Over the summer the University of Florida announced Dr. William Inboden would become the executive director of the new Hamilton Center. The center, founded in 2022 amid some controversy over its funding and purpose, aims to “help students develop the knowledge, habits of thought, analytical skills, and character to be citizens and leaders in a free society.”
Inboden, a longtime friend of UF President Ben Sasse, brings with him a lengthy resume: a Ph.D. in history from Yale, staffer for a Republican and a Democrat in Congress, stints at the State Department and the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration, and a decade as director of the Clements Center at the University of Texas at Austin. He also writes extensively and published a 2022 book on Ronald Reagan titled, “The Peacemaker,” which the Wall Street Journal named one of the best political books of the year.
Inboden, 50, who is married with two young sons, moved to Gainesville in August and recently sat down for an interview in his temporary office, a cramped space in the Computer Sciences and Engineering building. Surrounded by papers, a yet-assembled new office chair, and a bookshelf holding three of the 53 boxes of books he brought from Austin, Inboden addressed his vision for the Hamilton Center and some of the controversy surrounding its founding.
Q: What made you willing to leave an established center and position at UT Austin?
Inboden: It was a tough decision. It was a combination of unique factors that I didn’t see available anywhere else in the country—of this being a remarkable opportunity. First, to build and launch a new academic unit within an established prestigious university. Hamilton is currently the Hamilton Center, but there’s a path forward in legislation for us to grow into the Hamilton College.
We also have the authority to hire new tenured faculty and design new majors and degrees. The Clements had not had those.
Finally, it was the mission of the Hamilton Center that was most exciting to me, offering courses on great books and Western Civilization and the founding ideals and principles of the United States, in the glorious and complex and inspiring and sometimes troubling history of our country. Also this mission of helping equip our students, not just to be employees, but citizens.
Q: Did any of the controversy surrounding the formation of the center give you pause about taking the position?
Inboden: I was aware and read some of the press accounts, but my view is the Legislature has spoken. The law has been passed, and it’s the responsibility of the University of Florida to go implement that.
My 13 years at the University of Texas gave me a special appreciation for the role of public universities. What does that mean? Not just that we get generous funding from the taxpayers of the state. There’s a public mindedness to our mission that is not just about research and teaching for its own sake or for students to get particular jobs. It’s about helping cultivate the virtues and the knowledge of what it means to be a citizen.
Obviously, the University of Florida and other great public universities have succeeded because we also have the academic freedom to design our own curriculum and pursue our research where it’s going to lead us, but I see those principles as entirely aligned with the broad mandate of a place like the Hamilton Center.
Q: To what extent is that mandate focused on students versus the community and the wider culture?
Inboden: It’s important for the university to be engaged with the city of Gainesville, and that’s a priority of President Sasse’s and of the Hamilton Center. Our first public event on campus was with Professor Robert George of Princeton, and Professor Cornel West of Union Seminary, and we had over 350 people attend, quite a few of whom were local citizens from the community. It wasn’t just students and faculty from UF. There will be more such public events, which we hope will be a resource and an opportunity for the citizens of the city.
Beyond that, our students graduate and go become citizens of their local communities, and I hope that they will take away a new sense of gratitude and appreciation for what it means to be an American, and a renewed sense of public mindedness for “how can I serve my country” in any number of capacities.
Q: Why did you choose Drs. West and George for your first event?
Inboden: Part of the Hamilton Center’s mandate is supporting and promoting civil discourse on campus. That’s a fancy term for learning how to get along and listen to each other across our differences. Many campuses have become divided politically and really hostile to different viewpoints, even doing things to suppress them.
We thought what better way to show civil discourse than to have this interesting public conversation with two noted scholars, one [George] a man of conservative principles, and the other [West] a man of progressive principles. It’s not just that they can disagree in a civil way, but they have built a deep and abiding friendship. That’s a wonderful model for myself, for our faculty, and for our students.
Q: The proposal to create the Hamilton Center described it as a “fiercely independent center of learning.” What’s your vision for fulfilling that mandate?
Inboden: During my time here, no outside entities or voices have tried in any ways to shape or influence what we’re working on as far as curriculum.
Q: Does that include the governor?
Inboden: Yes, it does. I know Governor DeSantis was supportive of the creation of the Hamilton Center, but he has been very respectful of our academic autonomy. I think this is how these things work well, when you have the director and our faculty who very much embrace the mission of the Hamilton Center and we’re given wide latitude to actually implement it.
Also, it’s no secret that there can be certain political orthodoxies, usually more from the left, that take hold among university faculty. A certain type of group think can take place, a narrowing of the academic mission. So I understand “fierce independence” to mean the Hamilton Center is not captive to any particular set of ideologies. We embrace the call to viewpoint diversity.
Unfortunately, too many universities do not have much viewpoint diversity, especially in the humanities and social sciences. I’ve seen this firsthand with faculty hiring committees, when a rare faculty candidate who holds center right views is told, “There’s no way you’re going to get this job, or you need to hide what you believe.”
The Hamilton Center doesn’t apply political litmus tests in our faculty hiring, but we also do not regard being a political conservative as disqualifying. Our question is, “Are you a fit for the mission? Do you share the broad values that we’re talking about here?”
Q: The Hamilton Center is set to receive $30 million in state funding. Why so much, so fast?
Inboden: The legislative appropriations all predate my arrival, but I am very grateful for the generosity the Legislature has shown, and I have a strong commitment to using that money responsibly. A significant part is allocated to renovate the infirmary building, a wonderful, historic building in the center of campus that has been given to the Hamilton Center, but which needs a thorough gutting and renovation.
The $10 million in recurring funds will support hiring of faculty and staff. We have a mandate to hire somewhere between 40 and 50 faculty and build out staff. Academic departments on campus are going to vary widely, but $10 million a year will be an average budget for an average size department.
Q: The New York Times reported that some UF faculty are concerned about Hamilton’s funding and structure outside of existing departments. How have you addressed those concerns with faculty?
Inboden: The overwhelming response I’ve seen thus far to Hamilton’s creation and my arrival on campus—from deans, department chairs, faculty and student officials—has been very welcoming. We saw that with our first event, when the Bob Graham Center, the African American Studies Program, and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences were helpful cosponsors. I’ve been very encouraged.
I’m not unaware of some [critical] individual quotes in articles. I don’t think any department or academic unit on campus would presume to have an intellectual monopoly on teaching and research in a particular area, so it’s hard for me to see how others could object to additional teaching and research going on in those areas here at the University of Florida.
In the coming year or two, as Hamilton faculty grows and we’re able to offer more and more courses, I think you’ll see us recruit scholars and offer curricular offerings in particular subfields and areas that existing departments and schools have chosen not to prioritize—for example, American diplomatic and military history, American intellectual and political history, some parts of American religious history, history of Christianity, and some areas in political theory.
Certainly, some departments and scholars on campus may have had offerings in these areas, but they were not prioritized. I hope we’re going to be helping to fill some academic and intellectual gaps.
Q: The New York Times also reported that you’ve done some advising with Gov. DeSantis on foreign policy. Is that something you will continue doing?
Inboden: I did meet with Governor DeSantis once for a discussion on foreign policy. I recently published a book on Reagan administration foreign policy, and a number of political leaders have read the book. I’ve given briefings—and I’ll brief anyone who asks—on lessons and insights from Reagan’s Cold War strategy for some of the challenges we’re facing with China and Russia today.
Because that is my academic field, and I’ve done lots of advising of different policy leaders over the last 30 years, I will continue to be doing some of that. But my time right now is very much focused and prioritized on building the institution of the Hamilton Center, and I am allocating less time to public policy advising.