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Alumni Challengers Lose Vote at Hamilton

August 18, 2005

At Hamilton College, alumni select 12 of the 36 trustees, and most elections are so routine that a formal vote doesn't even take place.

This year, however, alumni angry over a series of controversies ran a slate of candidates to challenge those nominated by the college's alumni association. In results announced Wednesday, the slate of three nominated by the association won -- by a margin of about two to one. But supporters of the challengers said that their support indicated significant alumni concern about the college's direction -- and that the showing was more impressive because of rules limiting communication from the candidates to alumni.

Melissa Joyce-Rosen, president of the Hamilton College Alumni Association, said that she was pleased that the candidates nominated by her group won the election, and that it was also a good sign that other alumni were willing to volunteer to serve as trustees.

The alumni challengers are members of Hamilton College Alumni for Governance Reform, a new group that maintains a Web site about its concerns over the college. They have generally cited three major complaints about the college:

  • A generous severance agreement for Eugene Tobin, who announced his resignation as Hamilton's president in 2002 after the discovery that large portions of his speech to freshmen that year had come from the writings of others.
  • A college center's invitation to Susan Rosenberg to come to the campus as a short-term teacher. Rosenberg, at one time a leading activist against the Vietnam War, was indicted but never tried for a 1981 armored car robbery that left a guard and two police officers dead. She was sentenced to 58 years on charges of weapons possession, but President Clinton granted her clemency in 2001. Amid criticism of her Hamilton appointment, Rosenberg withdrew from plans to teach a half-credit course on memoir writing.
  • That same center's invitation to Ward Churchill, the controversial University of Colorado professor, to speak on the campus. Churchill's talk was called off amid death threats, but it was in the build-up to the talk that his comments comparing 9/11 victims to "little Eichmanns" became public. While many academics praised the college for defending freedom of speech, others questioned why Churchill was invited in the first place.

In the wake of the Rosenberg and Churchill controversies, the college has limited the power and budget of the Kirkland Project, the academic unit that invited both of them. But to the critical alumni, this was insufficient.

J. Hunter Brown, one of the organizers of the new alumni group, said he was "disappointed that we didn't get a seat," but added that he thought the slate had made "a strong showing, given the constraints placed on communications."

Hamilton gave all candidates the chance to write a 100-word statement for distribution and to post comments and respond to questions on an alumni discussion Web site that is open only to alumni. But the college asked candidates not to send information directly to alumni via mass e-mail, saying that many alumni would view such communication as spam.

Brown scoffed at that explanation, saying that he receives plenty of e-mail communication from the college about such matters as alumni wine-tasting parties. "The college uses e-mail as a matter of routine," he said. "It's extraordinary that they find it inappropriate to communicate about an important matter like this."

He predicted that alumni would continue to watch the college more closely and didn't rule out future candidacies. The issue of the college's limit on communications with alumni has been particularly galling to some critics because the college has defended the invitation to Ward Churchill by invoking the principle of free speech. Brown said that the restrictions on communication reinforced his concerns about the governance of the college. "I never thought I would see Hamilton explicitly restrict the speech of its alumni," he said.

Joyce-Rosen, the alumni president, said that the rules were developed to promote "fairness," and noted that they applied equally to all candidates.

Hamilton is not the only college to have critical alumni run in trustee elections. Dartmouth College alumni elected two such alumni to their alma mater's board in May.

 

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