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Wednesday, February 21, 2024
NEWS  |  CAMPUS

Hamilton Center: Emphasizing apolitical position following controversial foundation

The UF center is focusing on hiring, course development in the coming semesters

This article has been updated to reflect the Hamilton center will only be teaching one Honors Quest course in the Spring. The Alligator initially reported otherwise.

UF’s Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education wants to prove it has no political agenda.

The Hamilton Center began with $3 million from the state after The Council on Public University Reform — a conservative think tank — lobbied to begin a civic education center at UF. A deliberative back-and-forth between UF leaders and the state ensued — a process that deviated from the typical creation of an academic unit at UF.

William Inboden, the center’s director, is focusing on recruitment and curriculum development. Under state mandate, the center will eventually become its own college. Beginning 2025 and each year thereafter, the center will be required to report updates on enrollment and curriculum to the state.

The center received $30 million in state appropriations this year. 

“As far as what actually went about in the [center’s] creation, I can't litigate that,” Inboden said. 

Establishing its place on campus

The center’s mission includes teaching classic Western literature, Western ideas and the foundational elements of America’s political history. Inboden is aware of the center’s controversial origins but is dedicated to fulfilling the state’s mission, he said.

“No one in the state government has been trying to dictate or micromanage us on what we might research and teach,” he said. 

The center may offer more than 20 Quest courses during the Spring 2024 semester. Additionally, there will be one Honors Quest course taught with UF President Ben Sasse called “The American Idea.”

Sasse hired Inboden, a longtime friend and political donor, to run the center in May. John Stinneford, the center’s inaugural director, didn’t respond to The Alligator’s emails and phone calls requesting an interview.

A UF Faculty Senate report released in June detailed anonymous feedback about the center from members of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The report described the center as a “‘shadow college’ intended to replace CLAS’s functions without faculty input.”

The report also detailed concerns from members of the Levin College of Law about using favoritism for hiring practices in the Hamilton Center.

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Of the $30 million allocated to the center, $10 million is recurring. The Center for Latin American Studies, which is the only other UF academic center independent of a college, received $3.5 million from the state and had a total budget of $5.3 million. 

A representative of the Center for Latin American Studies declined to be interviewed for this article out of fear of retribution from university leaders. Several UF history faculty members didn’t respond to The Alligator’s interview requests.

“I also don't want to minimize or downplay concerns,” Inboden said. “But that's where I'm also a realist in the sense of, ‘OK, I'm here now. We've got a job to do.’”

Recruitment and curriculum

Robert Ingram, a humanities professor and the center’s associate director, began his position Dec. 15, 2022, after leaving Ohio University’s history department. 

Other universities have emphasized humanities through classic Western literature, or Great Books, Ingram said, including Columbia University and The University of Chicago. He wants to build something from the ground up, he said, but also understood he was walking into a position that had controversial beginnings.

“As I joked, I was walking into somebody else's family fight,” he said. “I just say judge us on the results.”

The center doesn’t yet have its own course prefix, so it’s teaching courses through UF’s Quest and the Honors Program’s (un)common reads classes.

Anna Latell, a 19-year-old UF health sciences sophomore, is taking “St. Augustine, The Confessions,” which is taught through the (un)common reads curriculum and the Hamilton Center. 

The professor, Nathan Pinkoski, hasn’t mentioned the Hamilton Center in class, and Latell said she wasn’t familiar with the center. 

While Latell could take a class through UF’s Department of Religion, the Hamilton Center’s multidisciplinary approach includes religious classes. 

“If you're not a classics or a history major, you're not going to get those historical ways of thinking that still influence us today,” she said.

Department collaboration

It’s unclear how the Hamilton Center will attract students from pre-existing academic departments. Gene Witmer, a philosophy professor, spoke with Stinneford last year before he said the former director stepped down. 

Witmer isn’t worried about competing with the Hamilton Center for students, he said, because philosophy classes fill up quickly.

The center has worked with the philosophy department to have some hires temporarily teach in the department, Witmer said. In Spring 2023, Hamilton Center faculty taught “Happiness and Well-Being,” which is registered under the philosophy department.

Witmer plans to stay in communication with the center to make sure students don’t inadvertently sign up for a Hamilton Center class thinking they will get credit toward a philosophy course. 

“It's not entirely clear to me where they expect to go,” he said, referring to the Hamilton Center.

He doesn’t anticipate the center will cause immediate competition among academic departments. In terms of the center remaining apolitical, Witmer said it likely won’t cause trouble.

“We’re well aware of all the weirdness about how it got started and concerned about that,” Witmer said. “But our attitude is basically, ‘Look, give them the benefit of the doubt.’”

Sarah Berger, a 19-year-old UF sophomore, is a triple major in religion, philosophy and women’s studies. It’s unclear how the center will differ enough from courses already offered, she said. Philosophical texts from thinkers like Plato, Aristotle and Emmanuel Kant are already discussed in her classes, she added.

“I definitely don't feel like I'm missing out on content by not taking the lessons offered by the Hamilton Center,” she said.

With three majors, Berger said she wouldn’t be willing to take classes that don’t go toward her degree. She also didn’t know what the Hamilton Center was prior to being reached for comment. Neither email notifications about course offerings nor her professors have mentioned the center’s classes. 

“All three of my majors are under-enrolled majors,” Berger said. “I definitely see that this could be a threat in some ways to keeping the enrollment up in some of these majors.”

Creating its own path

Ana Siljak, an associate professor of humanities for the Hamilton Center, said rather than replacing UF departments, the center will complement what already exists.

Siljak, who previously taught in the history department at Queen’s University Canada, has a background in Russian and East European history. When Ingram recruited Siljak, she said she made certain the center’s controversial beginnings wouldn’t influence courses.

“I don't like agendas of any kind in teaching,” she said. “I'm certainly not going to discourage conservative ideas in the classroom, but I'm also not going to discourage liberal ideas.”

Revitalizing the humanities and social sciences are critical, she said, especially to accompany progress in STEM-related fields and the development of artificial intelligence. The potential to incorporate science and technology into the humanities perspective is something Siljak said she looks forward to.

“I understand why people are worried given the news coverage, but I really would urge students to come and experience it, because I don't think they'll be disappointed,” she said.

For Scott Howard, a 21-year-old UF political science senior, the Hamilton Center will provide a new educational layer focusing on Western thought, which he said other liberal arts majors are lacking.

“Studying Western civilization gives students, especially American students, a better understanding of the culture and the traditions that they've grown up in and that they've inherited,” Howard said.

If the center sticks to its mission, Howard said it can teach Western ideology through an impartial position. However, the center might have a disproportionate number of conservative student voices in the classroom because of how Western ideology has become politicized, he added.

Fostering civil discourse, which is respectful debate between opposing viewpoints, in the classroom is among the center’s goals.

Matt Jacobs, a UF history professor and director of the Bob Graham Center, said the state of public discourse at the university is healthy inside the classroom, but unhealthy outside of it. 

Jacobs, who oversees classroom discussions about controversial historical subjects like the Arab-Israeli conflict and the dropping of the atomic bomb, said the discussions are nuanced and rarely cross over into what he sees as disrespectful.

The Bob Graham Center will continue its relationship with the Hamilton Center while also giving the new center its space, Jacobs said.

“It's important for the Hamilton Center to define its identity,” Jacobs said.

Garrett Shanley contributed to this report.

Contact Sophia Bailly at sbailly@alligator.org and Alissa Gary at agary@alligator.org. Follow them on Twitter @sophia_bailly @alissagary1.

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Sophia Bailly

Sophia Bailly is a second-year journalism major and covers politics for the enterprise desk. Some of her favorite things include The Beatles, croissants and Agatha Christie books. When she's not writing stories she's either reading or going for a run.


Alissa Gary

Alissa Gary is a second-year journalism major who's covering K-12 education for The Alligator. She has previously reported on student government and university administration.  Aside from writing, she likes to take care of her plants and play (and usually win) the New York Times sudoku puzzle.


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