Another Free Speech Case at Hamilton College

By on May 16, 2008

Last week, the Continental, a student magazine at Hamilton College, ran an excellent story on Robert Paquette, professor of American history at the school. Paquette led a failed effort to found the Alexander Hamilton Center at Hamilton. The envisioned program now exists as the Alexander Hamilton Institute in Clinton, NY, near the college. During the controversy and after Hamilton’s loss of the multi-million-dollar grant, Paquette spoke many times publicly with his view of what was happening, and faculty at Hamilton are saying that Paquette’s inexplicable zero percent raise is all about retaliation for the loss of the center, and an attempt to punish Paquette for exercising free speech in telling the story. Paquette relates his experience in the May issue of The New Criterion (subscription required).

Salary decisions are outside the purview of FIRE for reasons that should be obvious. But when a professor gets a zero percent raise, his own colleagues object that no appropriate reason has been given, and the letter denying him his raise makes reference to his well-known public debate with the school, it does raise eyebrows. According to the Continental,

In a letter dated May 25, 2007, Dean of Faculty Joe Urgo wrote to Paquette, "Bob, despite your publications in 2006 and your efforts at teaching effectively, I cannot see clear to increasing your salary in 2007-2008. While we were disappointed in the outcome of discussions surrounding the Alexander Hamilton Center, it is incumbent upon us all to handle such disappointments in a professional manner."

Zero percent raises are rare at Hamilton, and reportedly they are usually given as a warning to faculty members who are receiving poor evaluations and failing to publish their work. Obviously, FIRE cannot be the judge of that, but it is instructive to note the reaction of the Hamilton faculty, who are in a better position to judge:

"It just seemed puzzling to the senior faculty that were there that Paquette would get a zero raise, especially in the wake of his conflict with the administration because it looks punitive," said Professor David Paris, who previously served as Dean of Faculty. By November, a group of 17 tenured professors had gathered to informally discuss the allocation of a zero percent raise.

Supporters of Paquette include a diverse sampling of the faculty, who are mostly drawn together for the sake of principle rather than personal reasons. "The amazing and amusing thing to me is that this incident has brought together the most conservative and most liberal faculty members," said Williams.

"Bob [Paquette] and I rarely agree on anything politically, but I certainly would never approve of anyone being penalized for being outspoken," said Professor Esther Kanipe. "I believe in freedom of speech."

The 17 senior faculty members met with Urgo on December 17 for almost two hours, but everyone walked from the meeting unsatisfied. "We gave the Dean every opportunity to answer our concerns, and he chose not to," said Elgren.

The Hamilton faculty has been standing up for itself. In March, the faculty "passed a motion by a vote of 69-20 to have the Academic Council report to the faculty next year on the process for sanctions related to salary decisions, as stated in the Faculty Handbook. ‘If anything comes out of this, hopefully it’s that the administration has learned that this is a very dangerous thing to do because it does have consequences which are not good,’ said [Professor Jay] Williams."

If it is true that Hamilton has tried to punish Paquette for speaking out about the Alexander Hamilton Center, the Continental reports,

receiving no raise … has done little to silence Paquette. "To think that a zero will in any way silence me is laughable," said Paquette. "The zero was meant to provide a chilling effect, but I can make up the difference with two speeches about the Alexander Hamilton Center. And if they do it again, I will give 10 speeches. And if they do it again, I will give 20 speeches."

The Continental also notes:

Paquette’s outspoken nature has at times run against the ideas of collegiality among his colleagues and the administration. Although these personal differences are rarely discussed publicly, it is easy to see why collegiality would come into play in this instance.

Indeed, Paquette has been outspoken against some of the administration’s decisions, sometimes advocating against highly controversial speakers. He called the administration "both intellectually and morally vapid" for a speech on campus by "self-described prostitute-porn star turned sexologist" Annie Sprinkle. In 2004, former convicted member of the Weather Underground Susan Rosenberg was invited to teach a writing class, and Ward Churchill was invited to give a lecture which ultimately led to the realization that Churchill had called the victims of the 9/11 attacks "little Eichmanns." Both events were canceled due to public outrage, in more blows against free speech by the Hamilton administration.

A distinction from a rights perspective is important here: individuals have a right to advocate for or against whatever they like, but their institutions sometimes have moral and legal responsibilities not to comply. While Paquette has argued that such events hurt the prestige of the schoolpeople can judge that claim for themselvesit was Hamilton College that apparently chose something else over free expression. And Hamilton seems to have done so once again. Hamilton College should start singing a consistent tune: is speech free at Hamilton or not?