Hamilton Builds a Fence

February 14, 2005

After canceling Ward Churchill’s speaking appearance, Hamilton College has cracked down on the Kirkland Project for the Study of Gender, Society, and Culture, the campus division that not only invited Ward Churchill but also hired a convicted terrorist to teach a writing course entitled “Resistance Memoirs: Writing, Identity, and Change.” According to new guidelines issued by Joan Hinde Stewart, the college’s president, any allocations from the Center’s budget for the remainder of the year “require the signature of the dean.” In justifying this restriction, Stewart stated: “We must have speakers who are thought-provoking and not merely provocative, who challenge us intellectually as opposed to being merely outrageous.”

Here is the question: Is the dean’s review process harmful to academic freedom at Hamilton? It depends. Certainly a liberal arts institution—even an institution dedicated to intellectual diversity and open inquiry—can impose basic standards of scholarship before it doles out thousands of dollars to outside speakers. It does not harm the marketplace of ideas for a university to say that its limited resources should not be invested in allegedly fake Native Americans who are said to have commited academic fraud. Yet—given the public outrage over Churchill’s invitation before the fraud allegations became widely known—one can’t help but think that the new guidelines were the president’s way of keeping Hamilton out of the newspapers.

A university can certainly impose and maintain high academic standards. It should not, however, water down campus discourse by running from controversy. It will be interesting to see how these new guidelines are applied in practice. Hamilton students and professors, please keep us informed.

Schools:  Hamilton College