- Saphire Ruiz & Eric Santomauro-Stenzel
King David II: It's not about him.
The Noblemen of Hamilton College crowned David Worcester as the 12th King in November of 1945. He died not two years later (Isserman, 228), so someone else filled the robes, just as someone else had filled them prior.
The throne was created in the ashes of the “interracial” Hamilton-Oneida Academy, which never saw the graduation of a single Oneida Nation student. Every king since has faithfully continued that tradition of exclusion.
Hamilton College, and most private colleges, function as elective monarchies whereby a small number of noblemen select the next king after the previous has retired, resigned, been pushed out, or dies. This king is then granted broad latitude to do as he wishes, so long as he does not fall out of favor with the noblemen.
How does one become a nobleman? The College’s Trustee By Laws establish two kinds of trustees to fill 42 spaces: Charter and Alumni, with a third Life Trustee designation that does not count towards the 42, and which does not have voting powers on substantive matters. Charter and Life Trustees are selected by the whole of the board itself. Alumni Trustees are elected by the alumni, though the last time there was a competitive election was 2007 with a ~20% turnout. Most years the Alumni Council, a group of 130 self-selecting alumni, simply nominates three candidates for three available Alumni Trustee positions who win uncontested elections. Currently, there are 30 Charter Trustees and 12 Alumni Trustees. There is no world where the alumni of Hamilton could exercise majority voice over the institution without the consent of self-selected Charter Trustees, perhaps with the aid of a dozen alumni nominated by another self-selecting body. Today, the noblemen are overwhelmingly wealthy, white, and male, as they have always been. Hamilton College is, and always has been, a fiercely anti-democratic institution.
Most Kings of Hamilton have sought at every opportunity to hold a tight grip on the campus body politic, suppressing dissent to protect the crown. In 1837, a majority of Hamilton students signed a letter from the Hamilton Anti-Slavery Society to Congress demanding an end to slavery. King Joseph Penney apologized to New York, saying the students acted “without reflection,” were “misled” by abolitionists, and “acted at variance with the principles of the College government.” The Hamilton Anti-Slavery Society disappeared by the following year, at the behest of the crown.
For much of Hamilton’s history, the king and noblemen compelled students to attend religious services. Students protested these requirements on and off for decades. In Fall 1947 students sponsored a petition to end compulsory chapel (Isserman, 232), and by Fall 1963 the noblemen finally relented after a protest of about a fifth of the campus; the pressure became too much: “the temper of our times has changed, with an increased emphasis on individual rights and individual freedom” (Isserman, 270).
Like any anti-democratic regime, Hamilton has a long history of democratic rebellions—of students, faculty, staff, and alumni fighting for democracy. Foremost of these democratic rebellions is Kirkland College. Kirkland, which Hamilton only allowed to survive for a decade, was a women's college that the Hamilton noblemen created across from Hamilton. The anti-democratic regime of Hamilton imagined that Kirkland was a “chance to replicate Hamilton, only with women instead of men” (Babbitt, 47).
Instead, Kirkland held within it the roots the social movements of the 1960s and 70s, and Kirkland women believed in and fought for the rights of themselves and others. President Samuel Babbitt believed in the personal and institutional power of students. Kirkland women created the rules and policies of the College, had equal power to faculty and staff in the Kirkland Assembly where decisions of the institution were made, and were respected by senior staff and the Board of Kirkland. Hamilton, of course, could not stand for this, especially once Kirkland women began to encourage Hamilton men to fight for their own democratic rights.
King Martin Carovano, who led the charge against Kirkland, was an opponent of it from the beginning, something the noblemen who elected him were aware of. An economist by profession, King Martin argued to the Hamilton noblemen that continuing to invest in Kirkland would lead to the financial collapse of Hamilton. This, worsened by the looming financial crises of the 1980s, Kirkland’s struggle to raise money on its own, and King Martin’s insistence that “Kirkland could no longer attract good students” and would risk the academic reputation of Hamilton (Babbitt, 336). The noblemen shared King Martin’s disdain for what Kirkland had become and were more than happy to kill the college (Babbitt, 252). President Babbitt recalled an instance where the most powerful nobleman, Coleman Burke, drunkenly demanded the presence of too many Jewish students on Kirkland’s campus be taken care of, almost causing President Babbitt to resign (Babbitt, 161). With little discussion with the Board of Kirkland, the Hamilton noblemen put an end to the revolutionary Kirkland, “willfully [destroying] a lively, respected, some would even say important college” in 1978 (Babbitt, 398).
King Martin led another anti-democratic charge four years after this: defending investments in Apartheid South Africa. Despite global anti-Apartheid demonstrations, King Martin and the noblemen joined forces to ensure that the rebellion for divestment from South Africa would fail. For six years, King Martin and his loyal servants, primarily Dean of Students Jane Jervis, subjugated, repressed, and threatened hundreds of rebels. When the students installed shanties at the Chapel, King Martin used the legal power of the College to try and force them down. When dozens of students took over Buttrick Hall in November 1986, Dean Jane threatened expulsion for students who did not leave by night, and in the end King Martin suspended twelve students who remained, students who became martyrs for freedom (Isserman, 326 & 328). Even supporters of King Martin were outraged by this decision, and those who agreed with him were greatly outnumbered by those who did not. These decisions would not only lead to Hamilton losing a lawsuit, but also the abdication of King Martin and Dean Jane.
Unfortunately for the noblemen, King Martin was too tyrannical, and the people had become unruly in their fight for democratic rights; the noblemen had to make concessions. Although divestment did not occur, the noblemen ensured that the next King would be less tyrannical and more liked. The next two Kings were not only more favorable, but the next two decades were relatively peaceful. Hamilton focused on modernizing itself and becoming more competitive, and there would not be another rebellion until spring 2007.
In 2007, Hamilton once again found itself embroiled in conflict, this time under the regime of the first, and so far only Queen, Joan Hinde Stewart. Queen Joan’s reign would be characterized by rebellion, as she ruled over, and unsuccessfully quelled, two in less than a decade: the Social Justice Initiative (2007-2010) and The Movement (2012-2015). Both rebellions demanded increased rights for marginalized students, faculty, and staff, were extremely polarizing, and forced Hamilton to reckon with its anti-democratic nature and history (Social Justice Initiative Blog; Hamilton Unscrolled). Queen Joan, with the help of Dean of Faculty Joe Urgo and Dean of Students Nancy Thompson, attempted to control these rebellions.
Though these rebellions faced challenges and were weakened, the rebels succeeded in their attempts to raise awareness and make changes to parts of the institution (though these changes were not enough for liberation). The unrest began again, and the noblemen knew that to regain some of the control they briefly lost, they needed a more anti-democratic leader. Following a search by the firm Isaacson, Miller, that leader would be David Wippman, crowned in 2016.
King David II’s reign has thus far brought Hamilton back to the anti-democracy of King Martin. A majority of the noblemen who chose King David II were students under King Martin; one could imagine that part of the reason these noblemen selected David is because they saw King Martin in him. When King Martin died in August 2019, King David II paid homage to his “courage and integrity.” Just as King Martin declared “In making investment decisions, the Trustees cannot legitimately take into account anything other than relevant economic and legal factors” to defend investments in Apartheid (Isserman, 327), in fall 2019 King David II defended investments in fossil fuels at the most recent town hall, “should we be using the endowment to pursue political and social goals? I think the trustees, and I would agree with them on this, feel a little differently on that.”
Although there have been attempts and close calls, King David II has yet to experience the level of rebellion that King Martin and Queen Joan experienced. Since the start of his reign, there has been a loss of intergenerational student activism, largely driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made it difficult for students to connect with historical rebellions and rebels. Unlike his predecessor, King David II, with the help of his Deans, has thus far been able to quell rebellions.
Just as previous kings have had their loyal servants, King David II has had his and will yet have more. The Dean of Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs search now underway states the position “Report[s] directly to the president” yet is “the primary voice of the faculty.” In other words, the Dean of Faculty is the King’s Dean, not the faculty’s. The search for a Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion states the position will “direct[ly] report to the president.” This is the King’s DEI coordinator, not that of marginalized community members. King David II will dub the final selection himself. These searches, and the search for the next Dean of Students, are headed by the same firm that found King David II: Isaacson, Miller. At least for now, community members eager for a significant change of course with the new additions should temper their expectations.
One would be right to decry King David II as an anti-democratic force on this campus, having excluded racial justice advocates from his DEI advisory council, shifting around trustee meetings to avoid climate justice protestors and covering it up, rejecting all proposals for institutionalizing student voice, and more. But that is not the full story. He is doing his job as asked by the noblemen. Short of a revolution, Hamilton College will never have a president with democratic checks and balances. The king and his staff, regardless of their race, gender, sexuality, ability, or faith, will forever zealously guard the crown.
This is not to say there is no hope. Our avenues to create change and provide benefit to the students, faculty, and staff of Hamilton College must be an independent pursuit that does not rely on convincing tyrants and demagogues to defy their nature. The story of these tyrants is of a paranoia of change, of defending profit and reputation. The story of resistance and rebellion has been of education for the sake of the liberation of all peoples, both on and off the Hill. The answer to the crises we face are within ourselves as a people committed to justice, creating our own power for our own ends. The brave students forming unions across campus are but one example of the power the people may build when working in solidarity.
Babbitt, Samuel Fisher. Limited Engagement: Kirkland College 1965-1978: An Intimate History of the Rise & Fall of a Coordinate College for Women. 2006.
Isserman, Maurice., and Joan Hinde. Stewart. On the Hill : a Bicentennial History of Hamilton College, 1812-2012 Clinton, NY: Trustees of Hamilton College, 2011.