The Buckley Institute Launches the Donald Kagan Memorial Fund and Lecture

“When you enter Payne Whitney Gymnasium and are confronted by that sculpture of the bulldog, you’re seeing Don Kagan. When you walk through Woolsey Rotunda, that Athenian warrior sculpted into the wall is Kagan. When you look across Old Campus and see Nathan Hale, hands bound behind his back defying the enemies of freedom, that’s Don Kagan.”

– Charles Hill, fmr. Diplomat and Yale Lecturer

Over his four decades at Yale, Professor Donald Kagan became more than an educator; more than an administrator; more than a scholar and leader. He truly became an institution at Yale. 

What made Professor Kagan’s impact unique was his love for Yale and his commitment to its success. “Neither family nor nation can flourish without love, support and defense,” he once wrote. Through his over 40-year career at Yale, Professor Kagan demonstrated that he believed as much about Yale too and personally took up the cause. 

That is why the Buckley Institute is proud to launch the Donald Kagan Memorial Fund to advance the values Professor Kagan stood for, spread the knowledge he felt indispensable, and fight for the Yale he believed in.

As our founding faculty advisor, Professor Kagan has already left an indelible mark on Buckley. In the early days, he led our fledgling organization as a member of the board, helped find supporters for our efforts, and guided us through protests and demands for cancellation. And, perhaps most importantly, he served as a constant reminder of why diverse perspectives like his were necessary.

As a leading scholar, Professor Kagan’s dedication to the history of Western Civilization was, in part, an acknowledgement that worthy institutions don’t spring out of nowhere. When a society thrives, much as the United States has even through several fits and starts, it does so because of the trial and error of its predecessors. Understanding the philosophical and political antecedents upon which democracy has flourished in the modern world, through which the rights of the individual have reached new heights, and by which unparalleled prosperity has pervaded the entire world, is impossible without studies such as those Professor Kagan conducted.

Indeed, for Professor Kagan, these same principles are what made Yale a premier institution in the first place. The Yale alumni knew when they were students was as special as it was because of the ideas and ideals of the builders of Yale who came before. Like Professor Kagan, these builders understood their roots both in America’s founding and democracy’s founding in Athens all those years ago. By embracing those ideas and elevating them, Yale became one of the top institutions in the world.

From his first days at Yale to his last, Professor Kagan was ever a defender of those values and their importance for the university and the world as we know it.

After all, next to his lifelong work as a classicist, Kagan was perhaps most notable for his vocal support for free speech on campus.

Originally a liberal – he even debated William F. Buckley, Jr. in defense of the welfare state, Kagan became more conservative when, as a faculty member, he saw Cornell University’s administration capitulate to armed student activists occupying administration buildings in 1969. “Watching administrators demonstrate all the courage of Neville Chamberlain had a great impact on me,” he told Yale Alumni Magazine in 2002.

At Yale, he was an unabashed voice of conservatism amidst a sea of progressive orthodoxy. During his tenure in the early nineties as dean of Yale College, The New York Times explained, he was a “lightning rod for critics of his traditional views on the value of Western culture and tradition.”

But none of the criticism seemed to bother him. After he passed in August 2021, Washington Free Beacon Editor-in-Chief Eliana Johnson ’06 remembered that Professor Kagan “loved to say that he kept making trouble — and getting promoted.”   

Professor Kagan expressed a similar sentiment during his farewell lecture to the Buckley Institute in April 2013. He told a packed room that “to a university… the right of free speech, the free exchange of ideas, the presentation of a variety of opinions, especially of unpopular points of view… are vital.” He noted that though shout downs, disruptions, and intimidation of speakers have proliferated, “most of the time the perpetrators have gone unpunished in any significant way.” By failing to oppose these assaults on free speech, Kagan concluded, universities “sabotage the most basic educational freedoms.”

The first part of our new effort will be the Donald Kagan Memorial Lecture on Thursday, September 7th. The inaugural lecture will be given by his former student, Cornell University History Professor, Hoover Institution Fellow, and classicist Barry Strauss. If you would like to support this effort, you can do so with a tax-deductible donation to the Buckley Institute. If you wish to restrict your gift to the Kagan Memorial Fund, please indicate that in the comment section when making your contribution. We hope you can join us in New Haven in the fall for this opportunity to honor Professor Kagan and his life’s work.