On the evening of 19 September, about two weeks before the scheduled appearance of Hillary Rodham Clinton as a “Great Names” speaker at Hamilton College, members of the Hamilton College community received an all-campus email from Amit Taneja, head of Hamilton’s Days-Massolo Center. Mr. Taneja, who had been recently elevated to the position “Director of Diversity & Inclusion” by President Joan Hinde Stewart, had designed a provocative, multi-staged event that would begin on September 26 with an assemblage, “open to people of color only” so as to provide a needed “safe space” for “dialogue” on “internalized racism.”
Mr. Taneja came to Hamilton College by way of India and is a citizen of Canada. In 2007, he published an essay entitled “From Oppressor to Activist: Reflections of a Feminist Journey.” In it Mr. Taneja speaks loudly and clearly about himself and his politics. He identifies as a gay activist and sees oppression everywhere in the United States, although, he admits, because he “was born with a penis” he still has “[a] lot of power.” Sounding very much like any number of left-wing educrats who, having swilled the same Kool-Aid, now populate almost every college campus in the country, Mr. Taneja pronounced that corporate types, apparently just like those who while sitting on the Hamilton College board of trustees decided to enshrine him as head of the Days-Massolo Center, had done “little to make us examine our assumptions and merely gives us license to continue to exercise our power while maintaining a superficial front of understanding and tolerance. True social justice work starts with grassroots activism and extends in scope from local to national to global.”
In the essay, Mr. Taneja’s peroration demanded social-justice activists to undertake a kind of grassroots immediatism to remake the world in the constructivist image Mr. Taneja rather vaguely outlined for us. Although the two trustee namesakes of the Days-Massolo Center assured the world years before its headquarters was opened in 2011 that the lavishly funded center would devote itself to a wide array of programming related to “cultural education,” the events sponsored by Mr. Taneja and his many allies on the faculty and the administration have predictably navigated a rather consistent course to the left and far left. It’s as if no culture anywhere around the globe has any conservative representatives worthy of educating the Hamilton College community about culture. Lest there be any doubt, almost every member of Hamilton’s trustees had ample information about Mr. Taneja’s political commitments before he was elevated to the position of Director, Diversity & Inclusion; they cannot hide under their desks and claim ignorance of the very serious educational issues at play here.
One undergraduate, a senior history major named Dean Ball, surfaced to express concern about Mr. Taneja’s segregated event. He did not dispute the importance of intensive campus conversations on racism, but had problems with the fashionable campus idea of “safe zones” or “safe spaces” to be used in excluding certain campus citizens according to arbitrary and undefined criteria like “persons of color.” Mr. Ball, co-leader of a campus organization affiliated with my independent Alexander Hamilton Institute (AHI), acted on his own. He went directly to Mr. Taneja to express his concerns as a student leader, about the organization of the event. Mr. Taneja brushed off Mr. Ball, saying that his opinion reflected that of “a minority.” As Mr. Ball pointed out subsequently, Mr. Taneja’s response raised questions as to whether Taneja, and by implication Hamilton’s administration and trustees, pay attention to their own words, for the Days-Massolo Center was supposedly created “to support minorities of every variety on this campus,” not just those whose politics are largely congruent with Mr. Taneja’s own.
Having failed to get Mr. Taneja to alter course, Mr. Ball acted with several other students to express their concerns publicly. On 22 September, Mr. Ball, as leader of the AHI’s Undergraduate Fellows Program, sent out an all-campus email announcing that the AHI would sponsor an alternative dialogue on campus. The conversation would be held on campus, Mr. Ball announced, and, he added, it would not be “in a safe zone.”
For years, the AHI, ever since its founding in 2007, has been billing itself as an unsafe zone to indicate that students (and adults) who come to partake of AHI programming will not be patronized and spoon-fed cheap sentiment but rather forced to defend their positions by adducing evidence and argument. The term was coined by a now retired Hamilton professor, allied to the AHI, who had had a bellyful of political posturing from a former dean, Joseph Urgo, the recently cashiered president of St. Mary’s College in Maryland, who had openly endorsed the idea of “safe spaces” on campus for students in various groups organized by the activist left. By not clearly defining what he meant by “unsafe zone” in his all-campus communication, Mr. Ball came immediately under harsh fire. He responded quickly in another all-campus communication to explain what “unsafe zone” meant: “We would also like to clarify that a ‘safe zone’ in which segregation is enforced is not a safe zone at all. Our school has a proud tradition of preparing students to succeed in the highest levels of politics, business or whatever field they choose. These arenas are not ‘safe spaces.’ An important part of any good education is learning how to articulate a position and defend it against substantive challenges. It is a difficult skill, and no one learns to master it in the confines of a safe zone.” Too late. Mr. Taneja’s angry supporters had mobilized and were unwilling to listen.
The segregated event elicited some national media attention. For reasons never made public by Hamilton’s administration but perhaps related to the approaching visit of Hillary Clinton, who might have been plunged in roiling waters, the Days-Massolo event was cancelled. Mr. Ball, however, came under verbal attack, with words that included anonymous death threats. To the best of my knowledge, and I asked Mr. Ball point blank on this question, not one Hamilton administrator bothered to make an inquiry into his well-being knowing full well that he was under considerable duress.
At a student assembly meeting of 23 September, Mr. Ball, in an extraordinary act of courage, sat on an island facing an aggregation of dozens of angry students, with Mr. Taneja there to direct the chorus, to explain himself to persons who had no desire to listen. Mr. Ball apologized if he had been misunderstood. “Almost every comment made by [these assembled] students,” wrote Mr. Ball, “either implicitly or explicitly attacked my character” Mr. Taneja’s supporters, calling themselves “the Movement,” then proceeded to decorate the campus with various signs and slogans declaring Hamilton to be a place full of racial bigotry.
In the midst of the excitement, President Joan Hinde Stewart decided to call for an all-campus forum to air views on the subjects of race and racism and on Mr. Taneja’s preempted segregated event. President Stewart, as a scholar of eighteenth-century French literature, began by asking the assembled throng to remember that they were children of the Enlightenment and that as such their “mission was to challenge ignorance.” Perhaps if there were more intellectual diversity at Hamilton, someone might have asked President Stewart which Enlightenment she had in mind since it was precisely the excesses of eighteenth-century French rationalism and its hubris in trying to “transform the world,” as she put it, that decisively contributed to the modern idea of race and the virulent form of racism she detests. Myself, I prefer the Scottish Enlightenment to the French. No matter. The event allowed Mr. Taneja to explain himself and to show everyone that faculty and administration backed him to the hilt.
As the controversy died down, debate continued in the pages of the campus newspaper. Mr. Ball wrote a thoughtful letter explaining his actions. To the Hamilton community, one alumnus–I repeat, one alumnus–published “a plea” that was critical of Mr. Taneja. The recent graduate who identified himself as a gay Hispanic male pointed out that the recent controversy was nothing new at Hamilton College. He openly asked: If the center as conceived by Drew Days and Arthur Massolo were meant to be a cultural education center and not a cultural indoctrination center, why then was someone of Mr. Taneja’s radical political stripe appointed to lead it? “From the beginning,” the alumnus argued, “the Days-Massolo center should have been run not by someone who is a militant activist with an ax to grind, but by someone genuinely dedicated to the whole community. Not someone who is focused just on the grievances of the marginalized, but who genuinely seeks to incorporate them, and foster love throughout Hamilton College.”
The majority of Hamilton’s faculty, however, disagreed, and quickly so. In a remarkable rejoinder, a “Letter of support for Amit Taneja and the Days-Massolo Center,” published in the campus newspaper a week later with more than ninety signatures at the bottom, Hamilton faculty accused the recent graduate of “maligning” Mr. Taneja in the context of pronouncing their undying love for everything he has done and intends to do. Mr. Taneja, the letter declares (even though the evidence is clear that he has never once brought a conservative speaker to his cultural education center), “has been executing his job in a thoughtful and responsible way.”
Below is my response to the faculty’s paean to Mr. Taneja and the Days- Massolo Center:
In the 10 October issue, more than ninety members of Hamilton’s faculty signed a letter giving “full support” to the way Amit Taneja in his dual roles as head of the Days-Massolo Center and Director, Diversity& Inclusion, has been engaging members of the Hamilton community in “difficult conversations.” Such a burst of applause recalls the heady days in 2006 when a similar number of faculty, many of them signatories to this letter, voted 77 to 17 against the creation on campus of what was then called the Alexander Hamilton Center, citing concerns about how it would adversely “influence the reputation of Hamilton College.” The majority’s concern about Hamilton’s reputation at that moment followed shortly after its ringing endorsement of the on-campus presence of the felon Susan Rosenberg and of the fraud Ward Churchill.
Assuming that the signatories are doing more than breast-beating, one wonders precisely whom they are trying to reach. President Stewart and key members of the board have not backtracked in their support of Mr. Taneja. Indeed, they have defended him. They have had on hand, after all, ample knowledge of his identity, politics, and commitments from, if nothing else, a serious, quasi-autobiographical essay he published in 2007. He was elevated to Director, Diversity & Inclusion, not despite this essay but, in part, because of it.
Was this impressive mobilization of support really meant to defend Mr. Taneja against one letter published by a recent alumnus two years out of the chute? Or was it meant to fire a warning shot across the bow of unnamed others, showing in effect who owns the campus? Intentionally or not, the faculty letter sends a forceful message to undergraduates. It resonates with intimidation. Remarkably, the letter shows not a whit of concern for the kind of abuse and threats that Dean Ball suffered as a result of his surfacing to criticize what Mr. Taneja was doing. Despite the unattributed quote from Mr. Ball at the letter’s end, its tone is “God forbid we have any more like him.” The intention seems less to promote difficult conversations than to chill them. Many, if not most, of Hamilton’s right-of-center students already practice in the classroom a degree of self-censorship that responsible leadership should, at the very least, find disconcerting.
One cannot have difficult conversations on this campus–and the evidence on this is incontrovertible– if a range of alternative views opposed to those of the majority faction is systematically excluded to the point of near extinction. Faculty activists of the left wanted in 2006 to keep the campus their sandbox and with the help of certain trustees, succeeded in doing so. Along those lines, I note that students involved in Hamilton Divests had the door opened for them at the recent trustee meeting to speak at length to the investment committee. A few years before, the student group known as the Social Justice Initiative, a driving force behind the creation of Days-Massolo, was allowed to present their views to a specially formed sub-committee of the board. But when a group of gifted right-of-center students and recent alums, many of whom were getting advanced degrees at prestigious law schools and graduate programs, courteously sought a meeting, a conference call, a tiny drop of time from the much ballyhooed A.G. Lafley, he brushed them off with one vapid sentence. (Trust me: I won’t be buying a box of Tide in the near future.)
On the matter of intellectual diversity, by the way, I throw down the gauntlet to anyone willing to compare the AHI’s commitment to that of Days-Massolo, the Diversity and Social Justice Project, or any other analogous group on campus. The AHI has a gallery room with a framed poster of almost every event we have sponsored across the country since 2007. I invite visitors to come for a guided tour.
Peter Cannavo, whom I know to be a sincere man, calls for reflection, not calumny. But he knows better than most that numerous signatories to the faculty letter dump bucket after bucket of smears on the AHI in front of their students, including advisees. It even gets comical at times, as in the case in the fall, 2012, when a government professor tried to discourage one of his students from attending a major panel discussion at the AHI by heaping abuse on it, not knowing that the student’s own father was on the panel.
I must also confess to a bit of confusion caused by the letter on the mission of Days-Massolo since I know something of its history and of the principals involved in its creation. Days-Massolo flourished on the ash heap of the on-campus Alexander Hamilton Center and was marketed initially, at least until approval by the board, as a “cultural education center.” Are there no Catholic leaders in Africa? No conservative Jewish intellectuals? No champions of capitalism in Asia? Or are they excluded from what Hamilton’s leadership considers a proper cultural education? Let it be said that many foreign students attending Hamilton have conservative sensibilities and come from far more rigorous high schools than those that exist in most places in the United States. Some have told me that they find the programming of Days-Massolo clearly politicized, presumptive, and even patronizing.
From the beginning, a few members of the board worried that such a lavishly-funded center under a certain kind of leadership would “silo” students into a narrow range of politically preferred identities. Hence in a 2010 Class-and-Charter- Day address, trustee Arthur Massolo assured the world that the proposed CEC would do no such thing. In a communication to me of 17 January 2011, he iterated, “I will do all in my power to see that the center becomes a platform for the airing of differing positions and ideas and not another silo.” Yeah, right.