Hamilton College to Prof. Paquette: Shut Up

Peter Wood

A faculty member has landed in hot water for an article he published on the NAS website. In April, Hamilton College history professor Robert Paquette published “Dictatorships and Double Standards” on the National Association of Scholars website.  A few weeks after the article appeared, Hamilton’s Dean of the Faculty Joseph Urgo wrote Paquette a letter reprimanding him, demanding that the article be removed from the NAS website, and denying Paquette the right to serve on faculty search committees. 

This is the first instance we know of in which an academic official has sought to censor the NAS website—so naturally we are taking a keen interest in the proceedings. We have of course not removed Paquette’s article. (As a small act of defiance, we intend to link it frequently.) Paquette has also promised us a “Dictatorships and Double Standards, Part 2.” 

We aren’t the only ones taking notice of Hamilton College’s heavy-handed response.  Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein wrote about the letter in a Chronicle of Higher Education blog post (afternoon update: "An Episode at Hamilton, Part 2") and has promised more to come. Bauerlein cites Urgo’s ultimatum to Paquette whom he prohibited from serving on faculty search committees “until and unless your colleagues can convince the Dean’s office that you will adhere to College policies regarding faculty recruitment.”

Scott Jaschik took up the story in an article on Inside Higher Ed, “When Faculty Aren’t Supposed to Talk.” Jaschik asks, “But what is a breach [of confidence] and can a breach be punished?” He quotes Paquette saying that “information in my NAS piece was either obvious or a matter of public record long before I wrote the piece.”

Malleus Maleficarum

What’s all this about? Paquette’s article pretty much speaks for itself, but the short form is this: Paquette discusses the tyranny of intellectual majorities on campus who use “slash and burn” techniques to eliminate the representation of disfavored views. His case in point is the treatment of Christopher Hill, a junior faculty member in the history department at Hamilton who was sidelined at the very first stage of the search when a tenure track position opened up. Hill is a self-described libertarian and Paquette cited evidence that diversity preferences and suspicions about Hill’s political views played a role in that adverse decision.

Hill, Paquette writes, had taught medieval history at Hamilton College for three years as a visiting professor (one of his courses was called “Witches and Witch-Hunting in the West”) before his term appointment was redefined as a tenure-track position. (A tenured position in French history was replaced with a new tenure-track position in medieval history.) According to Paquette, “A majority faction, similar in composition and outlook, to the one responsible for the [College’s] abolition of the Western civilization requirement, determined, despite the dissenting voices of four senior members of the department, that Professor Hill was largely unworthy of serious consideration for the tenure-track position.”

At least one College official was very unhappy with this account. Dean Urgo, however, jumped to an erroneous conclusion. In Bauerlein’s words, Urgo “seems to operate under the assumption that Paquette served on the search committee and attended the meeting during which Hill’s candidacy was reviewed. He did neither.”

Sawbucks Sockeroo

Intra-mural controversies like this generally stay intra-mural. They break out into larger notice when some larger principle is at stake. We have been hearing a lot, for example, about the case of Professor Kenneth Howell, at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who was summarily removed from his adjunct teaching position because his account of Catholic teaching on homosexuality offended some students. Is the Hill case or the Hill/Paquette case likewise destined to bring to the surface some of the hidden thuggishness of our not-so-liberal system of liberal arts education? 

It may be too soon to tell. Paquette is an NAS member who has a positive talent for getting under the skin of the PC crowd. It was he along with his colleague Ted Eismeier who brought to light the colorful pronouncements and fanciful biography of Ward Churchill when the erstwhile professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado was invited to speak at Hamilton. Paquette also got into trouble by trying to create the Alexander Hamilton Institute at the college named after the guy on the ten dollar bill. He eventually had to create his Center off-campus.

So let’s say that Robert Paquette is no stranger to controversy, and no deer caught in the headlights of the PC ten-wheeler. He knows his stuff. Part of what he knows is that his administration got way out ahead of the facts in this case. 

Dean Urgo, in any case, won’t be around to answer for his misjudgments. He has departed his deanship to become president of St. Mary’s College in Maryland. 


We do know that Paquette is not alone in his distress over how the College handled Hill’s application for the tenure tack position. Over 200 students joined a Facebook group, “In Support of Professor Christopher Hill.” Several students wrote letters to the campus newspaper on Hill’s behalf; one wrote, “Professor Hill does more than cultivate student interest in history: he challenges his students to be great writers, in following with the mission of the school.” Another wrote:

Frankly, all I have to say to those responsible for his dismissal is this: You should be ashamed of yourselves. You, who gave pre-modern European history the tenure position based on Professor Hill's high enrollment and then denied him an interview; you, who call yourselves "a national leader for teaching students to write effectively, think for themselves and learn from each other;" you, who claim to value student opinions in any way whatsoever; you, who despite all of this, allowed Professor Christopher Hill to slip through your fingers. You should all be ashamed of yourselves, and, for the first time, I am truly ashamed of you and Hamilton College.

Professor Hill wrote his own short letter to the editor in answer to these rallying cries. He thanked the students for their support and asked them now to welcome the faculty member taking his place in the tenure-track job, John Eldevik.

All this occurred before the publication of “Dictatorships and Double Standards.” Additional student recognition came afterward. In May 2010, Hamilton's Student Assembly awarded Professor Hill the Sidney Wertimer Award, an honor given to a faculty member “who is recognized as a mentor and active participant within the Hamilton community.” But it is a pretty big stretch to blame the article on our webpage for the controversy itself. We just gave it some visibility beyond Clinton, New York. 

The Big Picture

Figuring out what really happens in higher education is like looking at a painting. You have to find the right distance. Stand too close and you see only brushstrokes; too far, and only a blur of color. Any individual case of a junior faculty member being passed over is open to interpretation. Hill is the author of an award-winning novel Virtual Morality, which satirizes political correctness on campus, but he has yet to produce a substantial body of scholarly work. That wouldn’t normally disqualify him for a tenure-track position, but it gives plausible cover for those who say he just wasn’t good enough. But the picture comes into better focus if we take a few steps back. Has Hamilton College in recent years appointed anyone of Hill’s outlook to a tenure track position? Indeed, do people like Hill have realistic job opportunities in higher education at all? 

Steve Balch has recently given us a penetrating analysis of how ideological discrimination in higher education masks itself. It sets high burdens of proof for those who point to the obvious fact that conservatives, libertarians, and other people outside the leftist campus orthodoxy are “drastically underrepresented.” 

To mention this simple fact almost automatically stirs a series of reactions:

1.       Prove it!

2.       Oh, so you want quotas for conservatives!

3.       We can’t help it if conservatives are too dumb to compete successfully.

4.       Conservatives aren’t drawn to the life of selfless service in academe like liberals are; they seek careers in fields such as business. So it is no wonder there are so few of them to be found in the humanities.

These aren’t serious arguments. They are put-downs that are meant to foreclose further discussion. In reality the burden of proof lies on those who defend the status quo; no one is calling for quotas for conservatives; sneering at the intelligence of your opponents is mere shabbiness; and numerous conservatives love scholarship and the life of the mind—they just face enormous barriers to pursuing an academic career.

The value of Hill’s case and Paquette’s expose, and the significance of Hamilton College’s peremptory response is that they pose the problem on a scale we can all see clearly. Hill doesn’t style himself as a conservative, but he clearly belongs to one of the out-groups that the tenured savages who now run most of our colleges and universities feel free to abuse. 

Christopher Hill, whom I have met, is a cultured, intellectually sophisticated, and rather modest man. Those are not qualities that should guarantee him a tenure-track appointment, but they are clues to his fate. At a place like Hamilton College, they are qualities increasingly out of place. We live in an age where jack-in-the-box claims of social justice and ideological stridency mark the real comers. PC orthodoxy isn’t a cut-and-dried mechanical thing. It is, as Paquette shows us, mostly a disposition to be quit of those who unsettle the consensus.  

The Wench Isn’t Dead

The National Association of Scholars is proud to help with the unsettling. What can readers of this website do? If you happen to know any Hamilton College students, parents of students, alumni, or trustees, forward them Paquette’s article, Bauerlein’s blog post, and this article. If you happen to know any students, parents of students, alumni, faculty members, or trustees at St. Mary’s College, you might let them know too. 

Dean Urgo did an ugly thing in his last days at Hamilton College, and scooted out the door for his new appointment as college president without taking any responsibility for it. It was his parting gift to some of his leftist allies, and it is not the first time an ambitious dean didn’t mind leaving behind a little wreckage as a token of his triumph. Christopher Marlowe once captured this species of heedlessness:

But that was in another country: and besides the wench is dead.

St. Mary’s College may be happy with its new president, but it wouldn’t be a bad thing if the folks there knew his back story. Urgo may think Hamilton College is in another country, but it’s not. And the wench isn’t dead.   

Image: Screenshot from Vimeo

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