Reaching Out at Hamilton

College at center of Ward Churchill debate starts center on freedom and capitalism -- and faces concerns over governance.
October 24, 2006

The controversy over Ward Churchill could have broken out at any number of campuses. He taught at the University of Colorado at Boulder and lectured for years all over the country. Typically, supporters of his views came to see him, and opponents paid little attention. That all changed last year, when -- in advance of a talk scheduled for Hamilton College -- people started to pay attention to Churchill, and especially to his comments comparing those who died on 9/11 to "little Eichmanns."

The Hamilton talk never took place. College officials resisted political demands that they call the speech off, but ended up doing so because of death threats to Churchill. While the Churchill debate shifted back to Colorado, where officials are trying to fire him, Hamilton was left with its own questions. The Churchill invitation came not long after a dispute over another aborted invitation, that one to Susan Rosenberg, a one-time activist against the Vietnam War who was indicted but never tried for a 1981 armored car robbery that left a guard and two police officers dead. Some faculty members, and many conservative alumni, criticized the college, saying that in the name of academic freedom it was inviting to campus people who could incite, but not necessarily educate.

In a move being praised by some of those who were critical last year, Hamilton is now creating a new center -- named, like the college, for Alexander Hamilton -- 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 program has already attracted its first major gift, of $3.6 million. Similar centers have been created in recent years at Brown and Princeton Universities, in part in response to criticism that there have not been enough spaces on campus supportive of traditional scholarly work on Western thought.

As at Brown and Princeton, officials at Hamilton have taken great care to say that the new center is not an effort at balance or meant as a conservative base on the campus, but was given the go-ahead because a group of professors had a sound idea. And as has been the case elsewhere, some professors have worried that the new center may have too much independence and ideological direction -- while others see its arrival as perfectly appropriate. Descriptions of the center's values for its programming (lectures, seminars and conferences, among other things) are full of the kind of language that many on the right say is lacking in much of American academe, and that some professors see as an indication that the center will have an ideological agenda.

Among the topics on which the center's programs will focus are:

  • "The meaning and implications of capitalism, its genesis and impact; the role of markets, money and financial institutions in economic growth; the importance of the rule of law and property rights in wealth creation."
  • "The nature and paradox of civil liberty; the compatibility of freedom with equality and of virtue with efficiency; the role of merit, distinction, and hierarchy in the formation of civilization."
  • "The role of religion in American politics; the moral basis of democracy; separation of church and state."
  • "The significance of natural law and natural rights in shaping Western political and legal culture; the common law tradition in the United States and the principles on which it is based."

Robert Paquette, the Publius Virgilius Rogers Professor of American History and one of the center's founders, acknowledged that the college's recent history played a role in creating the new program. "The idea for the Alexander Hamilton Center predated the Rosenberg and Churchill business, but to be sure those fiascos did energize us," he said.

Paquette stressed that there would be no litmus test for participating in the center. "This is not a right wing think tank," he said. "We don't have a monopoly on the truth."

But the topics identified for the center's focus are quite deliberate, he said. "There are some explanations that are more powerful than others," he said.

Joe Urgo, dean of the faculty at Hamilton, said that he saw the center as a natural way for the college to help professors with common interests work together. "It's about creating points of contact," he said. He also said people shouldn't read too much into the ideological leanings of those founding the center as a sign of what might happen down the road. "Organizations can begin with one thing in mind, and evolve over time," he said. Centers, he said, are a normal part of academe, be they centers that promote multicultural thinking or the new Hamilton operation.

Not everyone at the college is happy about the new center. The faculty overwhelmingly adopted a resolution expressing concern about the governance structure for the new center, which will have a board that is not restricted to Hamilton professors and administrators and that will be self-perpetuating. Critics stressed that they were objecting not to the center itself, but to its governance. In particular, several noted that only one seat on the nine-member board was assured to go to a Hamilton faculty member.

The chair of the Faculty Assembly, John O'Neil, in an interview prior to the faculty resolution's adoption, said that "there are people on the faculty who think this center has an explicit, right tendency." The Hamilton center that invited Churchill and Rosenberg has undergone extensive changes since then, and O'Neil said that to some, "it suggests that the left got slapped down and so the right is being encouraged."

He stopped short of endorsing that view, but said that it reflected that of some professors.

Stephen Orvis, a professor of government, said that he is among those who believe the new center "should have a little more oversight," but he stressed that "I have no problem with the effort as part of faculty creating whatever kind of on-campus organization they want about their intellectual interests."

An editorial in The Spectator, the student newspaper, called on both supporters and skeptics of the center's governance to work out their disagreements. While suggesting that there are legitimate concerns about the governance issues, the editorial called on faculty members to work together so that "the bitterness and squabbling would stop."

An earlier editorial in the newspaper, however, suggested that some reactions to the Alexander Hamilton Center may not be entirely fair. The editorial noted that the center's creation had caused "a stir," and that its founders were known for "particularly conservative views" that many on the campus find "offensive." As a result, the editorial said, many on the campus "formed an opinion about the center without very much information." Based on what it has been learning about the center, the newspaper added, "original impressions may not, and in fact probably are not, accurate."


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