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Western sieve

Education | Hamilton College rejects a center based on the ideas of its founder and namesake

Issue: "2006 Daniels of the Year," Dec. 16, 2006

This past September, Hamilton College, a private liberal arts school in upstate New York, proudly announced plans to establish a special department for the study of Western civilization. The charter for the Alexander Hamilton Center (AHC) envisions "excellence in scholarship through the study of freedom, democracy and capitalism."

School administrators received further cause for celebration one month later when prominent alumnus Carl Menges pledged $3.6 million for the AHC. College president Joan Hinde Stewart lauded such generosity: "Our students will benefit now and in future years from the programming and resources resulting from Carl's gift."

But six weeks later, Hamilton bit the hand trying to feed it when a sizable number of faculty members and trustees convinced administrators to rescind their support and block the center's establishment-effectively slapping a gracious donor in the face. The only remaining benefit for students: a lesson in the absurdity of multiculturalism.

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Resistance to the systematic study of Western civilization is common throughout academia, which often emphasizes a wide range of cultures to the detriment of the foundational principles driving the most successful societies in history. Charles Mitchell, program director of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, told WORLD that centers like the AHC are springing up in reaction to that trend, providing "oases of excellence" amid the multicultural muck.

Hamilton's hostility to the AHC is consistent with the school's reputation in recent years for favoring the ideas of far-left activists over counterbalancing conservative thought. The college invited Colorado professor Ward Churchill to speak on its campus last year despite his inflammatory public comparisons of 9/11 victims to Nazis. It also sought to hire convicted felon and 1960s radical Susan Rosenberg as an activist-in-residence in 2004.

Neither Churchill nor Rosenberg wound up at Hamilton due to public outcry from alumni, students, and a contingent of faculty. Bob Paquette, a professor of history at Hamilton for the past quarter century and founder of the AHC, led the on-campus effort to void such invitations. He believes that action partially motivated the campaign to undermine his once-approved center: "I am an outspoken conservative, and I think that factored into their criticism. Am I saying that the opposition meant payback? Yes."

Paquette's foes initially voiced their dissatisfaction in late September with a resolution decrying the autonomy of the AHC's directors and demanding the center submit to greater presidential oversight. A revised proposal sought to accommodate such concerns, stating that any "deviation from the center's scholarly mission as clearly defined in the charter may result in the removal of the AHC's executive director from his office by the president of Hamilton College and the Board of Trustees or the discontinuance of the center's funding by the College or both."

But such redrafting did not appease determined opponents who upped their demands for oversight to include the entire faculty. Paquette and co-founders Jim Bradfield and Douglas Ambrose refused to comply. "We have maintained that, given the particular political history of Hamilton College, the center needs to be insulated from politicized factions of the faculty," Paquette said. "It also needs to be insulated to some degree from weak and politicized deans."

Case in point: Dean of faculty Joe Urgo initially signed the AHC charter but later changed his mind amid the swirl of controversy and political pressure. Urgo did not answer WORLD's request for comment but told the school's student newspaper that Paquette's concession of presidential oversight was not enough because blocking outside faculty influence violates the college's ideal of community.

Hunter Brown, leader of the Hamilton College Alumni for Governance Reform, told WORLD he has a hard time accepting that explanation: "If you do a comparative analysis of this governance structure relative to the James Madison Program at Princeton or to the Hoover Institution [at Stanford], it compares rather favorably," he said. "We look forward with great expectation to some rational explanation."

In the meantime, Paquette may entertain offers to take his center elsewhere. "I think it will come into existence in one form or another," he said, ready to accept that Alexander Hamilton's ideas may not be welcome at Hamilton College. "The idea is portable."

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