That’s how David Wippman characterizes the educational experience offered on College Hill. It’s also a fitting way to describe his tenure as president — one that saw Hamilton not only survive but thrive during a global pandemic, introduce new academic areas of study, launch innovative programs to encourage dialogue and enhance advising, unveil new and renovated buildings, and successfully complete the largest fundraising effort in the College’s history.

Eight years ago, Maureen Nolan and Mike Debraggio from Hamilton’s Communications Office visited Wippman at the University of Minnesota Law School where he was finishing up his work as dean. He had just been named Hamilton’s 20th president, and their conversation would introduce him to readers of Hamilton magazine.

As Wippman prepares to retire and leave his office in Buttrick Hall this June, he sat down once again with Debraggio to reflect on his time at the College.

David Wippman Hamilton’s 20th president David Wippman
Mike Debraggio: Let’s start. Why was Hamilton the right place for you when you took the job as president eight years ago, and why is now the right time to retire? 

David Wippman: You know, it’s funny. I said this on a podcast about “What’s Your Why” as to why I wanted to be a college president, and I’ll say a little bit more, specifically, why Hamilton. I’d been in higher education at that point for many years. I was committed to the field. But I always felt that the kind of liberal arts education — the kind of close, personal, engaged instruction that a place like Hamilton offers — was the gold standard.

I thought back on my own experience as an undergraduate, which was for me phenomenal. It taught me to think critically, to read texts carefully, to build, construct, and defend an argument. It introduced me to people who became lifelong friends. It opened me to all kinds of possibilities that I wouldn’t otherwise have considered; it was a transformative experience. I wanted to be able to help other people have that same kind of experience. 

And then as I learned more about the College, I got more and more excited about it. … The students who were on the committee that did the interview [Phoebe Greenwald ’16 and Caleb Williamson ’17] were so impressive that I came away thinking, if that’s the caliber student that Hamilton attracts, that’s where I want to be.

How about the other part of that question? Why is it the right time for you retire?

DW: That was a harder question for me. Part of it was just where I am in my own life. I turned 69 [in December]. I was at the point where I was starting to think about retirement, but I was also thinking about the life cycle of the institution. We were finishing the Because Hamilton campaign and approaching the point where we would need a new strategic plan. We had started work on a campus master plan that would feed into that new strategic plan, but it struck me that this would then lead to another cycle in which we would be running another campaign built on that new strategic plan. And that would be a seven- to-10-year cycle. … I thought rather than stay a few more years, it would be better for me and for the College … to say, “Okay, I’m going to make this the point of retirement.”

Thinking back again, what goals did you set for yourself and the College when you took office? Tell me about some you achieved and others that you might not have. 

DW: The thing that struck me very keenly as I was doing the interview process was that this was not a fixer-upper. Hamilton was not only in good shape; it was on an incredible upward trajectory, and it had been for many years.

I attribute that to lots of things — to the dedication of the alumni and the Board of Trustees, the hard work of faculty and staff over many years, and, in particular, to my predecessors as president [Joan Hinde Stewart and Gene Tobin], who I think had done an incredible job. For me it wasn’t a situation where you need to turn something around [or fix] something that was broken. It was really how do we continue that upward trajectory? How do we set goals for the future? That was part of what the strategic planning process was. It identified a number of things that we’ve continued to work on. One was the idea of Digital Hamilton, [addressing] the increasing influence of technology and data, and all the things that machine learning and artificial intelligence make possible. We wanted to make sure that not only were our students prepared for that kind of future, but that the College itself and its business operations were using technology efficiently.

We wanted to make progress around diversity, equity, and inclusion. We wanted to build out the experiential learning opportunities for our students and improve advising, which generated the ALEX program, among other things. Those were some areas where I came in thinking here’s where we could make progress as an institution, and I think we have.

There are other things that emerged, and most prominent among them was the need to do more on student mental health. That was driven home very keenly in my first year when we lost a student to suicide, and that happened again in my second year. We’ve made an across-the-College effort to ramp up the support services that we provide for our students in ways where I now believe the College is best in class. It doesn’t mean we don’t still face great challenges in that area — every college and university does — but that’s an area where I think we’ve made transformative change. (jump to next section or view timeline)

A Presidential Timeline

Since beginning his tenure as Hamilton’s 20th president on July 2016, David Wippman has been guided by the College’s mission to “prepare students for lives of meaning, purpose, and active citizenship.” Here are just some of the milestone achievements over the past eight years.


  • 2016

    Begins tenure

    Begins tenure as Hamilton’s 20th president





  • 2020

    COVID-19 Protocols adopted

    • Protocols allowed Hamilton to operate safely and students to remain on schedule for graduation (continues through 2022)

    • DEI Advisory Council established

    • New academic minor added in Statistics

  • 2020


  • 2021

    ALEX program launches

    ALEX (Advise, Learn, EXperience), Hamilton’s innovative coordinated network of on-campus academic centers, resources, and advisors, launches

  • 2021

    Chapel steeple refurbishment completed

    Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Chapel is thought to be the last remaining three-story church of its era in the U.S.

  • 2021

    Renovated List Center opens

    Renovated List Center opens to house the Literature and Creative Writing Department

  • 2021

    Wippman elected to CICU

    • Middle States Commission on Higher Education issues reaccreditation

    • Wippman elected to a three-year term with the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities

    • New academic concentration in Japanese added


  • 2022

    Carbon neutrality goal set

    Hamilton announces roadmap for achieving carbon neutrality by 2030

  • 2022

    First VP for DEI named

    Sean Bennett becomes first vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion

  • 2022

    New academic concentrations

    New academic concentrations added in Data Science and Middle East & Islamicate World Studies



Somewhat related, in that issue of the magazine when we introduced you to the campus community, you described your career as a search for new challenges. I’m assuming you encountered a few of those during your presidency. What are some of the greatest challenges facing Hamilton and small liberal arts colleges in general?

DW: We just talked about student mental health. That’s a challenge that has grown enormously over the last 15 years and is continuing to accelerate. The pandemic exacerbated it, but [there are] all kinds of social trends that have aggravated that problem. 

The pandemic, of course, was a challenge that none of us saw coming. That forced an incredible across-the-campus effort to adapt to a set of circumstances that really were extraordinarily challenging for us, but for which I’m very proud of how Hamilton responded. 

There’s a demographic shift that’s happening, which has less impact on Hamilton than most institutions. We’re approaching the so-called demographic cliff in the next year or so, where the number of students who are graduating from high school is starting to decline. This year, there was a slight uptick in enrollment nationally, but otherwise over 15 years or so, enrollment [will be] down probably 15 percent … and where there is growth in prospective student populations, it tends to be in the South and West of the country, not in our traditional catchment areas. We’re fortunate [that] Hamilton is still incredibly attractive. … The last four years we’ve had records in our number of applications, enrollment, in our yield, and our acceptance rate. And I think Hamilton will continue to attract many applicants into the future, but it’s a trend that affects liberal arts colleges.

Associated with that are the financial challenges of running an institution like this one. Again, we’re incredibly fortunate. We are a very well-endowed college relative to the vast majority of colleges and universities around the country. But even with that extraordinary endowment, even with the remarkable philanthropic support we get from our alumni every year, it’s challenging to put together the budget and balance all the things we’re trying to accomplish and that require spending at a significant level if you want to move forward. We want to build a new building [to serve as headquarters for digital innovation on campus]. We would like to add faculty. We’d like to offer additional student support services. All those things are expensive. There’s a limit to how much we can raise tuition, which as families know keeps going up significantly every year. Trying to balance those financial pressures is hard.

I’d say the biggest concern I have right now is the declining public confidence in higher education — and in liberal arts colleges in particular. … If you look at the survey data, only 36 percent of the public express either great or some confidence in higher education. That’s down from 57 percent in 2015. A majority of Americans now question whether a four-year college degree is worth the time and money. … It’s really a threat to the entire enterprise of education if we lose the public’s trust and confidence in what we’re doing. That crisis in confidence accelerated dramatically after October 7 [with] the perception that colleges and universities weren’t responding adequately to antisemitism on campus and to other challenges. That’s fed into a broader perception, particularly among critics on the right, that colleges and universities are too woke; they’re too progressive in their orientation. There’s a sense that we indoctrinate students, which I don’t think is accurate. And there are efforts in many states to eliminate DEI programs, which I think is based on a misunderstanding of what those programs contribute and what they really do. 

But it’s part of the environment that we’re in. [T]here’s a lot of government intervention in affairs that were traditionally left to the discretion of faculty and administrators at colleges. In some states, there are restrictions on what you can teach around critical race theory, around American history; in some places, books are being banned. There are restrictions being imposed on tenure in some states. This is at public institutions. But even in a blue state like New York, we have concerns about some of the things that are underway. The governor’s current proposed budget would eliminate Bundy Aid for schools with endowments over $750 million. [That] would eliminate our ability to tap Bundy Aid and cost us [$142,000] a year. 

There’s a lot of government intervention that [has] either already happened or that is being considered, all of which could really hamper us. But the bigger and underlying concern is if we lose public confidence in higher education; that’s really going to undermine what we do.

You mentioned statistics about public confidence declining. Why should the public or the legislatures be confident that what we’re doing here is right, or that higher education, in general, should be supported?

DW: I’ll speak first for Hamilton and then a little bit more broadly about higher education. For Hamilton, I say the proof is in the pudding. Look at the students we’re attracting; look at the students we’re graduating; look at the remarkable successes that they’re having in their careers, the change they’re making in the industries that they work in. They’re doing incredibly well. We have extraordinarily high employment rates postgraduation, and our graduates are doing amazing things. They’re serving at high levels of government, in the private sector, in nonprofits. We try to prepare our students for lives of meaning, purpose, and active citizenship, and [when] you look at what they’re doing, you’ll see we’re successful in that. 

Much of the criticism of higher education is premised on the notion that really what we should be doing [is offering] job-training programs. There is, in my mind, an unhealthy and mistaken focus on return on investment, narrowly understood to mean economic return. You’ll see that in some of the legislation that’s being proposed. And this is a bipartisan focus — both Democrats and Republicans are focused on that.

I worry that … focus … ignores all the non-pecuniary benefits of higher education, which I think are the most important reasons someone should come to a place like Hamilton. It’s the real value of liberal arts. … [I]t cultivates aesthetic appreciation; it cultivates critical thinking; it cultivates your interest in history and government and prepares you to be a better citizen. If you look at the data, it’s very clear that college graduates, on average, earn more, they live longer, they pay more in taxes, they contribute more to their communities, and they make better decisions around marriage, health, and parenting. I mean in almost every regard, they are better off. I think that’s priceless, and it’s getting lost in the public discussion.

As I’m sitting here talking with you, the focus is on Hamilton and yet your responses are always broadened to society and the impact to society. And you’ve been writing a lot about the issues facing higher education. Why is it important to be a public voice, a public intellectual if you will?

DW: That’s one of the reasons I was interested in becoming a college president. I care about education. I think it’s fundamental to our success as a country and as a society, both in terms of our ability to contribute meaningfully as citizens … but also in terms of the research discoveries that we make in higher education.

For many, many years, the American higher education system has been the envy of the world. It still is — other countries are trying to model on American universities and replicate the kinds of successes that we have. One of the things that I think the U.S. has done incredibly well is we have a tremendous range of higher education opportunities. … [There are] several thousand institutions of higher education ranging from community colleges to large public universities to very specialized institutions. I think that richness and variety are really important because not everyone is going to be seeking out the same kind of educational experience.

For the right student, what Hamilton provides really is the best education you can find anywhere. And I think it prepares you for life in a way that few other kinds of educational experiences will. 

Given all of these problems swirling around, what makes you optimistic about higher education? 

DW: If you’re not an optimist, you shouldn’t be a college president. You need it to sustain you when things get hard. But I would say history is what makes me optimistic. 

You know, I spoke to a group of alumni just the other night, and I said, you should think about higher education a little bit like the stock market. … If you stay and hold, then over time, there will be ups, there will be downs. But over time the trend is consistently upward, and that I think is true, certainly for Hamilton. I think it’s true for higher education generally.

Higher education has always weathered storms in the past. We’ve emerged stronger and better, and we’ve reached a much broader segment of the population. Right now an enormous cross-section of American high school graduates will pursue higher education. Until World War II, that really wasn’t the case. For one thing, women weren’t as welcomed at many institutions. But, more broadly, higher education was seen as something for those who were more economically advantaged. It wasn’t seen as something that should be open to everyone. The GI Bill, among other things, really transformed attitudes toward higher education. The government saw that all these young men who had gone abroad to fight and were returning back to the United States needed a pathway forward that recognized their service and prepared them. Now that mostly benefited men, but over time, and we’ve seen it in Hamilton’s history with the formation of Kirkland College, women have been welcomed. In fact, now nationally women are almost 60 percent of undergraduates.

We’re always experiencing change, and then our education adapts. We find a way forward and we come out stronger.

You said if you’re not an optimist, don’t become a college president. How did you balance the demands of the job with your own personal life and keep yourself on balance? 

DW: It is a very demanding job. You have multiple constituencies. Of course, you have faculty who have, in most cases, a great deal of autonomy and a role in shared governance. It’s not as hierarchical a structure as you would find in the private sector. And you have students whose needs are changing and who have high expectations about the services and the quality of the education they’re going to receive. You’ve got parents, who are probably more invested than ever in how their students are faring and sometimes are perhaps more involved than is strictly desirable. You have alumni who have expectations about the College. You report to a Board of Trustees. 

… There are limits to the extent to which your vision for the institution can be realized. You have to build consensus across these different constituencies in a way that probably isn’t as true in many other sectors of life, so that’s challenging. Then you layer into that all of the challenges that we’ve been talking about … student mental health, social justice issues, the pandemic, the financial challenges facing higher education, the regulatory environment, the political environment. When you put all those together — and expectations that the president will be available to everyone and will respond to everyone, and will do so promptly — [they] create a stressful environment. 

The other pressure that you face is the constant need to raise money, which is something that’s been growing over the years. The ability to raise substantial amounts of money has allowed the College to do extraordinary things. It’s the reason we have such a large endowment, and that has been incredibly beneficial. But there is additional pressure there.

How do you manage all of that? I get exhausted listening to it.

DW: Harvard University has a seminar for new college presidents, a week-long seminar that they run every year. I took it as a first-year president, and I’ve taught in it the last two years. It’s the thing all the presidents talk about. How do you maintain a balance between your professional life and your personal life? How do you deal with the stresses of the position? There’s lots of advice that people give, and there’s advice that I’ve given. One of the things I tell people is find a rabbi. I don’t mean that literally; I mean find someone outside your institution who understands higher education who you have confidence in, who you can just have candid conversations with … or you can vent to, or someone who can walk you off the ledge and say, all right, this is going to be okay.

I don’t see you walking on ledges, so whoever this person is, they must be doing a good job. 

DW: They’re doing a good job. It’s about having that ability to really unburden and talk about it with someone who understands what you’re going through. To a certain extent, you get that with other college presidents. Every time a group of college presidents gets together these days, it feels like a support group. I mean we’re all talking about, “Oh my god, have you had this, have you seen that? Is this happening on your campus?” And the answer is generally “Yes.” We support each other, and that’s been very helpful. The advice they gave at the Harvard seminar was take one day off a week, one weekend a month, and, I think, it’s one month a year for vacation and personal time.

Were you able to do it?

DW: More or less, but it varies a lot. There are times when no, you can’t take time off. We went through a stretch in the early days of the pandemic where it was all-hands-on-deck all the time. And when we reopened in the fall of 2020 and got our first COVID case, a bunch of us were texting in the middle of the night, “Oh my god, it’s coming; it’s happening.” 

Are you still able to bike?

DW: Still bike, ski occasionally, play pickleball. I work out a couple times a week resistance training. Having a supportive board is enormously helpful, and we’ve had a tremendously supportive board. I’ve always been able to go to the board leadership and say, “Okay, this is happening. This is what I’m thinking of.” I have a weekly call with the board leadership, which is very helpful.

President Wippman
President Wippman joins Orientation Leaders as they welcome new students arriving on College Hill.
How does humor fit in? That’s certainly something you’ve done over the years with the videos. It’s part of your personality, I think.

DW: You know I want to have fun with what I do. For me, humor is an important way to do that. It’s a way for me to engage with people. And the people I work with, I appreciate when they have a sense of humor. It lightens things.

Just a few more questions. How was the job different from what you thought it would be, or was it? 

DW: That’s a really interesting question. I had a vision for what it would be like. Before I took this job, I worked with three different presidents at Cornell and two at the University of Minnesota, so I had some sense of what the job entailed. … And while you envision that, until you do it, you can’t fully appreciate what it’s like. You’re always on. You’re always aware that something might be happening. You know, the [president’s] house sits on College Hill Road. Every time a siren goes up the hill, and it happens a lot, I hear it. And I think, okay, is this just someone has burned popcorn in their dorm room, or is it something serious? 

The other thing, which is actually one of the great parts of the job, [is that] it’s different every day. You think, well, I never saw that coming. … There are big things like the pandemic, which I did not see coming, and there are small things. But there are also rewarding things. You’ll go watch a play or a musical put on by our students, or a concert or a sporting event, and you’ll just be amazed at the talent and the energy and the drive and the enthusiasm that you see. 

Thing you’re most proud of?

DW: I think I’m probably proudest of the way we managed the pandemic. I think it showed Hamilton at its best. It required people from all across the institution to rise to an incredibly difficult moment. People often say, higher education is slow to change. It can’t react quickly. It can’t adapt. And that was the exact opposite. In two weeks, the faculty had to create a whole curriculum amenable to remote instruction. We had to get students the technology, we had to bring them home from all over the world, we had to support them in all kinds of different ways. And the whole campus rose to it. Then when we reopened in the fall, we had to reorganize the campus. We had to set up a whole testing operation from scratch. We had to reconfigure all the classrooms for physical distancing. We had to open a dining hall in the athletic center. I mean, it was a massive effort by really everyone on the campus. The students rose to the challenge. The staff. The faculty. The alumni supported us, and it was a great moment.

We talked about the impact the College has on students. What impact has Hamilton had on you?

DW: We’re an institution that’s all about learning, and I’ve learned a great deal about higher education, and about people, about management, about myself. And that’s invaluable. … Learning never stops, should never stop, and that’s true for college presidents as well as really for everybody. So when I retire, I’m going to continue to write about higher education and that will reflect on the experiences I’ve had here.

I hope to maintain the friendships that I’ve developed with people who are here, and with students who graduated that I keep in touch with, with alumni, and with board members. … 

David Wippman at Reunions ’23
President Wippman grabs a ride on the back of a golf cart during Reunion Weekend 2023.

And I’ve said this on a number of occasions, but my immediate predecessors, Joan Stewart and Gene Tobin, were my models for how to be a college president. They’re also my models for how to be an ex-college president, which is to say they are always willing to do whatever Hamilton asks but only when it asks. I hope to be as helpful as I possibly can to my successor. I love the College. I’ll do anything that Hamilton asks me to do, but I won’t interfere.

I had another question, but I kind of like how that ends. 

DW: Thank you, Mike.

Thank you.

DW: All right. I’m going to grab a cup of tea before my three o’clock.

Mike Debraggio is executive writer and director of community relations in the Office of the President. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. 

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