The Duke Chronicle called it "the most powerful educational jolt a student sponsored program has ever produced." The event was a three-day campus symposium in October, 1959 on "The U.S.-Soviet Conflict." The featured participants were Professors Merle Fainsod of Harvard University; Frederick Schuman of Williams College; and Thomas Whitney, a journalist with the Associated Press. The format was varied, featuring formal addresses, panel discussions, classroom appearances, coffees, luncheons, dinners, and receptions. The aim was "to make the campus come alive to the technological, social, and spiritual tensions between the two world powers." The impetus perhaps was Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's assertion to the free world that "your grandchildren will live under Communism."
That initial Symposium under the direction of senior Boyd Hight launched a successful series that ran for eleven years. At the time, campus programming provided a myriad of single events but a few leaders remembered the popular annual series of Religious Emphasis Week from an earlier era. Following in that tradition, they wished to pursue an intellectual topic in depth and present it to as many of the community as possible. With no budget and little time, Hight undertook the task in the late spring of 1959. A broad-based committee was created to engage representatives of any established organization that might contribute funds. Over time financial support came from such different sources as independent houses, living associations, fraternities, sororities, the YM and YWCA, student government associations and the Student Union. In 1965, the S and H Foundation awarded the Symposium a $1,500 grant as one of the thirty-eight most worthy, topical and significant public affairs programs in American universities.
The Symposium committee was self-perpetuating, consciously seeking committed, hard-working participants from all four classes. Administrators and faculty joined in out of interest and because of their expertise in certain subject areas. President Douglas M. Knight spoke or chaired a panel at several of the symposia. Cost was not prohibitive. It was the late sixties before the committee made "the wrenching decision to pay over $1,000 for a speaker." Available reading lists and as many as twenty discussion groups sometimes preceded the main three-day event. Students sometimes visited Washington to interview prospective speakers with one delegation even going to the White House seeking the participation of President Eisenhower. The record reveals that many committee members and leaders are currently active faculty and alumni. One former chairman, Phil Lader, '66, serves President Clinton as Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff. He is perhaps more widely known, however, as the founder and convener of the ultimate symposium, the Renaissance Weekend which is held annually at Hilton Head resort every New Year's.
Through the years topics reflected the dominant concerns of the day—the Cold War and changing values. They were as varied as "Contemporary Literature and the Post-Christian Man," "Dimensions of Defense," "The Individual in Mass Society," and "Concepts of a University." In 1967 the students analyzed themselves in "Impact-the Post-War Generation" when they studied the "emerging generation that encompasses the Peace Corps, Black Power, marches, sit-ins and the battlefield."
By the late sixties, students questioned all institutions and they sometimes protested reflexively. The 1968 Symposium chaired by Peter English and titled "KAPOW, The Electric Media," was kayoed itself. On the second night before an audience of a thousand people, eight students and a university employee seized the microphones in Page Auditorium. They called for a "meaningful discussion to keep the Symposium from dying," and the panelists left the stage.
In the aftermath of the Silent Vigil—the university's largest protest to date—the previous spring, the Board of Trustees had enacted the school's first policy governing campus disruptions. The 1968 Symposium's protesters were the first students charged under the new Pickets and Protest policy. The dominant question quickly became the relevance of the new policy. The planning committee and the panel participants publicly noted that the disruption was more rude and abrupt than seriously disruptive. A required hearing was held. To the surprise of few on campus, the students were acquitted of charges. Nevertheless, the divisive and disruptive incident affected the concept of a campus-wide symposium. In 1969, a Symposium half the size of previous ones was held on East Campus. A later brief attempt at revival failed to catch on.
For a decade, the Symposium lived up to its billing as the major educational event of the school year. It was more than just another extracurricular activity. It was "an ideal in action—students, faculty, administration, community coming together in responsible intellectual pursuit."
Note: A campus-wide "Black on White Symposium on Issues Surrounding the Experiences of Black Students on White Campuses" was held in October 1988.
- Duke University Symposium Committee. A Symposium. Durham: Duke University, 1959, 1962, 1964-1967 (catalog record)
- Duke University Union Records, 1954-ongoing (collection guide)