Western’s History Department and the Hilborn Student Awards

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.

Francine McKenzie
Professor & Chair
Department of History
Western University

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4 thoughts on “Western’s History Department and the Hilborn Student Awards

  1. swhit46

    Well said Professor McKenzie. As a recipient of the HIlborn Award in 2019, I never met Ken Hilborn and I do not necessarily know or support his politics or opinions. However, I do respect and appreciate that he donated money to Western History Department that allows graduate students like me to further their studies and research. Clearly Hilborn believed in Western History students and the value that they may bring to the world through their own work and just because his views do not align with my own does not mean I will not appreciate or thank his estate for the award. The Ken Hilborn award helped me travel to Scotland to conduct valuable research for my thesis, which has nothing to do with his beliefs or views.

  2. Jason Russell

    I was in one of Hilborn’s courses when I was an undergrad at Western from 1987 to 1991. He was an odd character — wore the exact same suit almost every class. He lived with his mother and never married. I was also in a course taught by sociologist James Rinehart at the same time that I was in Hilborn’s course. Rinehart — of The Tyranny of Work fame — was on the opposite of the ideological spectrum from Hilborn and told me about a time when he and Hilborn were part of a public debate panel about the Vietnam War. Someone in the panel audience was so enraged over Hilborn’s comments that the person attacked Hilborn, wrapped a microphone cord around his neck, and tried to strangle him. Rinehart told me that Hilborn was known on campus to have a lot of money. He clearly didn’t spend it on his wardrobe. Hilborn liked to say that he completed his DPhil at Oxford, but did not often say that AJP Taylor was his dissertation supervisor (Taylor was also on a different place on the ideological spectrum than Hilborn). Hilborn also deliberately chose not to try and publish in any academic journals and instead published in odd right-wing publications. Western’s History department was, at best, center-right in the late 1980s and early 1990s and I found the environment in York’s History department to be far better when I went there as a graduate student.

  3. Laura Carter

    Thank you for this perspective. While I appreciate that the Department would have liked to be consulted, perhaps the explanation on the Department’s website was considered to be its official position on the subject. If it is not, I would suggest adapting it to explain the stance you have taken above.

  4. Catherine Murton Stoehr

    Well that strawman never stood a chance! Scholarships ARE good. Learning too. Which is probably why Mr. Langford did not suggest ending the scholarship. Rather in an informative, generous, and mild mannered, essay he proposed doing what the sitting chair here concedes they may well do, produce a little write up about Ken Hilborn’s career for the public. A more perfect consumation could hardly be wished. All brought to you by the hard working and very appreciated (by me) volunteers at Active History.

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