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Transcript: Lilly Pieper '18 Interviews President Wippman


President David Wippman discussed the state of the College, including possible future strategic priorities and his goals for the new Common Ground program, in a live interview with Senior Class President Lilly Pieper. The conversation took place on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017, and can be viewed above or on Facebook or YouTube.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Lilly Pieper: My name's Lilly Pieper. I'm the senior class president, a neuroscience major, and a member of the cross country team. It's my privilege to formally introduce the 20th president of Hamilton College, President Wippman.

David Wippman: Thank you Lilly, I'm delighted we're able to do this conversation tonight and thank you for taking the time.

Lilly Pieper: Thank you for coming. We encourage all of our viewers to post questions in the Facebook comment section of this video. However, we do have a lot of questions that were asked previously, so we'll try to get them all in.

Our first question for tonight is on the topic of diversity of thought. You've talked often about the need for students to be open to different ideas and points of view. Earlier this year, Hamilton announced a new program aimed at modeling this objective. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

David Wippman: Sure, I'm happy to talk about this. This has been sort of a theme for me since I arrived here. It's partly a reflection of what's happening in the broader society. As you know and as we've seen all too often recently, there's been a lot of polarization and not a lot of actual conversation across political boundaries. And we thought it important for our students to be exposed to a broad range of ideas and a broad range of views. [We] think that's central to a liberal arts education and we also wanted to model the kind of respectful dialogue across political boundaries that we think is important for our students to engage in and also for the broader society.

And so with the support of some very generous donors, we are launching a new speaker series. We're calling it Common Ground and the idea is to bring respected and well-known individuals with different political perspectives to campus, and on some occasions off campus, for a moderated dialogue. And really just for an exchange of viewpoints and an opportunity for our students and our faculty and our community at large to engage with those viewpoints and to learn from them.

Lilly Pieper: Yeah, well I know that a lot of the students on campus are really excited for that, and I'm really looking forward to attending the first event next month.

David Wippman: Well that looks like an opening for me to make a plug. So I hope everybody who is able to comes. Our first program will be October 18 and we have David Axelrod and Karl Rove, two leading political strategists. They're going to be talking about a wide range of issues with our moderator. That's Susan Page, who's the Washington Bureau chief of USA Today. You know we're not suggesting that every viewpoint is equally valid, not by any means. But we are suggesting that there are a wide range of issues on which reasonable people can disagree. And they ought to hear each other, and they ought to weigh the evidence and evaluate the arguments and reach a reasoned conclusion.

Lilly Pieper: Great. We've another question from Joseph Andriola, who's a parent of a current student. He says certainly college rankings do not tell the whole story. Nevertheless, they matter whether we like them or not. This year Hamilton has dropped from number 12 to number 18 in the 2018 U.S. News & World Report rankings. Will there be any analysis by Hamilton to understand and address the reason for this drop?

David Wippman: Joseph, I appreciate the question. As you probably know, anyone who follows rankings would say two things. One, they're really not a good indicator of academic quality. And for that reason we and a large group of other colleges don't emphasize these rankings in our admission materials or elsewhere. But two, they do influence people's views and behavior and so we can't ignore them entirely.

So, let me just give you a little bit of context. We are looking at this. Last year we were in a seven-way tie for 12. We had an aggregate score of 86. Our score remained the same this year. Some other schools shifted somewhat and now I think there's a six-way tie for 12. And we shifted one place out of that six-way or seven-way tie to 18th. The changes are pretty minimal and there's a large range of factors, many of which, probably most of which, relate to data that is one, two, and in some cases three years old. We think there have been some improvements on those data points for us. We are looking at this to see whether there's anything that we can do in terms of how we report the data that would be both ethical, but would also present the College in the most favorable light. But at the end of the day we really don't want to focus too much on this ranking or any of the many other rankings that are out there. We want to concentrate on providing the best educational experience possible for our students and look for the ways that we can most meaningfully make progress on that.

Lilly Pieper: Another important topic right now is sexual assault on college campuses. A question from Conor O'Shea, class of '18 says, given that the Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently promised to revamp the Obama-era Dear Colleague letter regarding Title IX and sexual misconduct on college campuses, what will you do personally and the College more generally do going forward to ensure that fairness and due process remain robust for students accused of sexual misconduct?

David Wippman: So, Conor it's an excellent question. I appreciate the question. As you probably know, this has been an evolving process for many years. When the Obama Administration put out its guidance, I think it was 2011, we and other colleges responded. We're also subject to New York State law, which is one of the more stringent laws in the country on this, and we've made every effort to make sure that we have the best and fairest process possible in place, and that we do everything we can to protect all of our students. Last year I set up a working group specifically to review our policies and practices. It's something that we have to continuously review. And the working group concluded that in general our policies were strong and they were good. They had a few suggestions.

One, in particular, I think was significant and that was to create a new position for an education and outreach coordinator. So we've done that, and we've made a number of other changes suggested by the working group. We're going to follow closely the process that Secretary DeVos has indicated she's going to pursue in Washington. They're going to go through a notice and comment process, which is the usual process that precedes the issuance of federal regulations. So, we're going to watch that carefully and we may be forced to make adjustments, but our overall goal really is to provide the best environment possible for all our students and to protect their interests as best we can. I will be continuing to work with our Title IX coordinator, with our dean of students, and with other offices and individuals on campus. But I want to emphasize this is also a cultural question and it's something that every member of our community, including our students, and in some ways most noticeably our students, can help us. We need to have the right culture on this campus and around the country, so that there are no incidents of sexual assault.

Lilly Pieper: Right, and I know there are a lot of rising student groups on campus looking at that.

David Wippman: We have a number of student groups – SAVES, SMART, and there may be others – that have been very much engaged on this topic and we appreciate their efforts. We're in dialogue with those groups, as we are with many others. This is an issue that all of us need to work together on.

Lilly Pieper: Yes, I think we can all agree on that. Another question comes from Bob Gabriel, who is a parent of three Hamilton students. He asked about a timeline for building the indoor turf practice facility. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

David Wippman: Sure Bob, I'm happy to talk about that. It was good to see you in the Adirondacks by the way. You might know that we, a year or so ago, our trustees approved the construction of an indoor practice facility. Initially we were contemplating a facility without a hard top. It had a soft top, sometimes referred to colloquially as the bubble. But as you probably know there were some big snowstorms in this area and some other bubbles in the area didn't fare terribly well. So we're reconsidering that and we're moving in the direction of a hard top facility. It's still in the planning process, and subject to final approval by our trustees, and it's going through a budgetary review. But it could be under construction fairly soon if everything goes well. It would take at least a year and probably more to complete it, assuming all the approvals go through. It won't be quite as large as our current practice facility – probably be about half the size of our current indoor facility.

Lilly Pieper: I just want to remind our viewers that this is a question and answer with President Wippman and we still encourage you to post questions in the comment field.

We have another question from class of 2018 senior Ryan Bloom. She says the strategic planning process was advertised as something that would take students’ views into account. All of the students selected to serve on committees, including Ryan, accepted and understood that being part of the process would involve work over the summer. So her question is why were these students kept out of the working groups this summer? Similarly, why have there been no surveys sent to the student body to solicit feedback on the ideas that were formalized over the summer?

David Wippman: Ryan, as you know from participating in this process, we did have three committees and a steering committee, which we formed last year and they did their work during the academic year. We solicited from a very broad range of constituencies on campus, really heard countless ideas. We ended up with pages and pages of ideas provided by students, by faculty, by staff, and by alumni. Those groups tried to narrow those ideas down. We took several sets of ideas this summer, and we asked working groups to form to flesh them out a little bit and to try and put them into a more concrete form that we could then share with the full community. Students, of course, for the most part aren't here during the summer, and so there were not students on the working groups. But we will be taking the recommendations and the ideas that have come out of the working groups and presenting them to the full community, including students, this fall.

At this point the work is really being done by the steering committee, which does have a student representative on it, the president of the Student Assembly. We're definitely eager to get student views and we'll find various fora in which to obtain student views. I don't know if we're going to do surveys or we'll do focus groups and maybe we'll be talking with Student Assembly. There will be a variety of ways in which we will solicit student input.

Lilly Pieper: Right, I know Student Assembly is always available to help out.

David Wippman: And we have a Student Assembly member on there, so we'll definitely get Student Assembly's views.

Lilly Pieper: Perfect. Okay, from alumna Suzanne Singer Boger, she explains, as I look now at colleges with my children cost is a big issue. My kids are great students and gravitate to schools like Hamilton and other NESCACs. However, now that Hamilton no longer offers merit awards, and we do not likely qualify for need-based financial awards, I'm sad to think we may have to saddle ourselves and our kids with years of debt to have the same phenomenal experience that I had at Hamilton. Please discuss options for alums like myself with more than one child who do not qualify for aid but also do not make more than half a million dollars a year.

David Wippman: Well Susan, I completely understand and sympathize with the concern that you've raised. Wasn't so long ago that as a parent I was paying college tuition and I'm absolutely aware of the burden that can place on a family. We're very cognizant of that. We do everything we can to keep the cost down. But we're always caught between two competing imperatives. And one of those imperatives is to constantly improve the quality of the education that we provide. Now we really think we provide the gold standard here. But we're constantly working to improve it and as you'll see from the strategic planning process, all the ideas that come forward, virtually all, will require resources. And at the same time we're seeing change in the demographics of our student body. So, our student body needs more and more financial aid.

We're very aware of the pressure both to keep the costs reasonable for families, but also to continue to improve the quality of the education we offer. We do have a very generous financial aid package. Some years ago the College made the decision to go fully need blind, so we are committed and will in the future continue to meet the full demonstrated financial need of any student we admit. At the same time, we understand that there are parents who are a little higher on the economic spectrum, but who aren't making half a million dollars a year, and they may also need financial assistance. And we do actually provide financial assistance to a broad range of families.

Something like 60% of families making $200,000 a year, their students are eligible for financial aid and are receiving pretty significant financial aid packages. And almost 20% of those students coming from families making $300,000 a year are also eligible for and receiving financial aid. So, it may be that your student or others are eligible even if you might think they wouldn't be. I would encourage you to speak to our Admissions Office and talk to them about the opportunities for support, because we do recognize that the comprehensive fee that we charge and that our peers charge, is a very significant amount of money.

Lilly Pieper: Our next question is on the issue of free speech on college campuses. Eric von Brockdorf, class of 1955, asks about the Alexander Hamilton Institute and reports that copies of its publication the Enquiry tended to disappear mysteriously upon delivery to the Hill. Has the Enquiry delivery problem, if there was or still is one, been addressed?

David Wippman: Eric, as far as I know there hasn't been an incident recently involving Enquiry and, in fact, as I entered the library tonight, I noticed right on the shelf there is a big stack of Enquiry publications right next to the Duel Observer and some others. I haven't heard any recent reports that there has been a problem with this. When I started, I had heard that there were sometimes occasions on which copies of Enquiry would disappear. If that were to happen, it would clearly be in violation of college policy. We're absolutely committed to providing an environment in which property is respected and free speech rights are respected, and the two of those come together in the circumstance that you're suggesting.

So, I know that it has been investigated in the past, Campus Safety has looked into it. We do not accept that as appropriate for anyone to try and suppress any kind of publication here on campus.

Lilly Pieper: Another submitted question is from Robin Gane-McCalla, class of 2007. He asks how do you connect Hamilton's unique history like the claims of Alexander Hamilton being black and Hamilton College's predecessors’ intention of being an institution of learning for Native Americans to its commitment to diversity? I'm just going to add in, I'm especially fond of this question. As I'm involved in the Shenandoah-Kirkland Initiative, which you know about. Seeking to rebuild the relationship with Oneida American Indians and educate our campus on history of the founding, so very interested to see what you have to say.

David Wippman: It's a great question. I know that you've been involved in an effort to reconnect with our historical roots. We're really very proud of the history of the College. As you know, this is our 206th year and so we go back quite a ways and we're proud of our association with Alexander Hamilton. He had such a transformative impact on this country, and we're proud of our association with the Oneida Nation. The [Hamilton-Oneida] Academy was originally founded as an institution that would educate the children both of settlers in the area and Oneida Indians in the area. And even though it didn't fully live up to that promise, we are cognizant of that history and we're committed to being as diverse an institution and to support as many different backgrounds and identities and views as we can. Your own effort – I know you and other students have been working on this to connect with your counterparts in the Oneida Nation – has been very impressive and that ties very nicely to our historical roots.

So, we're proud of the progress that we've made. This year 30% of the entering students in the fall class were students of color. Another six or seven percent are international students. We're constantly thinking about that history of an institution that brings together people from different cultures and different backgrounds, and we do want to honor that history.

Lilly Pieper: Of course. We have another question from senior Marquis Palmer. This is a two-part question. In your view should Student Assembly play an active role in promoting the ideals of the College? Why or why not? If so, to what extent? And finally, can you comment on where Student Assembly is relative to where we ought to be in fulfilling that role?

David Wippman: I think that might be a three-part question, but I may have lost count somewhere along the way. One of the gratifying things about this being my second year is I recognize a lot of the names of some people who are asking these questions. So I do appreciate the question.

Absolutely, we would like students in Student Assembly to be involved in promoting the ideals of the College. As you will know if you've looked at our past strategic plan, we put a lot of emphasis on a self-governing community and we want students to be very much part of that self-governing community. I think Student Assembly does a terrific job of that. We want all members of the Hamilton community to contribute to promoting the ideals of the College. And I've seen the work of Student Assembly over the last year and a quarter or so, and I know that they've been engaged on some of the important issues that we’re looking at as a College.

Whether it's environmental sustainability or sexual misconduct or strategic planning, Student Assembly has had an important role. And I hope they will continue to fulfill that role. The extent to which any group – whether it's Student Assembly or the administration or the faculty – any group on campus contributes in any moment to the ideals of the College will vary over time. I think Student Assembly is doing a pretty good job and I hope people on the campus, I hope the students will think seriously about participating in the work of the Assembly.

Lilly Pieper: Yes, of course, I agree with that.

David Wippman: Absolutely. I'd be worried if you said no.

Lilly Pieper: I also just want to thank everyone who's joining in. Another reminder that this is a question-and-answer session with President Wippman. And if you want to ask any questions feel free to type them in the comment section on this video.

The next question we have is from Sue Johnson, a parent. She asks why does Hamilton have a Family Weekend the weekend after fall break? It would be better to spread these events further apart particularly when parents have to drive long distances to and from Hamilton about three times during a period of one and a half weeks?

David Wippman: Sue, I completely understand and sympathize with that concern. I asked essentially the same question, because I was uncertain why do we schedule it as we do. And it turns out there are some good reasons, not really under our control or at least only partially so. We don't want to schedule it too early in the year. We want the student body, particularly the freshmen, to have an opportunity to gel as a community. We want performing arts groups and groups doing concerts for example, to have an opportunity to come together and to practice and to get ready. We don't want to do it too late in the season, because we are in Upstate New York and as you push into the late part of the semester, we run into the risk of weather problems.

Lilly Pieper: Yes, of course.

David Wippman: We also would like it to be a weekend which is not too close to fall break. But we want it to be a weekend in which there will be a lot of home games if possible. And we have to work with our NESCAC colleagues, all of which want to have as many home games as they can. So this is a weekend where there happen to be a lot home games and parents generally appreciate that. We also have to work around religious holidays, so there are a lot of factors that come together and when you look at that entire mix of factors, it turns out that the weekend it's scheduled was the best weekend. Even though we recognize it will mean a lot of back and forth for parents.

Lilly Pieper: We have another question from Alex Fraser, class of 1985. So on September 5th, you signed a letter along with other presidents of the New York Six consortium, relating to DACA. The letter was timely although it contained very little actual content. Would you please provide some additional information about Hamilton's relationship with DACA recipients since inception and to the extent that there are DACA recipients on the Hill? Is the College providing on-campus support for any necessary renewals?

David Wippman: As most people probably know, since it's been the subject of a lot of news coverage lately, the DACA program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is a program that was established under the Obama Administration in order to provide certain protections to individuals who were brought here before the age of 16 – brought to this country before the age of 16 so that they could attend college or find work and be productive members of the community. And since the inception of the program, Hamilton College has admitted students who were DACA eligible. And we will continue to do so; I've said that in the letter to the campus community. We don't comment specifically on how many DACA students we have at any given time. We just generally don't comment on the immigration status of our students. It's one of our commitments to them, that we don't share information about anyone's immigration status.

But we are committed to continuing to admit students who are DACA eligible and to providing them and to providing to all students in our community as much support as we can. There's a webpage that the College has set up for students who have concerns around immigration and related issues. And it details the kind of support the college will provide, including where appropriate identifying legal assistance to those who need it. We're fairly confident that we are doing what we can to assist students who need it and we're committed to continuing to do so. I'm cautiously optimistic that Congress will work out something legislatively that will be a fix to this issue. And I joined the other New York Six presidents in writing letters to our congressional delegation here in New York, encouraging them to support a quick legislative solution.

Lilly Pieper: Great. So we have another submitted question by Ward Halverson, class of '92. A number of us alums throughout the country and world are especially interested in helping Hamilton students and graduates find success beyond the Hill. What programs are in place for that now and what initiatives do you envision in the near future?

David Wippman: Well, I appreciate the question and also the offer of help. We would love that. We are very happy to engage with alumni in assisting our students and there are lots of different ways to do that. There are students who are looking for internships, whether during the summer or after they graduate. Students, of course, are looking for career assistance. We have a terrific Career Center and I would encourage you and others interested to get in touch with them about ways that you can help our students once they leave College Hill. We have students who are on study abroad programs, students who are off campus studying – whether it's in New York or Washington or elsewhere – and there may be opportunities to assist those students as well. So there are a lot of ways for alumni to help our students.

We are doing as part of our strategic planning a pretty careful analysis of opportunities for our students off campus, both while they're students and afterwards. Particularly, opportunities that constitute experiential learning. I'd say stay tuned as that strategic plan emerges. I'm sure there will be other ways that you and your fellow alumni can assist us and we would much appreciate it.

Lilly Pieper: Yeah, great. And I can attest to how helpful the Career Center is, and as a senior who's looking for jobs in the near future, it's great to hear alumni interest in helping people beyond the Hill.

David Wippman: Absolutely, so Ward here's one connection you can make right away.

Lilly Pieper: Yeah, reach out.

David Wippman: Reach out. You can email her separately.

Lilly Pieper: We have a question from Patty Unfred, who's a parent of a current student. She's wondering how are you providing meaningful dialogues about race and systematic oppression and preparing a predominantly white student body to be anti-racist leaders in society.

David Wippman: I would like to say that it's part of our mission to have students learn to embrace difference and one of our learning objectives is for students to become engaged in active citizenship. And this applies to the entire student body not just any one segment or component of the student body. And learning to understand issues around race is incredibly important. We're approaching that in a lot of different ways, and I think it's a community responsibility. It's not the responsibility of any single individual or any single office. It's something all of us have to work on and have to be engaged with. That said, there are specific offices that focus on this in particular. In 2011, we set up the Days-Massolo Center and it has been a focal point for a lot of the kind of programming that you're asking about in your question. But there's Levitt Center programming, individual faculty will discuss these issues in their classes.

A year or two ago, the faculty as whole made the decision that we should add as a requirement in each concentration at least one course that deals with issues of structural and institutional hierarchies, or more colloquially with diversity questions. And this is a fairly unique and innovative way of approaching it. Every student, as part of their concentration, will have to take at least one course that deals with these questions. So there's really a wide range of approaches to this across the campus, and I think that's the appropriate thing. It can't be a single office that deals with this. It's really got to be a collective effort.

Lilly Pieper: Right, I believe that was our last question, but if you have anything else to say before we sign off feel free to.

David Wippman: Well, I'm shocked that there are no more questions. This feels like one of my classes, at the end I ask are there any questions. I just want to thank all of you for taking the time to join us this evening. I want to thank Lilly.

Lilly Pieper: Thank you.

David Wippman: For doing such a terrific job as my interlocutor and I hope we'll have the opportunity for further Facebook Live sessions. I do like to engage with the Hamilton community and the alumni more broadly and you know where to find me. I'm in Buttrick Hall and I'm looking forward to more questions and more conversation.

Lilly Pieper: Great and thank you for letting me be a part of this. Big thank you to you for being here and answering all of our questions and thank you to everyone watching tonight.

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