Friday, December 01, 2006

Hamilton under the radar 

The story that the Alexander Hamilton Center project at Hamilton College is on hold of course saddens most lovers of freedom and capitalism. It is of course troubling that any place where the study of free institutions is labeled as right-wing should also bear the name of Hamilton himself. For those unfamiliar, a group of alumni interested in reforming Hamilton have provided a timeline here. It includes the abrogation of an agreement in place that facilitated a $3.6 million gift for the Center's creation. The alumni group observes: "Children call this kind of buffoonery a �do-over�. Institutions and adults call it bad faith. It is the stuff of incompetence and failed credibility."

We have engaged in the past political season in a debate whether journalists can ever hold their biases in abeyance in reporting the news. (cf. Eric Black.) In some sense, that debate needs to extend to academia. We are told to present both sides, but who among us wouldn't say, as erstwhile AHC founder Robert Paquette did, that �there are some explanations that are more powerful than others�? I continue to hold to the belief that both right- and left-wing centers should be created with recognition that the center's founding -- indeed, the founding of many colleges -- may start with a premise that some explanations are more powerful. Cf. any school founded by a religious organization.

The problems that arise in these debates aren't in asking the questions. It's in the failure of the debaters to recognize the rules of the debate, to agree to evidentiary standards and the rule of reason.

I might add a small disagreement with NAS president Steve Balch, who says that a lesson from this fiasco is that larger institutions will be easier places to hosts centers for the study of free institutions, something NAS has been pushing for a few years now. I don't think smaller institutions are necessarily barriers to entry for these centers; niches for creation of new centers can be stifled at larger schools or encouraged at smaller schools, depending both on the commitment to new ideas and the structure of faculty governance. The dean's behavior at Hamilton is simply craven, in reneging on a deal. The faculty senate's resolution could have been met with a statement that "we encourage all avenues of academic inquiry." The radar of the entrenched academic left is too sensitive on any campus to let the creation of a center go unnoticed. It requires administrators with a commitment to free inquiry to say no when faculty senates pass their silly resolutions to limit inquiry. (And those silly resolutions are why sometimes we in fact do work the ref.)