President David Wippman’s serendipitous path to Hamilton

By Maureen Nolan

As they studied candidate David Wippman’s vita, a gap caught the attention of the two students on Hamilton’s Presidential Search Committee. When Caleb Williamson ’17 and Phoebe Greenwald ’16 asked him about the pause between college and grad school, Wippman didn’t dress it up. He told them at that point he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life.

“Hearing that from a guy who went to Princeton University, graduated top of his class and then went to Yale, a top law program, it was just comforting to hear as a student. I was like, ‘That shows that he really understands what students go through,” Williamson says. Wippman is an international law superstar, he says, but he’s genuine. He was the student’s favorite candidate for the job.

Wippman’s gap year wasn’t wasted. After he graduated from Princeton, he drove a taxi back home in Minnesota for six months and spent another six months skiing and working at a restaurant in Vail, Colo., “a very interesting and rewarding year, fascinating in a lot of ways,” he says. It was an early turn, and not the last, en route to his current pursuit. On July 1, he became the 20th president of Hamilton College, replacing Joan Hinde Stewart, who retired after 13 years. Wippman came to College Hill after eight years as dean of the University of Minnesota Law School.

Throughout the years, he’s earned a master’s degree in English literature, went to law school, built an unusual practice in international law, earned a name as a legal scholar and entered academia. He considers that his natural home, the place he’d always intended to be.

“You know, I’ve always a little bit envied people who say, ‘I’ve wanted to be a brain surgeon from the time I was 5.’ And they are a brain surgeon, and they love it,” says Wippman, 61. “But I think there’s a huge role of serendipity for most people, and many of the people I talk to who are successful and happy in their career choices got there completely by accident.”

Witnesses to his achievements don’t use the word “accident” when they talk about his progression. They talk about his intellect, scholarship, collaborative management style and how he is an educator at heart. Their list of attributes always includes his sense of humor. It is useful to bear in mind that the understated Wippman possesses a bone-dry wit and is given to self-effacing remarks. In conversation, he’ll insert a joke without pause or discernable change in tone.

During an interview, as he discussed how he was influenced by his work with the National Security Council, he said it had an impact on his writing about the International Criminal Court, his general writing about human rights and on his book about building the rule of law after military intervention. And this: “I’ve decided I should have a military wing because the best people to work with were the Defense Department people. You call them up, and they say, ‘Yes sir.’ Whatever you ask them, ‘We can do it, we’ll get it done.’ And they would march ahead and do it. They were great.”

Minnesota roots

Wippman grew up in suburban Minneapolis, the son of a lawyer who graduated from the law school he would someday lead. In his AP History class at Edina High School, he was the kid who knew all the answers without being annoying about it.

“David was clearly the superstar of the class. He always would get the highest grades on everything. Very low key and a humble guy, he was not trying to draw attention to himself in any way, but his answers to questions in class as a junior were just off the charts compared to the rest of us,” says Minneapolis attorney Bruce Mooty, who met Wippman when they were in junior high.

After high school, Wippman all but vanished from Mooty’s life for decades. When he resurfaced it was as a candidate for the law school deanship. Mooty, an active alumnus who was involved in the search process, was working his way through the candidates’ paperwork, in alphabetical order, when he came to the pedigree of his former classmate, who’d gone far. 

Wippman went from high school to Princeton, where he majored in English. He loved college. “I met incredibly talented, smart, interesting, fun fellow students whom I learned a lot from. One of the great advantages of this residential model is all the lateral learning that takes place outside of the classroom, as you debate things over a beer late at night or talk to each other while on a road trip somewhere,” he says. 

After graduating summa cum laude and with Phi Beta Kappa honors, Wippman spent the next year learning lessons behind the wheel and on the slopes. Then he entered graduate school at Yale on a fellowship, in pursuit of a doctorate in literature. He left with a master’s, looking for a way to engage more actively with the world. For him, that meant law school. Law, he says, is a field “suited to someone who’s verbally inclined and doesn’t like the sight of blood.” Add to “verbally inclined” strong writing skills; Wippman became editor-in-chief of The Yale Law Journal.

Fresh out of law school, he took a job with a small DC firm, figuring if Democrat Walter Mondale won the 1984 presidential election, he’d find some kind of job in his administration. Ronald Reagan became president. Wippman will say his career trajectory is sort of Mondale’s fault, a comment he has shared with the former vice president. Mondale is a revered Minnesota Law School alumnus who served on the search committee that brought Wippman to the school. The two became friends.

David Wippman with Walter Mondale
Wippman chats with his good friend Walter Mondale when the former vice president visited the University of Minnesota Law School for a book signing event in 2011.

Private practice, government work

At his DC firm, Wippman thought he’d be doing litigation law but found himself assigned to Fannie Mae bond work. The man with an interest in so many things had no interest in doing that. He had started looking for a new job when the firm’s litigation partner walked into his office to say he was representing the Nicaraguan government, and they were thinking of suing the United States in the World Court over aid to the Contras. Was Wippman interested? “I thought well, Fannie Mae bond work, World Court — I’ll go with the World Court,” he says.

Wippman and two colleagues eventually split off into their own firm, which found a niche representing developing countries at rates they could afford. The firm’s mixed set of clients included Nicaragua, the Philippines, Guatemala and Liberia, among others. Initially Wippman figured he’d work in private practice a year or two, and then teach law. “I got sidetracked because the issues we were working on were so interesting. And then suddenly 10 years had gone by, and I thought, well, if I don’t make the move now, I probably never will be able to,” he says.

He started working at Cornell University Law School in 1992 and spent the next 16 years there, first as associate professor, then professor and associate dean. He was vice provost for international relations at Cornell University from 2005 until 2008. 

While at Cornell, in search of a sabbatical opportunity, Wippman learned that the National Security Council was looking for someone to fill a one-year position. As an international lawyer he thought it would be important to gain inside, practical experience in foreign-policy decision-making. He signed on in 1998. As a director with the council’s Office of Multilateral and Humanitarian Affairs, Wippman helped develop U.S. policy on war crimes, the International Criminal Court, economic sanctions and United Nations political issues. He had top-secret security clearance and much of what he worked on was classified.

“He’s the standard now”

In 2008, he made the move to Minneapolis, the area where he had grown up and where his mother still lived. Wippman became law school dean just before the stock market crashed, public funding for higher education began to drop, and the law school’s budget took a big hit. There was another bad trend in play too. Nationally, law school applications were plummeting. At first, Minnesota Law applications went up, but by 2010 they began a multi-year slide. 

Despite the environment, Mooty says under Wippman’s leadership, the law school got its budget under control without jeopardizing its national standing. The strategy included reducing admissions rather than lowering requirements to bring in more students, cutting costs and successful fundraising. Also, the law school’s parent university provided money to help balance the budget. Challenges remain, but Mooty, among others, sounds optimistic that the law school is on the right track.

“We’re now positioned, I think, at a point where the next dean has basically an upward trajectory, and it’s been built over the last several years,” says Oren Gross, the Irving Younger Professor of Law and director of the Institute for International Legal & Security Studies at Minnesota Law. He credits Wippman for that. So does Mondale.

Despite the financial challenges Wippman built a strong student body and one of the best law school faculties in the country, the former U.S. vice president says. “When I sat in some meetings picking his successor, because I’m on the search committee again, a lot of times they’ll say, ‘We need someone as good as Wippman.’ He’s the standard now.” 

Through it all, Wippman was a consensus builder, bringing along alumni and faculty. “He always finds ways to do accommodation. He’s never someone who seeks to incite or make things harder. He’s the person who is always finding the middle ground. And that I think has been the hallmark of his scholarship, his policy work,” says Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy and Society and faculty director of the Human Rights Center. She was on the law school search committee that picked Wippman.

They didn’t want him to leave, but Wippman’s move to Hamilton makes sense to Gross and Ní Aoláin, who knew him long before he became dean. The timing was right in that the law school’s financial situation had improved, and it had wrapped up a successful fundraising campaign. Wippman’s career has been shaped by his search for new challenges.

“Personally as well as professionally we recognize that. He’s done this incredible job for almost eight years, but he’s a very vibrant intellectual person — very — and he’s sought out new challenges in his life, consistently,” Ní Aoláin says. “I think he felt like it was time for him to try a different challenge and to take the experience that he had here and apply it in a different way.”

On to Hamilton

When Wippman applied for the Hamilton job, he knew early on in the process that he would take the job if it were offered. “I selfishly think it was a tremendous search committee; I had a great experience talking to them, the faculty were extraordinarily eloquent and articulate about the school and great advocates for it. The students were fantastic,” he says.

His scholarship was of critical importance to the three faculty members who were part of the search committee, says Associate Professor of Philosophy Katheryn Doran, who was among them. “It is about the substantial vision and mission for the College as fundamentally an academic institution, number one. And secondly, the president is the penultimate decision-maker in academic appointments and tenure and promotion decisions,” she says.

“It was obvious, in a deep way, that he really understood what we do here, and what our institutional goals and values are, what our core mission is, how we think about the role of each of our constituencies. So there was very, very enthusiastic support for him,” she says. 

As soon as he can do it, Wippman wants to meet with each member of the faculty, at first in groups and, over time, with individuals. He also wants to engage with staff and students. At the law school he looked for opportunities to be around students, teaching, attending or giving opening remarks at their events and helping them with their careers. “He was the first dean that I had seen that totally connected with the students on a real basis,” Mooty says.

Even before Wippman took office, he was meeting alumni at regional receptions, at a squash tournament and at a performance of the Hamilton College Choir during its Spring Break tour of the Midwest. In July, he joined alumni in New York to catch Hamilton the musical, which he’d been dying to see. (He bought the soundtrack well before he relocated to the Hill.) “Now that I’m formally in office, I will be visiting a variety of cities to meet alumni at Hamilton-sponsored events. I’m hoping to understand more deeply the impact Hamilton has had on its students, the culture of the College and the aspirations — and ideas — alumni have for the College’s future,” he says. 

Wippman, who began reading The Spectator months before he started the presidency, hopes to teach an international law course at Hamilton. He’s starting his first year on the Hill with no formal agenda, ready to listen and learn. He considers Hamilton to be in a great position, coming off 13 strong years. 

“On virtually every metric it’s gotten stronger and better, and it’s on a great trajectory, so it’s not a case of bringing in a change agent who is coming in to say, ‘We’ve got to shake things up and do things differently,’” he says. As he sees it, it’s more about continuing the College’s upward trajectory, reaching its full potential and becoming even better known, particularly outside the Northeast.

“I’m hoping that at the end of the first year we’ll have, as a community, settled on some initiatives and directions that we all want to pursue,” Wippman says. 

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