200 Days in the Life of the College

Wednesday, April 6

He discovered Hamilton’s secret — and it’s really no surprise

By Anna Zahm ’13

Dan Chambliss leans back in his chair, folds his hands across the chest of his cozy brown sweater and sums up: “We’re good at helping people meet other people.”

Chambliss, the Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology, has spent more than 10 years doing research for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Project for Assessment of Liberal Arts Education. The study, more manageably known as the Mellon Assessment Project, began in 2001 and has strived to find out — among other goals — what makes Hamilton College special. Assessment is becoming an increasingly important issue for schools throughout America, raising the question of how the value of a college should be measured. Under the direction of Chambliss, the project has conducted interviews with students and attempted to analyze writing samples and public speaking as objectively as possible to discover what works well at Hamilton.

The basic answer turned out to be simple: The most important facet of the Hamilton experience is the interpersonal relationships that students develop. Students who cannot find good friends, Chambliss says, just don’t get anywhere. And if they cannot connect with their teachers, they detach academically. Ten years of steady research on the project has proven that the most elementary part of college life — good relationships with other people — is undeniably the most important. “The challenge for Hamilton in the future,” Chambliss says, “is preserving the kind of community opportunities that make these relationships possible, and doing it in the face of a culture that discourages that.”

As Hamilton reaches its Bicentennial and we look to its future, these words ring especially true. For two centuries, the College has been doing something right: It has continually fostered a thriving, active community for its students. The bottom line at Hamilton is that people matter most.