An Ontario court has granted Western University permission to remove the name of an emeritus history professor from six academic prizes funded by his estate following criticism that he espoused radical, racist views.
Kenneth Hilborn taught history and international relations at the London, Ont., university from 1961 to 1997. After his death in 2013 at age 79, Hilborn’s estate bequeathed $1 million to Western, including $750,000 to the history department for four undergraduate and two graduate awards that have been handed out since 2016.
In 2019, scholars began calling on the school to intervene, linking the scholarships with the legitimization of extreme right-wing beliefs by universities.
“He openly opposed the equality of human beings,” said Will Langford, who teaches history at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
Langford wrote a 2020 essay in which he called Hilborn “a racist” and criticized Western for not acknowledging Hilborn’s views in awarding the scholarships.
A battle of essays
Langford, who learned of Western’s plans to remove Hilborn’s name from the scholarships during a phone call from CBC News, called the development “a good news story.”
“I think the department is taking the opportunity that is before them to engage with this history, the history of their own department, their own university, and I hope they’re teaching about the scholarships in their courses.
“I would hope too for some kind of acknowledgment, maybe on the department’s website, so anyone in the public who wants to learn more can readily find it.”
Francine McKenzie, an assistant professor at Western who also teaches history and international relations, responded to Langford’s 2020 essay with one of her own that same year entitled “Western’s history department and the Hilborn student awards.”
“The Hilborn awards do good, now and forever,” she wrote. “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.”
In the essay, she noted Western’s history department “discussed the implications of having student awards created through his bequest and decided that the awards should stay.”
Three years later, Western University quietly made a 180-degree turn, applying to an Ontario court this year to remove Hilborn’s name from the awards.
Hilborn’s work ‘did harm,’ says group
“As the matter remains before the court, it would not be appropriate to comment at this time,” Jordan Diacur, the Hamilton lawyer who represents Western in the legal case, wrote to CBC News in an email Friday.
Newly discovered court filings from the university, in its application to the Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee to remove Hilborn’s name from the scholarships, do offer some insight into what might have prompted Western to change its mind.
According to the documents, Western’s history department created a research group to consider “whether the criticism levelled at Hilborn had merit.”
The research group believed Hilborn’s academic work “did harm” and caused “epistemic violence by suppressing, dismissing and trivializing people who were oppressed, vulnerable or discriminated against.”
The court documents also state Hilborn’s work “bolstered white supremacist arguments, attached importance to the safety of white people, never Black people, and affirmed the goodness and superiority of white people explicitly.”
The history department research group recommended removing Hilborn’s name from the scholarships, court documents indicate, because if the school didn’t, Western would “be seen as tacitly condoning and endorsing his views,” something the researchers noted “runs counter to Western University’s goals and values.”
Hilborn seemed to have died without living relatives. The court filings in the case make no mention of his family with the exception of his mother and father, who were already dead in 2013. Hilborn’s obituary, which still exists on Western University’s website, mentions no children or friends, and the Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee is routinely called upon to make legal decisions for estates when there is no else to do so.
The court filings do not indicate how Western would rename the scholarships or when it may happen.