By Robert Paquette
On 17 September, Constitution Day, my two co-founders (professors Douglas Ambrose and James Bradfield) and I unveiled the Alexander Hamilton Institute in a historic mansion about a mile from the Hamilton College campus. Our goal is to promote the study of American ideals and institutions. This was not our first try. A little over a year ago , we were celebrating its founding at the college, as the Alexander Hamilton Center for the Study of Western Civilization. We intended to offer a rich menu of extras - conferences, colloquia, internships, fellowships, and awards - to Hamilton College undergraduates. In August 2006 we were toasting a signed agreement with the President and Dean of the Faculty; several weeks later, the initiative collapsed, only now reborn outside of the college. What happened?
The opposition was partly bureaucratic, partly ideological. On the modern campus, programs to study Western institution and culture tend to meet quick resistance. The activists win subtly and incrementally, in several different ways: by choosing the people who teach such courses; by abolishing core curricula that contain a strong American history or Western civilization component; by insisting that Western thought cannot be "privileged" at the expense of other offerings on, say, race, gender, class and sexuality.
My co-founders and I anticipated objection to our center from the start, so the Hamilton Center designed it to be different, and most importantly, self-supporting. We anticipated that hostile elements of the faculty, possessing a kind of zero-sum, mercantilist mentality when it comes to their own ample perquisites, would initially charge after us about the institutional source of our funding. So in reaching the August agreement, we asked for neither a dime, nor a paper clip from the administration. Indeed, we insisted that our programmatic initiative would rise and fall on our ability to raise fresh money. We did so- rather well in fact. One donor alone, Carl Menges, a retired investment banker, distinguished Hamilton alumnus, and aficionado of Alexander Hamilton, committed $3.6 million to the initiative. We had dozens of other investors lined up.
In September, the College published information about the center and Mr. Menges's gift. Opposition to the initiative from the faculty mushroomed within weeks. On 10 October, it passed, 77 to 17, a resolution against the proposed center. Tenured signatories to the resolution expressed concern about the center's "programming and research" and how both would "influence the reputation of Hamilton College" and "reflect upon the college as a whole." Leaders of this movement had brought or attempted to bring to campus Susan Rosenberg, former member of the Weather Underground and a convicted felon, to teach writing; and Ward Churchill, the academic charlatan, to speak about prison reform. Even more bizarrely, Brigette Boisselier was brought to the campus. She is in charge of cloning for the Raelian sex cult, which believes humans are descended from aliens. She claimed to have produced a baby through cloning, though no non-Raelian has reported seeing the child. Boisselier was installed at Hamilton as a visiting assistant professor of chemistry.
What about the role of the board of trustees? Here again the fate of the Alexander Hamilton Center proves instructive. On October 14th my co-founders and I, at the request of President Stewart, presented information to fifty members of Hamilton's board of trustees. We specified our plan to build an enduring edifice of learning that would stand out as a beacon for scholarly excellence. We intended, as we told the board, to construct at a small liberal arts college the kind of oasis of excellence available to students at Princeton (the James Madison Program) or at Brown (the Political Theory Project). We did not, it must be stressed, come to the board at this time thinking that we needed the trustees' stamp of approval to carry on. We would not touch the curriculum. Programmatic initiatives of the faculty, in the spirit of old-school academic freedom, typically require administrative approval only. Yet shortly after we exited the room, several members of the board demanded, in a manner unprecedented in Hamilton's 200-year history, a do-over of the original agreement. A deeply flawed process ensued in which trustees, working in the shadows, attempted to micromanage the initiative through administrators who now felt compelled to impose an outcome demanded by people more powerful than themselves. Although we offered to revise our governance structures to meet what we thought were the trustees' demands on several points, we refused to strip away in its entirety the insulation in the original agreement that protected the integrity of the edifice from capture or co-optation by faculty activists or from the machinations of weak or politicized deans. Thus, the original agreement crumbled. Mr. Menges resigned from Hamilton's board of trustees. One of my colleagues summed up the situation nicely: "Bob, you presented them [the trustees] with a golden goose on a silver platter-And they shat on you."
Bear in mind that the founders had designed the AHC after a series of notorious incidents had shaken the confidence of Hamilton alumni in the leadership and direction of their alma mater. An Alexander Hamilton Center, we thought, would promote healing in the Hamilton community. The Susan Rosenberg and Ward Churchill fiascoes represented the latest in series of jarring shenanigans orchestrated by the Kirkland Project (reincarnated post-Churchill as the Diversity and Social Justice Project), a well-funded campus left-wing activist group dedicated to the study of "Gender, Society and Culture." I had not endeared myself to the majority of Hamilton's faculty and to some trustees precisely because I had surfaced publicly to confront these outrages. In their minds, the problem of Ward Churchill was merely a publicity problem. Only after the Rosenberg and Churchill stories broke in the national media and alums began to hold onto their checks did the powers that be at Hamilton College act to restrict the considerable autonomy of the Kirkland Project. Its leaders, predictably, figured prominently in generating the October faculty resolution against the AHC.
Truth be told, previous warnings to the trustees about the excesses of the Kirkland Project had gone unheeded. Indeed, near the end of 2002, I wrote a long letter with more than a dozen documentary enclosures to Drew Days, Bill Clinton's Solicitor General and a member of Hamilton's Board of Trustees, who was then heading a presidential search committee. Bad tenure decisions, misallocation of resources, institutionalization of politicized programs, cronyism, and the abuse of democratic process, I argued, were "hustling Hamilton down the road of political correctness." One example still sticks in my craw. In 2002, the Kirkland Project hired two self-described lesbian activists to teach a course on "radical writing/historical context in the Americas." Aside from the fact that neither "professor" had a Ph.D. or, for that matter, any demonstrated accomplishment in the field of history, the flyer sent out to advertise the course insisted that for admission into it, each student must first profess to be a "committed . . . activist." "May I be so bold to ask," I wrote to Mr. Days, whether Hamilton's trustees regard such a requirement to be a "form of discrimination that is inconsistent with the stated goals of Hamilton College?" Neither Mr. Days nor any other member of the board responded to this question. Days, by the way, was one of the trustees at the October meeting who sought to have the governance structures of the AHC rewritten. He volunteered his services to draft an alternative document and did so without so much as a courtesy call to the founders. With what must smack with delicious irony to some folks on campus, Hamilton's board of trustees, circling the wagons, took the position that the rules now in place to govern the redefined Kirkland project must also govern the Alexander Hamilton Center.
With the center dead in the water as a campus entity, several individuals approached me about the possibility of moving it to another campus. The Witherspoon Institute, another oasis of educational excellence, independent, located near the Princeton campus, and dedicated to educating the public in "the political, moral, and philosophical principles of free and democratic societies," offered an attractive alternative model. With the help of dozens of supporters across the country, my co-founders and I put together a syndicate of investors to purchase an appropriate building located near the Hamilton College campus as our base of operations. During the summer, as we worked feverishly to prepare for our September unveiling, a member of our legal advisory team moved to trademark our name. Along the way, he uncovered this startling fact: On 11 April 2007, months after the College had reneged on its agreement to create an Alexander Hamilton Center and after announcing publicly that the center would not go forward, a representative of the College, acting in the name of the board of trustees, had filed a petition with the federal government to trademark the name "Alexander Hamilton Center," doing so in language that was plundered verbatim from our charter. This curious filing not only appeared to violate the College's own published guidelines with respect to intellectual property, but it also demanded of the person who filed the petition a sworn statement that "to the best of his/her knowledge and belief no other person, firm, corporation, or association has the right to use the mark in commerce." Protests were lodged; the administration withdrew its petition to trademark. Such ethical turpitude, however, forced the founders to veer slightly off course. President Stewart called the administration's behavior a "prudent gesture." On advice of counsel, the AHC became the AHI.
More than ever I am persuaded that the most promising course for meaningful academic change is to create a string of carefully constructed independent centers across the country. Form alliances with each other; draw resources away from "compassless colleges"; develop cooperative programming; and offer a variety of high-quality educational goods and services free of charge to the public as well as to allies on campus, however few they may initially be. That is our hope at the new Alexander Hamilton Institute.
Check us out at www.theahi.org. We welcome public interest.
Robert Paquette is Professor of American History at Hamilton College and the Executive Director of the Alexander Hamilton Center