In defense of the Hamilton Forum

By AKHILA ROY, JOEY LYONS, QUINN BOYLE, MAX TAXMAN, MADDY STUTT, and RATI SAINI

As students who have been actively involved in and have benefited from Alexander Hamilton Forum lectures, debates and dialogues, we write to set the record straight and defend deliberating on the Green New Deal.

First, we believe the Hamilton Forum is the most politically and philosophically diverse program on campus, both in terms of the speakers it hosts and the students involved. Since its inception in 2018, the Hamilton Forum has hosted the world’s leading Marxist economist, Richard Wolff; the editor of the foremost magazine of the American Left, Michael Kazin; a lion of the civil libertarian left and the first female president of the ACLU, Nadine Strossen; and Harvard professor and clerk for Justice Thurgood Marshall, Randall Kennedy. The Hamilton Forum has also hosted several speakers on the political right, like New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, as well as speakers from the political center, such as former Clinton domestic policy advisor William A. Galston. 

Political diversity is not a bug, but rather the most impressive and beneficial feature of the Hamilton Forum.”

On Thursday, Feb. 20, the Hamilton Forum will host Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Oren Cass and economist Robert Pollin, the latter of whom has actually designed Green New Deals for states like New York and Washington. This political diversity is not a bug, but rather the most impressive and beneficial feature of the Hamilton Forum.

In a recent op-ed entitled “We don’t need a Koch sponsored Green New Deal,” two students wrote that debates like the one happening this Thursday challenge “progressive ideals.” “The speakers don’t have to disprove every argument as long as they can plant doubts in our heads,” the authors wrote. “By hosting the debate, the organizers of the forum choose which questions to ask, therefore reinforcing and normalizing discourses that question climate activism.”

To us, this sounds like education. We think that challenging ideals, raising doubts and normalizing questioning is what good educators do. Shouldn’t we “normalize” the questioning of all political viewpoints, including both climate activism and opposition to climate activism? In fact, this would make a good, aspirational motto for our campus. “Middlebury College: Normalizing questioning since 1800.” Put it on the stationery, sweatshirts and key chains.

It is also puzzling that someone would suggest that the Hamilton Forum cherry-picks “questions to ask.” Does anyone really believe that it is the Hamilton Forum that determined the Green New Deal should be a topic of public and academic debate in America in 2020? It is important to discuss the hotly debated issues of our day, and we certainly believe that the Green New Deal is one of them. Also, as anyone who has attended Hamilton Forum events knows, the hosts leave a long amount of time for unfiltered student questions, and those questions come from students of every persuasion. Afterwards, speakers stay behind to continue discussion over dinner, which are some of the best out-of-the-classroom intellectual experiences we have had here at Middlebury. 

Some maintain that the Hamilton Forum takes direction from outside sources. This is demonstrably false. As the list above indicates, no foundation or organization could possibly see the Hamilton Forum as its mouthpiece because the diversity of speech is so vast. You would need to be a Marxist, populist, libertarian, nationalist, neo-liberal, socialist, anti-traditionalist, Catholic, anti-populist, traditionalist and centrist to see the Hamilton Forum as your mouthpiece. We have never met any such individual.

The Hamilton Forum receives grants from external foundations just like many other programs on campus, and it operates with complete academic independence, as is evident in what we have said above. Additionally, anyone who wonders whether the Hamilton Forum’s director — Political Science Professor Keegan Callanan — is susceptible to political pressure should review his record of standing on principle and speaking his mind, even as a non-tenured professor back in 2017.

Challenging ideals, raising doubts and normalizing questioning is what good educators do.”

Those who speak of “Koch funding” for the Hamilton Forum leave out a key factual detail. The Hamilton Forum’s grant from the Institute for Humane Studies is funded by the Clifford S. Asness Family Foundation’s Free Speech and Open Inquiry Program, with no grant funds from the Koch family. Why do the editorialists never mention this fact? Could it be that they realize it may “put doubts in our heads” about their narrative?

The broader principle regarding gifts and grants to Middlebury is that there should be no political purity test. A purity test barring donations on the basis of a donor’s political views would be out-of-step with Middlebury’s stated commitment to political diversity. It would be discriminatory. It would be a great way to alienate a substantial portion of the alumni donor base. Middlebury should no more discriminate on the basis of political viewpoint in its acceptance of grants and gifts than it discriminates in its admissions or (let’s hope) in hiring new professors.

Middlebury is not a political campaign. We are a learning community, and we are here to ask important questions together, to be challenged, and to challenge ourselves.

Akhila Roy ’20, Joey Lyons ’21, Quinn Boyle ’21.5, Max Taxman ’22, Maddy Stutt ’21.5 and Rati Saini ’22, are 2019–20 Alexander Hamilton Forum fellows.

If you would like to attend Hamilton Forum events and dinners, you can sign up at go/joinAHF.