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Letter to the Hamilton Community

President Discusses Kirkland Project/Ward Churchill Event

By Office of the President  |  Contact Office of the President
Posted February 9, 2005

Dear Members of the Hamilton Community,

The College, as you know by now, has recently received negative publicity from an invitation issued by the Kirkland Project. Many of you have written saying you feel this situation has damaged the College's reputation and even caused you personal embarrassment. I am deeply sympathetic to your feelings and concerns and am writing to explain what happened and report on the steps we are taking as we look to the future.

Let me begin with a chronology of how the situation developed:

  • Ward Churchill, a known scholar of Native American issues who is a tenured professor at the University of Colorado, accepted an invitation from the Kirkland Project last summer to speak at Hamilton on February 3, 2005, as part of a panel on prisons in the Project's "Class in Context" series. Mr. Churchill has spoken regularly at colleges and universities across the United States without incident.
  • In mid-December, a Hamilton faculty member discovered Mr. Churchill's now famous remarks in which he suggested that many of those who were killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks deserved their fate. The remarks, the gist of which Mr. Churchill recently reaffirmed (and which are posted on the College's Web site), were shared with the Kirkland Project, which desired to go ahead with Mr. Churchill's visit.
  • Once aware of those remarks, Dean of the Faculty David Paris and I worked with the Kirkland Project in December and January to alter the event by designing a panel discussion to include two Hamilton faculty members, so as to ensure balance and to make certain that Mr. Churchill's views on 9/11 would be confronted.
  • On January 17, classes resumed. The Spectator carried a story on January 21 about Mr. Churchill titled "Controversial speaker to visit Hill." Stories in other media quickly followed, including several hostile segments on "The O'Reilly Factor," which led to more than 8,000 e-mails and hundreds of phone calls to me and others at the College. Many relevant news stories are posted on the College's Web site, as are a sample of about 500 of the e-mails we received from alumni, parents and the general public.
  • On January 31, we learned from Mr. Churchill's wife that he had received 100 threats of violence in the preceding few days.
  • Early the next morning, our switchboard received two similar calls, including one from a person threatening to bring a gun to the event. Later that morning I reluctantly canceled the panel out of concern for the safety of our students and guests. My memo to the community is posted on the College's Web site.
  • Mr. Churchill has received additional threats. The College has to date turned over five threats that local and state police have deemed credible. Law enforcement authorities are investigating.

As the threats increased and before I made the decision to cancel the panel, Mr. Churchill was prepared to go through with the event. He said he would wear a flak jacket, travel with two bodyguards and sit apart from the other speakers. Nevertheless, I saw my primary responsibility as keeping our students and other community members out of harm's way. We did our best to protect the right to speak freely on our campus, but the safety of our students and guests had to weigh more heavily than the planned panel.

Even as the threats of violence are abhorrent, the outcry concerning Mr. Churchill's deplorable statements concerning the victims of 9/11 is understandable. Many people wrote to me about their personal connections to the victims of 9/11. They expressed outrage at Mr. Churchill's statements and bewilderment that the College would allow him to speak here. I fully understand those sentiments, as I feel deep sympathy for the families of 9/11 victims and those offended by his remarks.

So why was I still prepared to allow the invitation to Ward Churchill to stand? Academic freedom means that faculty members are free to express differing views in their classrooms and in their scholarly research, and by extension so are speakers brought to campus. Inviting visiting lecturers has long been primarily a faculty prerogative. Such autonomy remains fundamental to our educational mission. Therefore, I considered that once Mr. Churchill had accepted the invitation of the Kirkland Project, I should let it stand. To rescind it once it had been accepted, solely on the grounds that views expressed in an earlier article of Mr. Churchill's were repugnant, would undercut academic freedom.

Moreover, in college, young people learn to be independent, critical thinkers. There have been many controversial speakers on campus in the past, and students have benefited from the discussions they provoked. The cancellation of the event was, therefore, an educational loss. Our students and faculty will not have the opportunity to confront and challenge Mr. Churchill's views. As a society, we lose as well; if one of the best colleges in the country can be bullied into restraining academic freedom, we are all less free. Intellectual freedom has suffered a blow, and I worry that this tactic will be used again against us and other colleges and universities.

From the beginning of this republic it has always been understood, and repeatedly reaffirmed by our greatest statesmen, that unpleasant speech must be protected. Free speech inevitably upsets and outrages people, but we cannot avoid such controversy by limiting freedom of expression.

Hamilton will continue to invite speakers with widely divergent views. At the same time, we must have speakers who are thought-provoking and not merely provocative, who challenge us intellectually as opposed to being merely outrageous. The point of academic freedom is, after all, to pursue truth and explore serious and difficult questions with our students, holding ourselves and our students to the highest intellectual standards. Academic excellence and intellectual diversity must go hand in hand.

Still, we must and will be prudent, especially in the near future. As you know from my December letter to you regarding the Susan Rosenberg controversy, this is the second recent Kirkland Project invitation that has led to negative publicity for the College. For this reason, and because a change in leadership of the Project was already scheduled to take place this summer, I have initiated a review of the organization's mission, governance, budget and programming, and have informed the Project's leaders that allocations from their budget for the remainder of the year require the signature of the dean.

The events of the past few months have confirmed for me the love and passion you have for this College. You have told me loudly and clearly your feelings about this situation. Certainly, there were differing opinions in the Hamilton community: alumni, trustees, faculty, staff, administrators and students have argued passionately about free speech, violence and nonviolence, and our responsibilities to people both on and off campus. That is what academic life is about -- disagreement and debate about significant issues.

We need the loyalty and affection you have for Hamilton to sustain us, especially now, as we work together to repair the damage of this negative publicity. Many of you reminded me that Hamilton has faced controversy before and that the College emerged stronger for having made difficult decisions. Above all, this is a wonderful College comprised of extraordinarily gifted, talented and caring people, such as the student who e-mailed me the following note last week:

I know you are being bombarded with e-mails right now, but I just couldn't keep listening to all the debates on campus without writing to you to let you know how extremely proud I am to be a student on your campus. I came to Hamilton from a small town..., with the intention of expanding my mind and being exposed to new ideas. We have a fantastic selection of professors and administrators here who are passionate about seeing their students learn and grow. I have been completely satisfied with my classes here at Hamilton and feel confident in my ability to hear and analyze different opinions. If anything, I've learned how to think critically and form my own opinions. I don't think anyone knew this Churchill invitation would become this extreme, but I admire your stance and feel that you have earned significant respect from the student body. This will ultimately make Hamilton stronger.

I agree with her about the wonderful teachers -- and, I would add, students -- at Hamilton; they have participated in all the discussions in constructive ways. Please be sure that Hamilton is fundamentally unshaken and that its values are the same as they always were.

We will be learning from and talking about these events for some time, and your passionate and thoughtful messages will continue to help inform my thinking. I will be actively engaged on and off College Hill in the continuing conversations needed to move Hamilton forward. I hope to continue hearing from you.

Sincerely yours,

Joan Hinde Stewart


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