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Hamilton thrust into national debate

Hamilton found itself in the midst of a national and international firestorm following revelations that a speaker invited by the College's Kirkland Project had called victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks "Little Eichmanns" who deserved their fate.

University of Colorado Professor of Ethnic Studies Ward Churchill made the remarks immediately after the attacks, but they went unnoticed until Hamilton Professor of Government Ted Eismeier uncovered them about six weeks before Churchill was to speak on February 3 as part of a panel on prisons.

After being made aware of the comments, members of the Kirkland Project decided to move ahead with the program, but President Joan Hinde Stewart and Dean of the Faculty David Paris '71 worked with them to recast the panel so that attendees would have the opportunity to confront Churchill about his views. They also instructed organizers to add two Hamilton professors to the panel to provide balance.

"Once Churchill's remarks about 9/11 became public, we knew people would want to question him about those views," Stewart said.

But the president did not countermand the invitation. "I considered that once Mr. Churchill had accepted the invitation of the Kirkland Project, I should let it stand," she wrote in a February 7 letter to alumni. She has explained that intervening to cancel a scheduled event because a speaker was found to have made remarks that many considered to be repugnant would be an act of presidential censorship.

Churchill's planned visit unleashed a torrent of e-mails, telephone calls and letters ' more than 8,500 specifically addressed to the president asking her to rescind the Kirkland Project's invitation. Most of those who wrote had no discernible connection to the College; many of them were encouraged to contact the College by media outlets openly hostile to Churchill. Others, some of whom were family members of the 9/11 victims, made emotional appeals asking that the event be canceled. And many alumni and parents expressed concern for the negative publicity the situation had brought to them and the College.

Ironically, as Edmund A. LeFevre Professor of English John O'Neill observed in an op-ed that was posted to the College's Web site (www.hamilton.edu/news/wardchurchill/oneilloped.pdf), Hamilton was criticized for providing a forum to Ward Churchill, but many of the media outlets critical of the College's action sought to provide an even larger audience.

"[I]f it's a bad thing for Hami­l­ton to permit Ward Churchill to speak to an audience of a few dozen students," O'Neill wondered, "why is it a good thing for Bill O'Reilly to give Mr. Churchill a national audience on the Fox Network' If Mr. Churchill doesn't deserve a forum, why did Mr. O'Reilly offer him one'"

Several days before the scheduled event, Churchill's wife revealed that her husband had received 100 threats of violence. The next morning, Hamilton's switchboard received two similar threats, including a message from an anonymous caller saying he would bring a gun to the event. Ultimately, the College turned over five threats that law enforcement officials deemed "credible" and began investigating.

"As the threats increased and before I made the decision to cancel the panel," Stewart wrote on February 7, "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."

But that decision generated additional controversy, and a new round of e-mails ensued. Although many thanked the College for canceling the event, others questioned whether the threats were real or just a pretext for avoiding additional bad publicity. Still others criticized the College for not going through with the event despite the threats. President Stewart acknowledged the concerns: "The cancellation of this event was ' an educational loss. Our students did not have the opportunity to confront and challenge Mr. Churchill's views. As a society, we lose as well; if a college 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 Hamilton and other colleges and universities."

As the situation evolved, Hamilton maintained a Web site devoted to news and commentary and posted sample e-mails sent to the College (www.hamilton.edu/ news/wardchurchill). Message boards on the Hamilton Online Alumni Community (HOLAC) were also active, with more than 500 postings. The goal was to ­create as much transparency and openness as possible about the situation. During the first month after the site's creation on February 1, it received more than 77,000 visits.

The College, which had announced the start of the Excelsior Campaign exactly two months before Churchill was to speak on campus, had a number of campaign events scheduled across the country during the spring. Although the campaign itself remains on track, those gatherings were recast to allow President Stewart to address the Churchill issue directly and to respond to alumni and parent questions.

The first such event took place in New York City on February 17 and attracted more than 150 people. In his introductory remarks, Chairman of the Board of Trustees Stuart Scott '61 acknowledged the difficulty faced by the College and the embarrassment felt by many alumni. He said the trustees were monitoring the situation closely and reported that the board's executive committee had met the night before and given its unanimous support to President Stewart. (There was a similar show of support by the full board at its regular quarterly meeting on campus March 4.)

After Scott's introduction, President Stewart spoke for almost 25 minutes and then answered questions. A number of people, especially the parents in attendance, voiced support for the College's position, while others took exception. One questioner asked the president to acknowledge that those who disagreed with her had an important contribution to make to the debate on academic freedom and free speech. In response, she stressed that she respected the points of view of people who saw things differently from her and who would have acted differently; her intention was to explain why she took the actions she did.

The controversy has raised additional issues, including concerns among some Kirkland ­College alumnae and supporters that their alma mater's reputation has been tarnished by recent events. But interpretations of free speech and academic freedom have been central to people's support for or disagreement with the College's actions. Hamilton's position, posted to its Web site (www.hamilton.edu/news/
wardchurchill/amendment.html, includes the ­following:

Some have argued that Hamilton College is a private institution and the First Amendment only applies to actions by the state. Technically, that is true. In theory, a private college or university could constitutionally be operated as a closed institution and systematic viewpoint censorship could be imposed on faculty, students and visiting speakers. But a school choosing that course could not expect to remain near the top of anyone's list of leading liberal arts colleges. By tradition, all great private educational institutions in this country have considered themselves bound by the spirit of the First Amendment, and they have looked to First Amendment principles when addressing issues of academic and intellectual freedom on their campuses.

Throughout these events, many have taken exception to the Kirkland Project's invitation to Churchill, arguing that his scholarship did not justify a visit to Hamilton. Recent allegations about his academic writings and background have added fuel to that argument, but at the time the invitation was extended by the Kirkland Project, Churchill was a regular speaker throughout the country, appearing without incident on more than 30 campuses since 9/11, including, according to his résumé, Yale, Swarthmore, Williams, Brown, George Mason, Miami of Ohio, Colby, Syracuse, Macalester, Southern Illinois, Indiana, Hobart and William Smith, Tufts and the University of Oregon Law School.

For Hamilton, the issues ­surrounding the invitation to Churchill attracted national attention in large measure because it followed so closely upon an earlier controversy in the fall when news surfaced that the Kirkland Project sought to bring convicted felon Susan Rosenberg to campus to teach a five-week, half-credit course on memoir writing. Once again, the quality of the invitee's scholarship was questioned. Rosenberg had reportedly undergone a transformation in prison while serving 16 years of a 58-year sentence for weapons possession before her sentence was commuted by former President Clinton. But much of the controversy focused on a crime for which she was indicted but never tried ' the 1981 robbery of a Brink's armored car that left two police officers and a security guard dead. She subsequently withdrew from the appointment at Hamilton.

In light of the Churchill and Rosenberg controversies and the director's intention to step down at the end of the academic year, President Stewart formed a faculty committee to review the Kirkland Project. In her February letter to the community, Stewart said, "As you know ' 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 review is to be completed by the end of the academic year in May.

Kirkland Project Director Nancy Rabinowitz subsequently stepped down from her administrative duties with the project, as requested by the president and dean. She continues at the College as a professor in the comparative literature department and will take her previously scheduled sabbatical in 2005-06. The Kirkland Project also canceled its programming for the spring term.

It is hard to predict the long-term effects of the controversy. Monica Inzer, Hamilton's dean of admission and financial aid, said the College had not lost a single application because of the situation, but one student asked to be released from the early decision contract to consider other options. The student chose to remain an applicant, however. Less certain is the effect the Churchill controversy will have on the College's yield for the Class of 2009.

Dick Tantillo, vice president for development and alumni affairs, said recent events have led to a decline in contributions to the Annual Fund totaling about five percentage points in alumni participation. "We have sustained one of the top alumni participation rates in the country for many years," Tantillo said, "but we will probably not be able to recoup by July 1 all of the loss we've experienced this year. I'm hopeful that, over time, alumni and friends will see the events surrounding Ward Churchill as an aberration and recognize that we are a better College for having dealt with a difficult situation in a principled way."

He said enthusiasm for the campaign remains high and planning for new construction is moving forward. "People have told us they want to put Churchill in the past, and they want to show that by re-energizing the campaign. We have already begun rescheduling regional campaign events, originally planned for this spring, to the fall."

One immediate response on the part of the College was the scheduling of a panel on April 9 titled "Advocacy, Activism and Civic Responsibility on College Campuses," and featuring Hamilton Professors Maurice Isserman and Doug Ambrose, along with two other experts on the topic. A symposium on academic freedom is being planned for the 2005-06 academic year.

Most of the controversy surrounding the Kirkland Project's invitations to Ward Churchill and Susan Rosenberg took place away from the campus. In a letter to her colleagues at other colleges and universities, President Stewart said, "The hysteria surrounding this situation was external; our campus remained sane."

Members of the Student Assembly echoed that sentiment in a letter they sent to alumni and parents. "While the media may have depicted Hamilton College negatively, this controversy is anything but representative of life on the Hill. ' Most importantly, our classes are still engaging, challenging and thought-provoking. ' Our community may have been tested, but we will move forward stronger than ever."

Tony Pals, director of public information for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, agreed with the students' assessment. In a statement sent to a local newspaper, Pals said, "Hamilton has maintained a well-earned national reputation as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the United States. It has one of the highest alumni giving rates in the nation. Five years from now, both will very likely still be true."

He continued, "Rare is the college or university that has not gone through a public controversy that has riled one or more campus constituencies -- alumni, students, parents, faculty or others. Equally rare is the institution that hasn't been able to weather such a passing storm. In nearly every case, proactive, flexible and thoughtful institutional leadership, with the support of the board of trustees, succeeds in keeping the institution academically and intellectually vigorous, keeping its alumni and donors loyal, and keeping the respect of employers and the rest of American higher education. There is every reason to believe that Hamilton will get through this adversity just as strong as it was before, ­if not stronger."

Contact Information

Stacey Himmelberger

Editor, Hamilton Alumni Review
198 College Hill Road
Clinton, NY 13323
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