Alumni | Philanthropy

Hamilton College finds itself embroiled in yet another conflict

NEWSDAY   |  March 9, 2007 by William Kates

An upstate New York college that has drawn nationwide attention the past two years for inviting controversial figures to campus finds itself in the midst of another culture conflict.

The college’s abrupt reversal last November to cancel plans for creation of the Alexander Hamilton Center has been widely decried in conservative circles as another example of liberal bias on America’s college campuses, and as retaliation for one of the founder’s past activism on campus.

Last month, lifetime trustee Carl Menges, who had pledged $3.6 million to fund the center, resigned in protest.

“This had nothing to do with any ideology. It was a question of the institutional relationship to the college,” said college spokesman Michael DeBraggio.

“There were discussions and negotiations, and we thought we had a shared understanding. It turned out not to be the case. We realized they were looking to be more independent of the college. We envisioned a program in close collaboration,” he said.

An elite liberal arts college with just under 2,000 students, Hamilton attracts high-level students usually among the top 10 percent in their high school classes. Despite its size and location, Hamilton has a legacy of hosting world renowned speakers, such as former President Jimmy Carter and Bishop Desmond Tutu. In April, former vice president Al Gore, fresh off his Academy Awards win, will speak.

But in recent years, the small, hilltop school 35 miles east of Syracuse has endured a checkered reputation.

In 2004, former Weather Underground radical Susan Rosenberg–imprisoned for 16 years for an armored car robbery that left a guard and two police officers dead–was hired to teach a monthlong writing seminar but the school canceled her appearance after receiving widespread criticism and hearing from alums who threatened to take back hundreds of thousands of dollars in pledges.

In 2005, Hamilton was prepared to host a little-known University of Colorado professor, Ward Churchill, who created a nationwide firestorm when it was revealed he had written an essay referring to 9/11 victims as “little Eichmanns,” a reference to Nazi Adolf Eichmann. His appearance was ultimately canceled by the school because of death threats against college officials and Churchill.

Churchill and Rosenberg were invited to campus by the Kirkland Project for the Study of Gender, Society and Culture. In the wake of the scandals, the faculty member who directed the program resigned and the school reformed the program as the Diversity and Social Justice Program.

One of the leading critics of the Kirkland Project was history professor Robert Paquette, one of the founders of the Alexander Hamilton Center.

Paquette said the governance issue was a “red herring” raised by faculty members seeking a system “that would create a center they could subvert.”

The center was to have an independent, self-perpetuating board on which only one seat was assured to go to a Hamilton faculty member. As a result, many faculty members complained that the center would have more independence from the rest of the college than any other academic unit, said Dean of Faculty Joseph Urgo.

Paquette said the center “did not seek to alter the curriculum of the college in any way, to create new courses arbitrarily, or new faculty positions.

“We just wanted to add another voice to the campus discussion,” he said.

Paquette said he believes the college’s faculty would have rubber-stamped a similar level of autonomy for a left-leaning center.

“There is a political culture here that is pervasive and that creates a double standard,” Paquette said, adding that rejection of the center also was part “payback” for his opposition to Churchill and Rosenberg’s appearances.

Urgo said the decision not to go forward with the center was not made lightly, nor was it retaliatory.

“The feeling was this would be destructive to the faculty community here–so destructive that we were willing to walk away from a major gift,” he said, noting that part of the criticism of the Kirkland Project was that the college did not exert enough control over it.

Nevertheless, the decision has angered many alums and triggered an avalanche of criticism by bloggers.

In a speech at the University of Notre Dame, Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, condemned the college’s actions.

“Instead of giving students a new center of learning, Hamilton is taking educational opportunities away,” Neal said.

The Center’s fate has become an example of a “prevalent culture on the modern campus that is politicized, one-sided, coercive, and manipulative,” Neal said.

The dispute has divided students, too.

The student newspaper took administrators and faculty to task in two editorials, noting that students had lost the opportunity for internships, fellowships and research stipends because of professors’ “ideological biases, personal vendettas and politics.”

But Student Assembly President Stuart Lombardi defended Hamilton as “quite intellectually diverse,” even without the center.

“While many students are disappointed that the college lost the Alexander Hamilton Center, students understand the need for faculty oversight of any academic organization bearing the college’s name,” Lombardi said.


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