author of this blud und boden piece, is an instructor at Mount Royal University boasting a Master of Science and a self-published book, Why Europeans Naturally Invaded the New World (2016). According to his faculty profile his main interests include “invasive species dispersal, invasion, colonization and evolutionary adaptation, especially as it relates to European ecological dominance.” Beyond a spotty academic record, Hecht and Hilborn are connected by white nationalism.
In the latter years of his career and through the whole of his retirement – while that all-important first scholarly monograph continued to elude him – Hilborn focused his attention on the evils of multiculturalism, feminism, student activism, and LGBTQ rights. A sampling of the titles of several of his publications from this period are instructive: The Quest for “Equality”: From Robespierre to Rae and Beyond (1996); The Cult of the Victim: Leftist Ideology in the 90’s (1998); Fighting Bad Ideas: Thoughts on Fools, Fanatics, Conspirators & Spies (2005); and In the Cause of the West: Thoughts on the Past, Present, and Future of a Threatened Civilization (2010). Given the lack of rigour behind his writing – many of his retirement era ‘thoughts’ amounted to little more than a written version of Old Man Yells at Cloud – no serious publisher touched these screeds. Rather they were pumped out by Citizens for Foreign Aid Reform (CFAR), a Toronto-based organization founded in 1976 by Paul Fromm, the infamous neo-Nazi, and James Hull. With its anodyne name and under the guise of critiquing foreign aid, CFAR provided Fromm – the führer of several failed far right groups since his campus days at the University of Toronto – with a seemingly respectable cover for pushing diatribes against non-white immigration out into the mainstream. In this regard, Hilborn gave CFAR an imprimatur of academic respectability just as the fact that Hecht taught at a university no doubt gave him some credibility with the Vancouver Sun’s editorial staff.
As has become all too apparent, an academic position can give credence to the views of all sorts of crackpots and grifters. While Hilborn was no criminal like Epstein, his record of involvement with white supremacists and his promulgation of far-right causes should raise questions about the propriety of maintaining scholarships and awards in his honour. Indeed, recent cases of universities accepting donations from individuals, organizations, and even governments with questionable motives or honouring objectionable figures have highlighted the ethical dimensions surrounding gift-giving. With warnings over the corporatization of university funding, cash strapped administrators may increasingly turn a blind eye to the source of donations or donors’ demands and perhaps impugn academic integrity. Yet that integrity can also be placed in doubt when – as with Hilborn and Hecht – faculty members use academic freedom as a cover for spewing hate. And so the case of Western’s awards in honour of Kenneth Hilborn expose wider issues facing the academic community in an age of squeezed budgets and the ever more diffuse spread of information.
Asa McKercher is an Adjunct professor at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario.
This post was edited on 14 September 2019. Thanks to our readers for pointing this out.