We began planning for Hamilton’s future by reviewing its past. The College’s history is fundamental to its identity, mission, and purpose. What follows is an account of the forces that have defined Hamilton over the past 200 years and continue to shape its destiny.

Hamilton was founded as the Hamilton-Oneida Academy — its very name demonstrating a commitment to inclusion — in the aftermath of the American Revolution, at a time when many of the nation’s most enduring institutions were established. President George Washington granted “approbation” to the Plan of Education presented by the Reverend Samuel Kirkland in 1793, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton consented to be a trustee and lent his name, and Inspector General of the Continental Army Baron von Steuben and Oneida Chief Skenandoa were present when the cornerstone for the new Academy was laid. Townspeople welcomed the school, too, and assisted in the construction of its first building. Support for what was to become the third oldest college in New York State extended from community leaders to the highest levels of the nascent republic.

Throughout its nearly 200-year history Hamilton has produced graduates who are leaders in their fields and active in their communities. Early on, attesting to the College’s emphasis on rhetoric and debate, Hamilton alumni were educators, ministers, and public servants, including governors, congressmen, state supreme court justices, and university presidents. The 20th century saw a number of prominent statesmen and public servants, and more educators – fitting for a college founded in a village that earned the sobriquet “schooltown” for the many academic institutions in its environs. Even today, more alumni pursue careers in education than in any other field. 

At the same time, some of Hamilton’s salient characteristics are relatively new: coeducation, the open curriculum, and emphases on interdisciplinarity, the arts, and hands-on learning. Each of these changes may be traced in some measure to the mission and curriculum of Kirkland College, which redefined College Hill. In fact, one might argue that the Hamilton of today is a place of two interlocking histories, proud, enduring, and complementary. These two histories are definitional, not merely incidental, to Hamilton. The College is at once the site of continuity and tradition, and discontinuity and innovation. It blends old and new, while adhering to the liberal arts as the best preparation for a life of purpose and engagement. Central to institutional identity is the simultaneous cultivation of tradition and innovation, and we welcome the creative energies produced by their interplay.

Hamilton provides a 24-hour learning community, recognizing that education and personal growth transcend the boundaries of classrooms, laboratories, and studios. Education on College Hill happens whenever and wherever people encounter one another: in the dining hall, on the playing field, at the concert, in the residence hall. All members of a residential liberal arts community learn from one another, and all students are enriched as they gain knowledge of backgrounds different from their own and interact within a cohort characterized by a variety of experiences and origins. This being the case, it is incumbent on the College to ensure that a range of views, experiences, and backgrounds characterize the learning environment.

Hamilton's tradition of self-criticism is fostered by a commitment to academic freedom and an understanding of academic responsibility. In addition, all faculty members have in recent years increasingly attended to assessment and developed measures of accountability.

Professors at Hamilton are involved in the life of the College — intellectually, of course, but also socially, recreationally, and culturally. Faculty come to Hamilton knowing that the formal part of a student’s education is governed by a rigorous liberal arts curriculum with an emphasis on writing and speaking, but that teaching, advising, and mentoring extend beyond the classroom, beyond the subject matter, and beyond the traditional instructional day.

The student body has changed as society has changed. The most dramatic transformation was the admittance of women when Hamilton and Kirkland combined in 1978, while the move to a more racially and ethnically inclusive community has been more incremental, with most of the progress coming in the past half decade. New programs and organizations have evolved, with more likely to come. Hamilton is also expanding its reach nationally, enrolling more students from beyond New York and New England, although the talented student from rural Upstate New York remains a target of our recruitment efforts. Hamilton's reputation as a school of opportunity can be traced to Samuel Kirkland’s Plan of Education, and socioeconomic diversity remains a core value.

One measure of the intellectual prowess of past student bodies is their success after graduation. Hamilton alumni include winners of the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom; educators, non-profit leaders, community volunteers, and philanthropists; college and university presidents; past and current members of Congress, the Administration, and the National Academy of Sciences; Fortune 500 CEOs, entrepreneurs, and Wall Street executives; and authors, journalists, Emmy Award-winning entertainers, and Tony Award-winning playwrights. They make contributions in every professional field, and because of the role Hamilton has played in their success, alumni remain loyal and supportive. Part of that support manifests itself financially, most evidently in an endowment created and managed by alumni. Despite the relatively small number of Hamilton graduates, the College's endowment is often listed among the top 100 of all 3,200 non-profit colleges and universities in the United States; Hamilton's endowment-per-student places the College even higher.

Income generated by the endowment has enabled the College to provide generous financial aid, build facilities that reflect emerging pedagogies, attract prominent lecturers and speakers, provide state-of-the-art technology and, more recently, offer opportunities for students to attend national conferences, accept unpaid internships, and engage in summer research.

Hamilton has long been identified with its emphasis on persuasive speaking and writing, skills that at one time were the purview of specific departments, but which now are embedded in courses throughout the curriculum. The Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center, founded in 1987, and the Oral Communication Center, established in 2002, support Hamilton's position in these areas. Similarly, the creation of a student-governed honor code in 1912 and the College’s founding of study abroad programs in France (1957), Madrid (1974), and Beijing (1996) show the prescient leadership that has helped to distinguish Hamilton. In 1971, Hamilton’s charter membership in the New England Small College Athletic Conference provided further institutional definition.

The plan described in the following pages builds on the accomplishments of the 2002 Strategic Plan, which called on the College to invest in its signature programs in writing, speaking, and public policy, and led to the creation of new centers for all three as part of the expansion and renovation of the Kirner-Johnson Building. Responding to the second core objective of the 2002 Strategic Plan, the College created more opportunities for students to conduct primary research, pursue internships, and work collaboratively with faculty mentors, and sought, with some success, to enhance the advising system. With all the progress made thus far, those 2002 priorities remain priorities in 2009.

The 2002 plan also called on the College to address issues of diversity, construct new arts and social science facilities, expand the use of technology in classrooms, maintain its commitment to assessment, and plan for the renovation and expansion of the Burke Library. Here, too, the College has made progress, but more needs to be done. The 2009 plan, then, takes as its starting point initiatives from the 2002 plan, especially those related to writing, speaking, diversity, and advising.

Next: II. Hamilton Today

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