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The failure of the Alexander Hamilton Center

The ex post facto renegotiation of the Charter of the Alexander Hamilton Center has failed. Robert Paquette has resigned as Executive Director of the Alexander Hamilton Center, and it is virtually certain the gift of $3.6mm, previously announced by the College, will not be completed.

Let’s summarize the plain facts:

Prior to September 6, 2006, Hamilton College (specifically President Stewart and Dean Urgo in concert with Communications & Development) negotiate terms of the Charter of the Alexander Hamilton Center with the sponsoring faculty members and prospective donor. Result: the parties agree to the establishment of the Alexander Hamilton Center as detailed in the Charter.

On September 6, 2006, Hamilton College publicly announces the formation of the Alexander Hamilton Center. In concert with the announcement of the formation of AHC, Hamilton College publicly publishes the Charter of the Alexander Hamilton Center.

  • Joan Stewart, President of Hamilton College; Joseph Urgo, Dean of Faculty of Hamilton College; Professor Robert Paquette; Professor James Bradfield; and Professor Douglas Ambrose are listed as Founders on the published Charter.
  • The success and virtue of the Alexander Hamilton Center are toasted by all at a champagne reception.

On October 13 the College publicly announces a gift of $3.6 million in support of the Alexander Hamilton Center. Quoted from the press release:

  • Inspired by Alexander Hamilton’s life and work, the AHC seeks 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,” according to the center’s charter .
  • President Joan Hinde Stewart. “This contribution will be a true legacy…passion and high regard for Alexander Hamilton and his contributions to the founding of the American experiment in republican government. Our students will benefit now and in future years from the programming and resources resulting from [this] gift.”
  • Hamilton ’s dean of the faculty Joseph Urgo commented, “The Alexander Hamilton Center is an exciting faculty initiative, one that will draw renewed attention on this campus to the considerable scholarly interest in the life and work of the founder who lent his name to our college. Alexander Hamilton’s rise to prominence from disadvantage, his life-long commitment to clarity in prose and speech, and his ultimate devotion to the experiment of a United States government and society, all reflect the ongoing educational values of Hamilton College.”

On September 20, 2006, the Hamilton College Spectator reports a faculty vote and concerns about the Charter, and we quote:

  • “the faculty voted 77 to 17 to adopt a resolution expressing concern over the governance structure of the newly established Alexander Hamilton Center….
  • “Trustees discussed the AHC Charter at their recent meetings over Alumni Weekend…They do…feel that the wording of the governance structure needs revisions….Stuart [Scott] continued, “They [the three founders] agree, and we agree, if it’s going to come under the aegis of Hamilton College, ultimately it’s going to report to the President…We are exchanging drafts [to sort out the language], but there is no question, everyone agrees. It’s a matter of working out the language.”

On November 22, 2006, Professor Robert Paquette resigns as Executive Director of the Alexander Hamilton Center.

On November 27, 2006, Hamilton announces the Alexander Hamilton Center will not go forward, notwithstanding the prior announcements of Sept. 6th and Oct. 13th:

  • “Where we have not reached agreement is on the governance structure of a center devoted to these aims on campus, its relationship to the College administration, to the Board of Trustees of Hamilton College, and to the wider, external community of scholars and supporters.”

On November 29, 2006, the Utica Observer Dispatch reports ( sveale@utica.gannett.com ) and we quote by excerpt ( http://www.uticaod.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20061129/NEWS/611290330/1001 ):

  • Founders, administrators and the college’s Board of Trustees could not agree on how the center would be run. It would have sponsored programming on topics central to the early American statesman’s work, such as freedom, democracy and capitalism.
  • …administrators, after considering the concerns of faculty members and certain members of the Board of Trustees, decided they could not support a center…
  • …said Joe Urgo, dean of faculty. “We did not want to create an organization at Hamilton that felt it had to be separate from the faculty.”

We’ve been mostly silent on this whole matter pending its final resolution out of respect for the donor, the Founders, and what we perceive to be in the best interests of the College. The handling of this venture has been inept and has escalated to catastrophic impact.

We believe such ex post facto intervention by trustees in respect to a specific programmatic, non-curricular venture previously approved by the President and the Dean of Faculty is without precedent at Hamilton and largely without precedent in broader academia. Perhaps our better informed readers could enlighten us.

As a matter of governance and process is it now an acceptable course of dealing at Hamilton College to:

  1. Negotiate the terms of the Center
  2. Agree to terms
  3. Announce the formation of the Center
  4. Publish the Charter listing Profs. Paquette, Prof. Ambrose, Prof. Bradfield, the President, and Dean of Faculty as Founders
  5. Accept major gifts,
  6. Publicize all of the above,
  7. And then disclaim publicly the entire process?

Children call this kind of buffoonery a ‘do-over’. Institutions and adults call it bad faith. It is the stuff of incompetence and failed credibility. Over recent years we have had many conversations with alumni and a common theme evolves. Imagine the process that leads us to the point where Hamilton no longer presents acceptable performance risk to its own alumni.

The governance of Hamilton is demonstrably problematic. This shameful display evidences is why we’ve heard so many times over the last year:

“I’ll support the Alexander Hamilton Center, but I won’t support Hamilton.”

If the trustees had accorded the sponsoring principals… the President, the Dean of Faculty, 3 respected senior tenured faculty, and the sponsoring donor, a former Charter trustee of some 16 years and a current Emeritus Trustee … the modest presumptions of good faith & competence, the Alexander Hamilton Center would be today the toast of the scholarly/academic world, a huge success, and an unprecedented endeavor for a school of Hamilton’s size. The agitated alumni would have been calmed in face of this wonderful & curative initiative…but it is not to be.

Posted on November 29, 2006 at 04:18PM by Registered Commenterhb | Comments4 Comments

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Reader Comments (4)

Excellent and accurate chronology...Let's be clear that the AHC would have reported to the President and Board of Trustees like any other educational program at the college...No one ever intended to remove fiscal responsibility or operational monitoring from the Dean, President or Trustees...This was made clear during the process..

The governance portion of the charter was written to ensure that the scholarly programming remained true to the specific mission statement which guided the establishment of the center in the first place--that the center could not be "turned into something else" by those who opposed it....Either the Trustees or the Administration or maybe both reneged on their agreements--behavior not to be emulated...Changing or canceling agreements--at least in our culture--is not unilateral...

November 29, 2006 at 05:13PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard A. Erlanger '63
I appreciate the accurate chronology of events that you have posted on this site. As a member of the student body, we too were left completely out of the picture when talks where taking place about the governance of the Center. That being said, I was under the impression that it was the Center's intention that its governance would remain separate from the college, hence all the arguments within the faculty and administration. I could be wrong(a result of being kept in the dark), but everything I have gathered is from The Spectator and speaking with various faculty members on the subject. It's sad, really, that now two academic (although opposite in bias) programs which sought to enrich the learning environment at Hamilton College had to be shut down *without any input from the students themselves*. Perhaps this is the danger that comes when professors push the issue of academic diversity in their own favor, and mask it as beneficial for the students.

In my humble opinion, not much good could possibly come from a center or a project which only puts forth one point of view- it is too a dangerous situation. The key to an education is dialogue, not aggressive opposition. No matter what anybody tries to say, just as "conservative" students did not attend KP events, "liberal" students probably would not have attended AHC events. I fear that the more members of the faculty try (and inevitably fail) to create centers and projects that only push one "underrepresented" point of view, the more divided the campus will become, creating an intellectually strained and stifled atmosphere. And furthermore, this seemingly problematic issue of "liberal" or "conservative" learning enviroments is really just a result of individual professors pushing their own agenda- in my opinion, neither view is really "underrepresented." I've had classes where I was the most conservative student present, and it was uncomfortable. I've had classes where I was the most liberal student present, and it was also uncomfortable. But both situations forced me to engage in an intellectually stimulating dialogue, to question my own beliefs and *back them up* with intellegent theory and references. Just as in life, in college there are conservative spokespeople, liberal spokespeople and everything in between. Professors are to plant the seed of wisdom, not shove it down our throats and tell us exactly how to make it grow.
Just some thoughts from a current student!
January 6, 2007 at 05:50PM | Unregistered CommenterJess Mariglio, '07
Thanks for your comment.

It might be helpful if you re-read the Charter of the Alexander Hamilton Center in conjunction with the proposed changes detailed in The Narcissism of Hamilton College.

The Board of Overseers would comprise at minimum 2 faculty members and the balance would have been made up of alumni (including as I understand the preliminary line up at least 3-4 currently sitting trustees). The Board of Overseers was constructed to accomodate non-Hamiltonians of significant status or expertise (eg former US Presidents or Warren Buffet types) as is customary and desirable for such entitities. No outsiders were suggested or even contemplated for the initial Board of Overseers as far as I know.

The Executive Council of the AHC was to be made up of Hamilton faculty only.

Originally, the AHC was to reside under the office of the President. At Hamilton's suggestion it was moved to the Office of the Dean.

You can see, the governance was not isolated from the school. It was designed to insure loyalty to its Charter in the face of an ever changing environment at Hamilton.

Consider that the structure of the AHC had to provide protection from attack from radical faculty; the possibility of weak, incompetent or changing administrations; and the sometimes inexplicable behavior of the College on a variety of important policy matters (eg the explicit restriction of speech of candidates for alumni trustee). The Hoover Institution at Stamford is a good example. Unfortunately, Hamilton of today lacks the vision to see and configure itself as a source of intellectual greatness.

Lastly, you make an incorrect inference that the dialogue at the AHC would have been monolithic. First, its mission was expressly scholarly, not political. This in contrast to the Kirkland Project whose mission is expressly political, the pursuit of 'social justice'. The KP with the support of alumni, tuition and trusted monies has presented only a leftist radical perspective for almost a decade. Check their speaker list & programming. It's a monotone. Check their budget over that time...oops, you can't!

Look at the Charter of the AHC:

"The Alexander Hamilton Center for the Study of Western Civilization (AHC) proceeds under the premise that the reasoned study of Western civilization, its distinctive achievements as well as its distinctive failures, will further the search for truth and provide the ethical basis necessary for civilized life. The AHC aspires to create an educational environment of the highest standards in which evidence and argument prevail over ideology and cant."

It presupposes argument,which requires opposing viewpoints, and emphasizes evidence. Talk to one of the faculty sponsors: this thing was going to mix it up in a scholarly, intellectual brawl on a national scale!

I'll leave you to ponder the meaning of academic freedom at Hamiton: why have the 3 sponsoring professors been denied the freedom to present this scholarly, program? Bear in mind the College didn't offer a dime of funding to support it.

It is little known that the AHC was going to have an annual book prize that would have exceeded the Pulitzer. How's that for putting Hamilton on the map?

Well, Hamilton just turned the whole thing down. Its not going to happen...at least at Hamilton.

The administration, the preponderance of the faculty, and trustees are content to present you with the likes of Peggy Seegar. Intellectual diversity is simply not welcome on campus, and its unfortunately your loss. The reputational damage to the school, its credibility, and scholarly standing cumulates.

January 9, 2007 at 10:58PM | Registered Commenterhb

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