President David Wippman discussed the state of the college, including his reflections on Hamilton’s greatest needs and challenges, in a live interview with Senior Class President Silvia Radulescu. The conversation took place on Tuesday, Jan. 31, and can be viewed on Facebook and Youtube.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Silvia: Good evening, and thank you for joining us. I’m Silvia Radulescu, and it’s my pleasure to introduce David Wippman, the 20th president of Hamilton College.
David Wippman: Well, thank you, Silvia. I appreciate your doing this tonight.
Silvia: Thank you for giving us this opportunity to talk to you about Hamilton.
David Wippman: It’s my pleasure.
Silvia: Tonight we’re going to talk to President Wippman about the state of the College, including its needs and changes that are going to be going on. We’ve received a number of questions online before the interview, but for those of you watching live, feel free to send in some more and we’ll try to get to them in the next 20 to 30 minutes.
Let’s get started.
David Wippman: Great.
Silvia: President Wippman, I’d like to start the interview by asking what are your impressions of the College after being here for about six months?
David Wippman: It’s been a terrific experience, for me. I love the College. I’ve had an incredible set of opportunities here. Everyday when I just walk around, I think how fortunate I am to be on this campus. Recently, on a weekend, I was wandering through the Kennedy Center for the Arts, and we ... just entered a studio. There was a student working there. She was doing an incredible sculpture. She stopped and explained to us what she was doing and all the creative work that was going into it, how all the different machines in that studio operated.
We wandered into a different studio. There was a student who was working on putting music to film. He was working with lots of computers and showed us how that all operated. As I listened to those students, I thought what an incredible opportunity to get this kind of education, but also what remarkably talented and engaging students we have.
That’s been pretty much my experience throughout this last six months of just having a phenomenal experience at one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country.
Silvia: What do you think are Hamilton’s greatest needs and challenges?
David Wippman: Like any institution of higher education, we have a set of challenges facing us. Some of them are common to the entire sector. Some are more specific to Hamilton College. When I think of what the big challenges are going forward, I look at the history of liberal arts colleges in the United States and think about Hamilton’s place in that history. On the one hand, the College has been on an extraordinary upward trajectory. That’s been great. We want to sustain that. On the other hand, liberal arts colleges as a sector have been declining in number. Their share of the number of students going to college has dropped significantly. It used to maybe be 40 or 50 percent of people would get their degree at a liberal arts college. Now it’s maybe 2 or 3 percent.
In that kind of environment, we have to think about how we demonstrate to people the incredible value proposition of a college like Hamilton, which you understand if you are here and you experience this kind of an engaged learning community. But if you don’t have that experience, it may be more difficult for you to understand it. We need to get our message out around the country. We need to reach people in parts of the country that haven’t historically sent many students to Hamilton. That’s one of the challenges we face.
Related to that, and perhaps the biggest challenge is just the increasing cost of higher education in general, including Hamilton. As our comprehensive fee gets higher and it grows further and further past the median income of a family of four in this country, we have to work hard to make sure that a Hamilton education is affordable and is accessible to anyone who is qualified. That’s going to take some work going forward.
Silvia: There was a question, actually, about the price of college rising, but we’ll get to that in a second, from one of the alumni. For those of you just joining us, feel free to keep sending in some questions. We will try to get to them as we go on, in the next 20 to 30 minutes.
You’ve said that you want to spend your first months listening and learning. This question is from Michael Blasie, Class of 2007, and he asks, “Colleges pride themselves on innovation, yet at many schools, there’s a trend to follow rather than lead. Is Hamilton innovating or following, and what proposals are under consideration that, as far as you know, are original, here at Hamilton?”
David Wippman: It’s an interesting question. I’m tempted to say that the answer to the question, “Is Hamilton innovating or following?” is yes. I mean, we’re doing both. We should be doing both. Of course, we learn from our peers as they learn from us. There’s a constant dialogue between institutions of higher education, faculty visit at other universities and colleges [and] their faculty visit here. We’re constantly learning from each other. If a good idea emerges somewhere else, then by all means, we want to look at it and adapt it to our situation.
At the same time, we also want to lead in different areas. I think we’ve done that in many ways, historically. We’re well-known for our focus on writing and oral expression. I think we’ve got a terrific program in that area. We have a very innovative program in the digital humanities. Really, throughout the curriculum, there’s a lot of innovation going on. There’s innovation in the classroom and in the work of our students and our faculty. We’re thinking very carefully about what’s the future.
We just this month launched a strategic planning process. We have four committees. One of them we’re calling the Imagining Hamilton Committee. I used to call it the Blue Sky Committee, because the idea was they were really just going to brainstorm and come up with big ideas for the future, innovative ideas. Then we realized people might refer to the committee by its initials, so we changed the name, and now it’s Imagining Hamilton.
We’re asking that committee to think about really basic questions about the future of the College and its role in higher education. Is our business model sustainable? What is and what should be distinctive about the College? Really fundamental questions, and I’m hoping that some really creative and innovative ideas will emerge out of that planning process. I don’t want to pre-judge it yet, though. I’ve heard some great ideas already, but I want to give [it time] this next year and let that conversation go forward. We hope to engage faculty, students, staff, alumni, other members of the community, and really generate some creative things where we will be leaders, as we have been in the past.
Silvia: Now, Hannah Carlisle, Class of 2014, writes, “I was pleased to see a public statement from President Wippman on the recent immigration executive order; that being said, many of our peers have taken additional steps to support those impacted by this and other executive orders. What steps will Hamilton be taking in this vein?”
David Wippman: We’ve taken a series of steps. It’s an important question. As you know, the executive order that was recently issued by President Trump has raised concerns on college campuses around the country. We’ve addressed those in a number of ways. In a message that I sent to the campus in December, I addressed some of the concerns that students and faculty have and indicated that as has been our practice in the past, we don’t share information about a student’s immigration status with anyone. That’s private information. Unless we’re in some way legally compelled, we keep it private. We don’t have a police force at Hamilton. Some universities and colleges do. We have a campus safety unit. They don’t ask students about their immigration status, and they don’t cooperate with law enforcement on enforcement of immigration laws, again, unless we’re compelled to do so.
We are looking for ways to support our students. We want all of our students to thrive here. We have, for most of our 200 years, been a very international college. We bring students from all over the globe here, including from some of the countries that were affected by the most recent order. We have faculty from around the globe, we have visitors from around the globe, and that’s important. It’s important to us, it’s important to the future of higher education to have that constant flow of people and ideas.
We’ve told students who are directly affected by the recent order that we will provide support to them. We’re in conversation with them. We’re looking at options for legal assistance should it be needed. We’re trying to do everything we can to support all of our students. I think we’re doing pretty much what we can, and as much as – and in many cases more than – many of our peers.
Silvia: That’s really great to hear.
Tom Brush, Class of 1990, who’s also the parent of a current student, says, “President Wippman, there are a number of long-serving faculty and administrators who are probably nearing the end of their careers at Hamilton around the same time. How do you plan to address not only this talent loss, but also the historical perspective and the leadership that will be missing from the campus with their departure?”
David Wippman: It’s great to get these questions from parents, and I’m delighted that parents are in our audience and are engaging. I always like to hear from parents. It’s a really important question. We’re at a transition moment, an inflection point for the College. This year, we’re doing 16 searches, 16 faculty searches. In a normal year, we’d be doing maybe three or four. Our Office of Institutional Research anticipates that by 2025, fully half of the faculty at the College will consist of recent hires or new hires.
The reason is, we’re seeing waves of retirements, because some of the baby boom generation is hitting the retirement age. This is true at a lot of colleges. It’s particularly true, here, partly because of the timing of our merger with Kirkland, and so a lot of faculty were hired at that time. That was in 1978. Those faculty are either at or nearing retirement age, so we’re anticipating continuing waves of retirements. This is true around the staff, as well.
What that means is that there’s both a challenge and an opportunity. On the one hand, we’re losing some tremendously talented people, people who’ve been enormously dedicated, who’ve spent 30 or 40 years, sometimes more, working here at the College, so a vast treasure trove of institutional expertise and dedication and wisdom. But on the other hand, we have the opportunity to hire some tremendous new people. It’s a great market if you’re looking to hire new faculty. They’re bringing new energy, new ideas, new pedagogies to the College. We’re trying to balance those two things, this loss of wonderfully talented people, around, at the same time the opportunity to bring in some wonderful new people.
It’s also an opportunity for us as a College to think about the curriculum of the future, and the College of the future. As we hire, what areas do we want to emphasize? How do we want to move the College forward? It’s an opportunity for us to diversify the faculty.
A lot of opportunity there, but a lot of challenge.
Silvia: Again, we want to welcome everyone who’s just joining us live. Feel free to send more questions in, and to share on your Facebook page, that more and more friends can see.
This one is from Doug Lemov, who’s Class of 1990. He says, “Recent data suggests that the overwhelming majority of private colleges do a poor job of attracting students who are not in the top decile of socioeconomic status. What do you think Hamilton can do about that?”
David Wippman: It’s an important question. It’s one that has concerned me. I have seen the data. The most recent data that I saw that reflected what’s happening at colleges around the country was based on students who had actually matriculated before 2010. 2010 is the year that our College went fully need-blind. That was a year in which our trustees made what I thought was an incredibly important commitment. It’s a commitment to access and affordability.
They decided that we would be need-blind in the sense that we don’t consider need when we make the admission decision, and after we’ve made that decision, which is based purely on merit, then we have a commitment to meet the full demonstrated financial need of any of the freshman admits that we’ve made. I think we [have been] strengthening diversity, including the socioeconomic diversity, of our campus from that point forward, but it’s still a challenge.
One of the things we’ve seen is that families with resources have an advantage. Their children have all kinds of opportunities for enrichment programs as they grow up, and that does give them an advantage in the admissions process everywhere. We’re looking at that very carefully. One of our big objectives in going forward is to more actively recruit and reach out to students from lower socioeconomic levels who might not consider a college like Hamilton, who might not have thought about a college like Hamilton, who might not have realized that we will provide the financial resources they need. I think if we can do that successfully, we’ll make a lot of progress on this issue.
Silvia: To follow up on that, what do you think is the best way to do that, to reach out to them, and to let them know, “Look, we are need-blind,” or “Look, this is a phenomenal opportunity?”
David Wippman: We’ve got a wonderful admissions team headed by our dean, Monica Inzer. They’re looking at all kinds of creative ways to reach out to students. Often, it may involve working with guidance counselors in particular high schools. It may involve social media and new opportunities around social media.
We’re studying new ways to reach out. We, like other colleges, send admission materials to a plethora of students across the country. I think there’s a risk that they get buried. They’re getting mailings, they’re getting texts, they’re getting emails from so many institutions, so how do you make yours stand out?
We’re really looking carefully at that. That’s one of the things that we’ll be looking at in the strategic planning process. How can we really move forward on this question?
Silvia: Thanks to Katie Miller, who’s Class of ’99, and Riker Jones, who’s Class of 2015. They actually asked similar questions. Katie asked, “You’ve come to Hamilton during a turbulent time in America’s political history. Can you share what you, the faculty and the administration, will be doing to ensure a safe and welcoming community, as well as an environment for constructive dialogue?”
David Wippman: This certainly has been a turbulent time. I think anyone who pays any attention to politics knows that in our country, in a way that I haven’t seen in many decades, there’s a lot of division and a lot of strong viewpoints strongly held. We are trying to encourage an environment on campus that is safe in more than one way, and that encourages expression of different viewpoints. When people say, “What are you doing to create a safe environment on campus?,” they often mean something different by it. Some people by safe mean physically safe. “What are you doing to make sure there’s not crime on campus?,” “What are you doing to make sure that we manage things like sexual assault?,” which as you know has been a very difficult challenge on campuses across the country. “What are you doing to limit substance abuse?”
We have a lot of programs around all of those questions. In connection with sexual assault, for example, we’ve formed, this year, a sexual misconduct working group. We’re working closely with students and faculty and staff and alumni to really review our policies and make sure that we have the safest possible environment we can have.
That’s one form of safety. There’s another form of safety that people often talk about, and that has to do with both a sort of emotional and intellectual safety. What I’m talking about there is, students who feel that maybe they’re subject to some form of verbal harassment, or we have students on campus who feel that their political viewpoint, because it’s not reflective of what they see as the majority viewpoint on campus, may not be welcomed, and so they may not feel comfortable speaking up in class or speaking up in a social conversation.
I’ve made it a … theme of my presidency to encourage everyone on our campus and everyone [who is] part of our community to engage fully and respectfully with each other. I’ve said this at convocation, I’ve said it in my welcome remarks to the new students in January, I said it at inauguration, [and] I’m saying it now. At every opportunity, I want people to engage with each other, to consider viewpoints that [differ from] their own. That’s really where learning takes place, whether it’s social or moral or intellectual learning. If you’re talking only to people who think exactly as you do, it’s going to be hard to learn a lot.
It’s when we engage with those with whom we have differences that we learn, and at the same time, I’m saying, let’s do it respectfully. Let’s recognize that there are different viewpoints, there are different backgrounds, there are different experiences represented in our campus, and let’s be thoughtful about how we engage with each other, but let’s engage.”
Silvia: In a similar vein, Elizabeth Finegan-Menges, Class of ’84, asked, “How’s Hamilton dealing with trigger warnings and the First Amendment for professors?”
David Wippman: It’s an interesting question. I’ll start with trigger warnings. That maybe is a little bit more straightforward. There was, early in the year, in the Fall, the University of Chicago sent out a welcome letter to freshmen in which they said they don’t support trigger warnings and safe spaces. There was a lot of discussion generated by that letter. When I think about trigger warnings, there are two viewpoints that are often expressed, but they’re both a little bit of a caricature of what I think is actually happening on college campuses, at least on this campus.
One viewpoint sees this as an effort to prevent students from being exposed to anything that they might find unpleasant or offensive, or that runs contrary to their political beliefs or other deeply held beliefs. Another viewpoint is that we’ve had students who have experienced serious trauma and they shouldn’t, under any circumstances, be unwillingly exposed to something that might trigger a reaction on the basis of their past experience.
Really, I think what’s happening is quite different. We have individual faculty who know the subject matter of their courses and who make decisions around, “Should I, in my syllabus or otherwise, indicate to students what I’m going to be covering, particularly if it’s an area that might raise sensitivities for students just so that they can come prepared to discuss and engage and not be caught off-guard?” Each faculty member makes that decision for him- or herself. That’s part of academic freedom. That’s true on this campus, and it’s true on every other campus. I haven’t seen any indication that it’s a problem here. It’s not the kind of stereotyped thing that people sometimes assume it is.
So trigger warnings, and what was the [other question]... Oh, First Amendment for faculty.
Well, our faculty, like faculty around the country, like our students, like our staff, like everyone here, has the right of free speech. I’m going to put my lawyer’s hat on. I can’t resist this. I did go to law school. The First Amendment doesn’t apply directly to a college like Hamilton because we are a private college. The First Amendment restricts government action, so it’d apply to a public university, not directly to a private, but having said that, we absolutely uphold the First Amendment here. We respect the values that are implicit in that. Faculty have free speech, everyone here has free speech.
There are limits to free speech, and there is an extraordinary body of case law that lays out what those are. I have not seen it become a flashpoint, at least in my experience here at Hamilton. We’ve got a wide range of viewpoints that have been expressed. I’ve seen very respectful dialogue. I want to see more of that respectful dialogue. I haven’t seen an issue come up yet. I’m not saying it won’t, but in my six months here, that hasn’t been a problem.
Silvia: This question actually just came in on Facebook. Pam Havens, a parent of a current student, says, “Is consideration being given to adding new technology-oriented majors?”
David Wippman: We’re sort of constantly rethinking and re-evaluating the curriculum. I mentioned our strategic planning process. We’ve got four committees. One of them is an academic vision committee, and expressly part of its charge is to rethink our curriculum and to look at curricular issues. We have a faculty committee, or faculty committees that are routinely looking at the curriculum. Departments are constantly looking at the curriculum. This is a long way of saying yes, we’re thinking about how technology can be incorporated into the curriculum here at Hamilton. We’re not at the moment contemplating a specific new major related to technology. We have a computer science department and concentration, but we’re constantly thinking about where we go in the future. We have a digital humanities initiative. There are lots of ways in which I think computing can be integrated into the curriculum, and we are looking at that, but this is a process in which many people are involved: faculty, the dean of faculty, our planning committees. It’s going to be a process, going forward.
Silvia: This question is from Robert Wang who graduated in 2005. “Over the past few years, an increasing number of varsity coaches at Hamilton have officially restricted their student athletes from joining a Greek society. This trend is concerning to me, because I’ve always believed that the beauty of a Division III school like Hamilton is that you have the freedom to diversify your college experience with all sorts of different activities. What is your opinion on this policy?”
David Wippman: I will agree with the question in part, that is, I think it’s incredibly important for students to have a wide range of experiences on campus, and I think they do. I want to correct one, perhaps, misimpression which is that it’s an official policy. In fact, the policy of the department is that students may join fraternities or sororities, but in some instances, coaches will discourage membership because of unfortunate past experiences. If a student says, “I want to join a fraternity or sorority,” a coach will sit down with the student and walk through the various scenarios around which the coach may have concerns. At the end of the day, the decision is up to the student, but I certainly agree that having a wide range of experiences is important.
Silvia: Do you think that if playing time or involvement with the team is being held over a student’s head that that might also impact whether or not they join, even if it’s not an official sanction?
David Wippman: If that were the case, yes. As far as I know, that’s not the case. I think what the coaches do is they walk through the options with the student and they say, “Here are the concerns we have. This is why we think it might pose a problem for the team.” At the end of the day, our goal with athletics, as with anything else, is to do what’s best for all of our students, so the students who are the whole team, but also the individual student, which is why, as I understand it, the policy is, at the end of the day, it is the student’s decision.
Silvia:Okay. Then, Charlotte Bennett of 2017 asks, “How do you plan to address the student body’s lack of trust in the administration?”
David Wippman: In law school, we always talk about fighting the hypothetical, and so maybe I’m going to be guilty of that for a moment. My sense is that there is actually a lot of trust between the student body and the administration. You may tell me I’m wrong. Maybe I’m living in a dream world, but I talk with students all the time. I eat lunch with students in the dining halls. I go to the sporting events. I was just at the basketball game. I talk to students. I go to dinners and plays, concerts, all kinds of events with students. We include students in strategic planning. I meet regularly with the president and the vice president of the Student Assembly.
We have lots of ways of engaging with students, and I’m constantly talking to them about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it. I try to hear their concerns, and I always ask, “What can we do to make Hamilton better?”
We’re a campus of close to 2,000 students; inevitably, there will be some students who feel that the administration hasn’t done something that they would like it to have done. I’m trying to be as transparent as I can with not just students, but faculty, staff and alumni. I would like to think that there is actually a fair amount of trust.
It’s not perfect, and there will always be occasions where decisions are made and for privacy reasons or legal reasons or other reasons, we can’t fully share the basis for those decisions. My hope is that by my getting to know the students, they’re getting to know me, they’re getting to know other members of the administration and vice versa. We, I think, do have a significant level of trust, and I think we can build it further.
Silvia: Now, junior Gerard Pozzi and Jan Whitney, who’s a parent, asked about languages on campus. Gerard specifically asked why Hamilton doesn’t offer a minor in Italian, and then Jan mentioned Arabic, saying that her son, who’s a senior, has taken several courses in Arabic, but he won’t have anything to show for it on his diploma.
David Wippman: Languages is something that we’re looking at closely. At the beginning of the year, I attended a retreat with the dean of faculty and her staff and we talked about languages. I asked them, “If we were operating with a completely blank slate, which languages would we offer, recognizing that we can’t offer every language?” There was pretty broad agreement, “Well, of course we’re going to offer Spanish. So many countries it’s spoken. Chinese is a ... hugely important language, geopolitically. Arabic,” and as you start to move down the list of languages, the consensus started to get thinner.
Currently, I think we offer around 10 languages at Hamilton, which is a substantial number for a college our size. I think 20 or 30 years ago, maybe we offered six or seven languages. We have a critical languages program to offer a few additional languages, but we have to make choices around the resources that we’re going to invest in any given language.
At the moment, we don’t have minors in Italian or Arabic. When we make those decisions, there are faculty committees that make recommendations. The full faculty will consider it, and there are a number of factors that they’ll look into. Demand by students is one, but strategic choices around where we invest resources and what faculty we have also influence the outcome of those decisions. I understand the desire for minors in Italian and in Arabic and in some other languages. We got a request to teach Hindi this year and we are doing a partnership with the New York Six so that we can have a couple of students take Hindi, but we can’t offer every language, and we can’t offer a major in every language that we do offer, or a minor. It’s a question of resource constraints.
The last thing I would say is that while I realize a student would like to be able to say, “I minored in X language,” even if they can’t say that, they are getting something very beneficial by studying that language. They’re learning the language, the culture, they’re engaging intellectually. It’s not that they’re coming away with nothing, but I appreciate that they would like even more.
Silvia: The final question just came in from Facebook. Excuse me if I mispronounce your name, but Anna Marie Ciacciarella, “What advice would you offer to Hamilton’s incoming class of 2021?”
David Wippman: Well, I’m happy to say that this year, we have a record number of applications. We’re recruiting an astonishingly talented group of students, as we have in the past. What I would say is, take full advantage of the opportunities here. They’re extraordinary. When I look at what our students are doing, there’s a rigorous academic program, but they’re also engaged in multiple activities outside of the classroom, and that’s one of the great strengths of a place like Hamilton. You can really do it ... I won’t say you can do it all, but you can do a whole lot, and I would encourage our new students to take full advantage. Model yourself on people like Silvia. We’ve got fabulous students.
Thank you, Silvia, for taking the time tonight.
Silvia: Thank you, President Wippman, and thank you for everyone who watched tonight, and thank you to everyone who submitted questions. This is going to be available on Facebook and on the College website, so you can share it with friends, or if you want to watch it later, you can see it. Goodnight.