Hamilton College alumni received a ballot in the mail last week for the first contested election in 30 years for slots on the upstate New York institution’s Board of Trustees.
The rules of the election have drawn criticism from a group of alumni and two national organizations involved in academic-freedom issues. The groups argue that the college is trying to stifle the campaigns of four alumni who successfully petitioned to appear on the ballot alongside three candidates who were nominated by the college’s Alumni Council.
The campaigns of three of the petition candidates grew out of their involvement with Hamilton College Alumni for Governance Reform, a small group that has criticized administrators for their handling of several controversies in the past few years.
The group says a failure of internal controls led Hamilton to invite Ward Churchill, an outspoken professor from the University of Colorado at Boulder, to speak on the campus this year. The group has also criticized Hamilton for hiring Susan Rosenberg to teach a one-month course on memoir writing last fall. She is a former leftist radical who was linked to a 1981 armored-car robbery in which two police officers and a security guard were killed.
Both the speaking invitation to Mr. Churchill, which was rescinded over security concerns, and the job offer to Ms. Rosenberg, who eventually turned it down, landed Hamilton in the national news media and stoked a furor among conservative commentators.
"We really view this as a serial failure of administration and governance," said J. Hunter Brown, a Hamilton alumnus who co-founded the group.
Vige Barrie, a Hamilton spokeswoman, acknowledged that the college faced some difficult controversies in the past year. But she cited upward trends in Hamilton’s fund raising, alumni donations, and the academic strength of its incoming freshman class as evidence that the college had successfully navigated the challenges.
"We feel that the school is well managed," she said.
Trustee candidates, who seek to join Hamilton’s board, were allotted 100 words for a written statement that accompanies the ballot. They may also send mail to Hamilton’s 17,000 alumni at their expense, but they may not send mass e-mail messages or mention Web sites in the written statements.
Those rules are unfair to the petition candidates, said Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. She said the college is treating the candidates as "outside agitators,"
Ms. Neal said the officially nominated candidates had received a boost from a recent letter to alumni, signed by the chairman of Hamilton’s board, that encouraged alumni to vote for the three candidates named by the Alumni Council. Ms. Barrie acknowledged that such a letter had been mailed.
"They’re not able to express their views fully," Ms. Neal said of the petition candidates. Her argument, echoing those raised in a recent statement from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, compared Hamilton’s restrictions to those in a hotly contested trustee election in May at Dartmouth College, in which two petition candidates were elected to the board.
Ms. Barrie denied that the rules had been created to influence the election. For example, she said, e-mail messages are banned to prevent spamming and because Hamilton has e-mail addresses for only 60 percent of its alumni. Surface mail is a more thorough way to contact alumni, she said, because the college has a higher percentage of their street addresses.
"We hired an outside election firm, and we consulted legal counsel to make sure everything would be as fair as possible," Ms. Barrie said of the election rules.
Brendan J. McCormick, a 1993 Hamilton graduate who lives in Richmond, Va., and works in public relations, is one of the three petition candidates affiliated with the alumni group. He said he had decided to enter the trustee election because Hamilton’s board and president "didn’t seem to be learning from their mistakes" in bringing on a string of controversies.
As a trustee, Mr. McCormick said, he would seek to increase transparency and accountability at the college. He said the rules against publicizing Web sites were aimed at the petition candidates.
"We’re facing an uphill battle," Mr. McCormick said.