Duel on Governance at Hamilton

New center on freedom and capitalism halted. Founders blame politics. Others blame effort to segregate program from rest of college.
November 28, 2006

Given Alexander Hamilton's role in American history defining the authority of the federal government, it may be fitting that a governance debate has killed off an effort to create a center to honor him at his namesake college.

A short statement from Hamilton College late Monday announced that the center is "not going forward" despite the belief of college leaders that the center had "significant potential to enhance the educational experience of Hamilton students."

The statement did not explain why the Alexander Hamilton Center was being called off, but faculty leaders and a memo distributed to professors Monday said that questions of governance were key. The center was to have had an independent, self-perpetuating board on which only one seat was assured to go to a Hamilton faculty member. Many faculty members have said that this would give the center more independence from the rest of the college than any other academic unit. And some said that they warned the center's founders about the potential for governance issues to derail the project months ago -- and were ignored.

Robert Paquette, the Publius Virgilius Rogers Professor of American History and one of the center’s founders, said that the governance issue was  a "red herring" raised by faculty members seeking a governance system "that would create a center they could destroy." In an interview Monday night, he said that the college's faculty would have approved without any concern a similar level of autonomy for a left-leaning center. "If the faculty could vote, Ward Churchill would be doing his thing here. There is a political culture here that is pervasive and that creates a double standard," Paquette said.

So much for hopes that the Alexander Hamilton Center would calm the culture wars at the college.

Hamilton College, a liberal arts college in upstate New York, has played an unlikely role in the culture wars for the last two years. It was a speaking engagement scheduled there for Ward Churchill -- called off amid death threats -- that turned the Colorado professor into a national figure, much reviled for his statements comparing 9/11 victims to "little Eichmanns." In the wake of the Churchill fracas, the college faced an avalanche of criticism for inviting him. Educators at Hamilton spent a lot of time talking about whether the institution needed more and different voices in the mix of those who visited the college. They also talked about the need for academic centers -- one of them had invited Churchill -- to be closely connected to the college.

Enter the Alexander Hamilton Center, which would sponsor programs to “promote excellence in scholarship through the study of freedom, democracy and capitalism as these ideas were developed and institutionalized in the United States and within the larger tradition of Western culture.” The college announced the center's creation in September, and news of a $3.6 million gift for the center followed the next month. Although the planned focus of the center was on such subjects as capitalism, property rights, the role of religion, and natural law, founders and college administrators repeatedly said that the center wasn't designed as a "conservative" home at Hamilton. Similar centers at Brown and Princeton Universities have won many fans -- and have answered conservative critics who suggest that there is no way to be right of center on certain campuses.

Paquette said it was appropriate for the Hamilton center to have more independence than other campus programs. "We needed to provide insulation to prevent faculty cooptation," he said. Paquette acknowledged that the way the charter for the center was created, it would have been possible after the first round of appointments to the center's board for that body to have only one Hamilton faculty member among its nine members. However, Paquette said "it wouldn't have turned out that way" and that more Hamilton professors would have been involved.

The position of Hamilton's board and administration "shifted over time," he said.

Paquette said he was encouraged by parts of an e-mail sent to professors by Joe Urgo, dean of the faculty, who said that he hoped some of the ideas behind the Hamilton center could go forward. But Paquette also criticized the statement issued by the college, saying that it showed that administrators didn't understand that "we need a center to accomplish our goals."

Urgo's e-mail said that "our deliberations proceeded not solely with one center in mind, but with a dedication to the principles of good governance for any academic initiative or administrative structure proposed for our community."

Sam Pellman, a professor of music and chair of Hamilton's Committee on Academic Policy, said that organizers of the center approached his panel last summer with their idea. He said that, from the beginning, he and other committee members told the center's organizers that their academic idea was strong, but that their governance plan was problematic.

"I told them I would be surprised if the college would ever agree to this," Pellman said.

"For me, it's a practical matter," Pellman said, in explaining why it didn't make sense to have an academic program at the college run by outsiders. To run a successful program, he said, "you have to involve as many people as you can. You have to trust your colleagues and bring them in as collaborators. The whole presumption of the charter was that we're not sure we can trust the rest of the faculty to be involved in what we are doing."

Pellman said that politics played no role in his view of the center, and that he did not think that was a motivator for other professors either. Issues of academic governance were what mattered, he said.

In fact, Pellman said part of his disappointment in the way things turned out is that the college won't immediately have the academic programs that the center was talking about sponsoring. "I liked their idea," he said. "I think: the more voices, the better."


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