The President of Hamilton College on bringing the school into the future
Hamilton, an idyllic college in upstate New York, is as sought-after as the Broadway play of the same name, and equally as difficult to get into. With an acceptance rate of only 16 percent, the school is benefiting from several years of growth and investment in all areas – from new facilities on its expansive, rural campus, to a need-blind admissions policy that allows for the kind of diversity reflected in its liberal arts mission.
Hamilton’s relatively new president, David Wippman, is the first to credit the college’s upward trajectory to his predecessors; though, in talking with him, it is clear he has his own ambitions for the school. Wippman, an international law scholar who attended Princeton and Yale, is refreshingly down-to-earth and fits in well at Hamilton’s Adirondacks setting, where he is often seen pursuing his passion for cycling.
Like its president, the college has an elite background yet is intentionally open, looking to attract new profiles of students and engaging in new types of learning.
A men’s college until the late 1970s, Hamilton’s history as a boy’s club for athlete-scholars has long since been eclipsed by its current culture as a vibrant learning environment reflective of all people and disciplines with over 50 percent women, 6.6 percent international students, and 25.4 percent students of color. Iconic fraternity houses now serve a range of campus-wide uses, having been banned as residences since the mid-1990s.
As the campus has changed, Wippman is mindful of the challenges that come with today’s “generation Z” students who, he says, are intellectually better prepared for college than generations past, but perhaps emotionally less so. He believes student mental health is undoubtedly one of the biggest priorities of college presidents today, prompting a broad-level examination of resources and initiatives, both inside and outside of the college wellness center.
If Wippman has a theme to his tenure, it may be to accelerate Hamilton’s place in the future, overlaying a computer science component onto all of its liberal arts curricula and using the imminent retirement of long-time faculty and staff as an opportunity to build new strengths as an institution.
Hamilton is still known for its robust athletics, now co-ed, and its rugged, outdoorsy vibe; the village of Clinton at the bottom of the hill was recently named “Hockeyville USA.” Wippman hopes this combination of qualities will attract students outside of the school’s traditional applicant pools in the Northeast and the West Coast. Judging from its growing popularity, this seems like an attainable goal. Here is an excerpt from our conversation.
Mary Christie Quarterly: You’ve been at Hamilton almost three years now. How would you describe the school when you arrived? What drew you to it?
David Wippman: My intellectual roots are in the liberal arts. I taught human rights for many years. I was looking to get back to those roots at a place that provided a top liberal arts education; what I consider the gold standard of higher education. I was looking for a place that provided a really engaged learning community and Hamilton met all those criteria. I knew the area because I had spent 16 years in upstate New York, but when I saw the campus and got to meet the people, I just fell in love with it.
When I arrived, the college was on a remarkable ascending trajectory and had been for quite a few years. By looking at almost any metric, whether it was the number of applications, or the caliber of the students, the faculty we were hiring, or growth in the endowment, it was really on a rising path, so that was very appealing. There had been a great deal of attention paid to facility improvement and a lot of the credit goes to my predecessor, Joan Stewart, who built the arts community with the new museum, the Taylor Science Center, the enhanced Social Science facilities.
MCQ: One of these investments was in needs-blind admissions (when an institution does not consider an applicant’s financial situation when deciding admission). What was the thinking behind this decision? How did that align with your priorities?
DW: I think it’s always been a priority for the college to be as intentional as we can about access and affordability. We want to be able to attract as broad a range of students as possible and we recognize that an increasingly small percentage of the population has the capacity to pay, without financial aid, the full cost of a Hamilton education. That’s true across the country.
We didn’t want to restrict our admissions to just a small subset of the population and so those priorities really came together around the decision to become a need blind school. Back in 2009, the trustees asked the question ‘was need-blind possible?’ They began fundraising around it then and it is something we remain very committed to.
MCQ: Gaining authentic diversity is difficult. What kinds of programs do you have in place to support students of different backgrounds and abilities?
DW: I think we, and everyone in higher education, have discovered that true diversity and inclusion requires much more than just simply admitting a diverse student body or achieving a diverse faculty. It’s critical that everyone feels welcome, and that everyone is positioned to take full advantage of what a place like Hamilton offers.
We have a range of programs to address a set of needs across the student body. We have a summer program for students whose academic work may not have fully prepared them for the rigorous education that they’ll get at Hamilton. We have a SEAS program, Student Emergency Aid Society, that helps offset a range of expenses for students of fewer means.
We have a variety of student services and staff members focused on supporting students from all different backgrounds. That said, we all recognize that there is no single program and no single individual responsible for diversity and inclusion. It has to be an effort and a responsibility of everyone at the college.
MCQ: What differences are you seeing in the types of students who are arriving on campus as opposed to, say, the early 2000s?
DW: I do think there has been a shift over the last 10 or 15 years in this regard. I would say that the students who are coming to college today are more prepared academically than was true in the past, but they also have a variety of needs that we’ve seen escalate in just the past few years; needs that indicate they are less resilient.
The use of our counseling center has increased substantially, as need for counseling services has increased across the country. Students are coming who have higher levels of anxiety and higher levels of depression than we have seen in past generations. And so we’ve had to change the way we meet the needs of those students.
MCQ: Do you think that student mental health has become a priority for college presidents in a way that was probably not even anticipated 10 years ago?
DW: I absolutely think it’s a priority for pretty much every college president. When I go to different kinds of gatherings at which college presidents are present, almost invariably, people talk about this as one of the major challenges they’re facing.
MCQ: What is your approach to student wellness at Hamilton?
DW: We have built a wonderful new health and counseling center, and we have increased the staff and resources we dedicate to mental health counseling. We’ve also moved to a case management system.
So that’s the therapeutic model which is critically important to have available to students who need that kind of support but that’s only part of the approach to this. It’s really got to be much broader than that.
There are student organizations devoted to mental health and wellness, but it’s also an effort by the college to have a broader kind of wellness program and it really has to do with student life here. One of the things we’re doing is we’re bringing together, in a more coherent and integrated way, all of the different forms of advising that students receive. We’re calling it the ALEX Program – which is to integrate Advising, Learning, and EXperiential education.
In addition to that, we’re working on a residential life curriculum that will get at a variety of life skills that we think are connected to student wellbeing like developing resilience, dealing with the ability to manage setbacks, and being prepared and confident, not only for their time at Hamilton, but for their life after their time here.
The programming would be available to students at different points in their experience at Hamilton, so it would be developmentally appropriate. In the first year, it might focus on how you live in a community; What kinds of experiences are you likely to have here; How you think about your academic studies; And how you achieve balance between work and other aspects of your life. It may change as students move through their four years at Hamilton and start to acquire more independence and maturity.
MCQ: Hamilton was at the center of a controversy involving a tragedy and the issue of parental notification. This is tricky for colleges and universities as these issues fall under FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act). What was/is your position on that?
DW: We certainly, to the extent possible, want to work with parents as partners in supporting their students while they’re here. And we work with students to encourage them to engage their parents as full partners.
But we have to be cognizant of the fact that mental health professionals advise that unless students can be confident that their treatment, even the fact that they’re in treatment, will remain confidential, they are much less likely to seek help in the first place. And the last thing we want to do is deter students from seeking the support that they need.
Of course there are exceptions. There are times when it’s necessary, without a student’s permission, to notify either a parent or someone else, if the counselor in his or her clinical judgment thinks that the student poses a threat, either to themselves or others. But as a general matter, we do think it’s important to maintain confidentiality.
MCQ: Do you think there’s room for improvement in how parents and schools communicate around these issues?
DW: I think there’s definitely room for improvement. We certainly are working to communicate more effectively and regularly with parents about what’s happening at the college, and issues their students may be experiencing.
We do want parents to understand that there are limits to what we can share and that’s simply because of privacy considerations, and the federal regulations, but really and more fundamentally, if we’re trying to do what’s in the best interest of the student, we want to make sure the students aren’t discouraged or deterred from seeking help if they need it.
And for students to know that what they share, the therapist will remain confidential – this is often essential for the student to open up in the first place.
We’re aware that there’s a tension between those two things, and we’re trying to manage that as best we can.
MCQ: What are some of the new initiatives you are particularly excited about at Hamilton?
DW: We’re working on something we’re calling Digital Hamilton, which is part of our strategic plan, and it’s a reflection of the change that’s taking place across society. It’s a recognition of the fact that every field of research and every industry is changing in significant ways, and all involving some aspect of technology.
David Solomon, who is one of our alumni, and CEO of Goldman Sachs, will say that Goldman Sachs is a technology company, and in many ways it is. We want all of our students to have some kind of understanding of what data and technology can make possible and to be able to think and reflect on some of the social and political implications of those changes. We’re trying to infuse this throughout the curriculum.
Regardless of your major, we want you to obtain some level of digital skill and an awareness of the changes that technology is driving.
We think of this as a continuation of our focus to prepare students for their lives after Hamilton. We talk about preparing students to be engaged citizens and we really want them to understand how the world is changing.
That means exposing students to data and data analytics and how they’re used, and to machine learning and artificial intelligence, and how they’re changing different fields. What I say to students is, “you don’t need to be an engineer, but you need to be able to talk to an engineer.”
Another opportunity for us is in the area of staff and faculty development. Hamilton is in somewhat of an unusual situation in this regard. I think most colleges and universities are seeing a lot of faculty reaching their retirement age just because the baby boom generation is in that phase.
But for us, that trend is accelerated by the timing of our merger with Kirkland College in 1978 and the hiring that we did in the aftermath of that merger.
The result is that between 2015 and 2025, almost half of our faculty will consist of new hires, so while we, on the one hand, regret that we’re losing some wonderful, talented, and experienced faculty, it also gives us opportunity to hire some wonderful new faculty.
And we’re well into that process, so it’s enabled us to diversify the faculty a little bit faster than we might have and bring in a lot of exciting, new talent.
MCQ: You’ve recently started something called “Common Ground,” which brings together renowned opinion leaders of very different viewpoints, such as Susan Rice and Condoleezza Rice. What was the motivation for that and what do you see as the value of this kind of program?
DW: I think everyone recognizes that we are in a period of unusually high political polarization across the country.
And I think, as unfortunate as that is for public policy generally, it’s also unfortunate for discourse on college campuses.
I think it’s really important for our students to have a willingness to consider views with which they disagree; to be open to hearing the evidence of arguments for those views. Not that they have to reach agreement with someone, but so that they cultivate the habits of the mind to be able to say, “I don’t know everything, and I should consider different viewpoints in order to challenge my own thinking.”
In some cases, it may reaffirm their pre-existing conclusions, but in a sharper and more defined way. In other cases, it may open them to ideas they hadn’t considered before.
We tend to be in information bubbles, and to seek out information that confirms what we already think we know, and I think that’s problematic. It’s also incompatible with liberal arts education, which really is about testing ideas. And one of the best ways you test an idea is by having other people challenge those ideas.