An interview with departing Hamilton president David Wippman

June 10, 2024
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After eight years as president of Hamilton College—and more than 30 years in higher education—David Wippman is retiring at the end of the month. He told Inside Higher Ed via Zoom that he is proudest of the way he led his campus through the COVID-19 pandemic, and now looks forward to spending time with his grandson, writing about higher ed and continuing to participate in Harvard’s Presidents-in-Residence program to help prepare the next generation of college leaders.

Wippman also shared some parting thoughts on free speech, the liberal arts and student mental health, among other things. Excerpts of the conversation follow, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q: So why are you retiring?

A: Well, I turned 70 in December. I’ve been thinking about it for a while. We finished a campaign last year. So it seemed like for me, personally, and for the college, the timing made sense.

Also, this is actually true: I recently turned on the TV and Animal House was on. It was the scene where, you know, John Belushi’s fraternity is getting expelled. And I realized that my sympathies now lie with Dean Wormer [rather than the ill-behaved, academically challenged students he kicks out]. And I thought, well, that’s a sign.

(Laughter.)

Q: Your presidency at Hamilton has been longer than average, which the latest ACE survey put at just under six years. Do you think the job has just gotten too unmanageable?

A: I don’t know that I’d say it’s unmanageable. But it’s gotten very challenging. It’s always been challenging, but the pressures have built over the last 10 years, in a number of different areas. Student mental health—there’s been a real shift, and that’s put an enormous strain on colleges and universities to try to address that. The social justice reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd. The constant demand around fundraising, hitting the demographic cliff. And then, of course, we’re layering in what I think is the worst political environment for higher ed that I can remember, and I’ve been in higher ed for over 30 years.

Q: What exactly do you mean by “worst political climate”?

A: Increasing government regulation and involvement in higher education is part of it. But that, in turn has been facilitated by declining public confidence in higher ed. That’s been building for many years. And that was before October 7, and all the protests, arrests and Congressional hearings that followed. So I imagine if you ask how many people have confidence in higher education today, the numbers would be really, really small. I think we, as a sector, are losing the public’s trust, and that’s created an environment in which all these other things can happen, like all the regulation that we’ve seen around DEI, around attempts to restrict tenure and the teaching of critical race theory, the excise tax that was imposed in 2017 that hit schools like Hamilton. And more recent efforts, which are legion, to pass all kinds of legislation detrimental to higher ed. That environment is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

Q: Are you saying you see the heavy-handed legislative response as an outgrowth of the declining public confidence in higher ed?

A: I think it’s facilitated by that. There are people who, for their own reasons as politicians, want to weaponize this current moment, when colleges are seen as “woke,” out of control and inhospitable for Jewish students. But it’s easier for them to do that because of the loss of confidence in higher ed. I think it would have been much harder in a different environment.

Q: As somebody who leads a quintessential liberal arts institution, what do you make of the particular attack on the liberal arts?

A: I think it’s deeply misguided. If I back up and say, “What are the two main drivers of this loss of confidence in higher ed?,” one is price, and we share responsibility for that; At some institutions, the all-in cost is approaching $100,000 a year. And the other driver is the perception that colleges indoctrinate students with left-wing ideologies. So liberal arts colleges are seen as the epitome of not providing return on investment in narrow, economic terms, on the one side, and then on the other, they’re seen as excessively woke.

But the reality is, even if you focus on return on investment purely in economic terms, liberal arts colleges have a terrific record. Our graduates do exceedingly well. They’re well prepared, they have great careers; we have an incredibly high employment rate. So I don’t think the return on investment piece is accurate just from a financial standpoint.

Q: Liberal arts colleges may not be seeking to indoctrinate students, but most faculties are overwhelmingly liberal.

A: That’s true. And I think it’s contributing to the perception that we are, as institutions, too far to the left. I’ve talked about that with our faculty. Shortly after I got here, we started a program called “Common Ground,” which we’ve been expanding. And the purpose was to try and create an environment in which it was not only accepted but expected that on difficult social, political and cultural issues, we would hear a range of viewpoints.

But that, to be honest, only gets you so far, because when the faculty is overwhelmingly of one political orientation—even though I think the vast majority try very hard to be open to a range of viewpoints and to articulate those viewpoints in the classroom—it’s not the same as having someone who really subscribes to that viewpoint. And that is a challenge for higher ed generally. We should be looking for ways to bring more diverse viewpoints onto our faculty. But it’s very hard. I haven’t figured out a way to effectively address it.

Q: I haven’t really seen Hamilton mentioned in headlines concerning pro-Palestinian protests or encampments. I’m wondering what the campus climate has been like around the Israel-Hamas war.

A: I’m having a board meeting next week and I intend to tell the board that if we had had an encampment, it would have been the result of bad luck. But since we didn’t have one, it was purely attributable to skilled leadership.

(Laughter.)

The reality is, we have some advantages: our location, our size—we’re not in a major media market. But we have also been working very hard for years to try to cultivate an environment in which diverse views are considered and respected. On some issues, there’s more or less uniformity of response across the campus. On this one, that’s not the case. And so various faculty, administrators and staff have been working to convey to our students, “Look, this is a really divisive issue. People feel very strongly about this; They look at it through different lenses. We want you to feel free to express your views, and to join groups formed for that purpose. But we also want you to remember that we live, work and study together, and we want you to consider the impact of your rhetoric on other members of community and just be thoughtful about how you approach issues and how—if your real goal is to persuade, think about what is and is not likely to persuade people.” And I would say—and I’m knocking on wood as I say this—our students and faculty have generally been pretty constructive and very respectful of each other.

Q: What’s your view on making presidential statements?

A: Maybe two years ago my regular co-author, Glenn Altschuler, and I wrote a piece about when college presidents should speak out. Basically, we had gone back and looked at the Kalven committee report and wrote about why we thought that approach of institutional restraint or neutrality made a lot of sense. We should only be speaking out about issues that directly affect higher education or our campus … I really should have adopted this position when I started as president, but I’d already issued statements. I issued a statement on Ukraine, I issued a statement on a bunch of other things. How do I jump from that to not issuing any statements? Some presidents have done that, you know: Maud Mandel at Williams just said, “Look, my thinking has evolved on this.” She laid out, I think, a very nice explanation of why she’s moving away from statements. Now a lot of colleges and universities are doing that. And I agree with that position.

Q: How should campuses navigate that gray area between free speech and hate speech, where maybe one side thinks it’s protected but the other side feels offended by it—as with slogans like, “From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free?”

A: I feel pretty strongly that you have to adhere to principles of free speech and free expression. So, I wouldn’t say I’m a free speech absolutist, but I’m not all that far off. The really hard thing is to be consistent across different issues. If you go back to that first [Congressional] hearing [on antisemitism], from a legal perspective, what the first three presidents said [in response to Elise Stefanik’s question about calls for genocide being allowed on campus] was absolutely correct: It does depend on the context. But politically, that was disastrous. What people wanted to hear from the three presidents was, “Look, I’d be appalled if anybody called for genocide on our campus. Nobody’s calling for it, but I would condemn it.” They went right to the legally correct response, and they got pilloried for it.

If someone is chanting ‘From the river to the sea’ at 4 p.m. on a Friday in the middle of a quad where protests are allowed, that’s protected speech. If they’re chanting it at 4 a.m. outside a Jewish student’s room, that’s harassment.

The whole world has moved away from the notion that context actually matters. So I think you need to look at First Amendment free speech principles as your guide. If someone is chanting, “From the river to the sea” at 4 p.m. on a Friday in the middle of a quad where protests are allowed, that’s protected speech. If they’re chanting it at 4 a.m. outside a Jewish student’s residence hall room, that’s harassment. You have to be prepared to make those distinctions.

Q: You touched on mental health earlier. Is that your biggest worry about today’s students?

A: I think when you ask almost any college president, something might temporarily occupy the number one concern slot other than student mental health—maybe it’s an encampment or something—but generally, most presidents are worried about student mental health. We had a suicide my first year; we had a suicide my second year. And it was obviously devastating for the families of those students, but also devastating for our community, in that we’re a pretty tight knit community. And it forced us to really look closely at what we were doing to support students with mental health challenges. We brought in an outside review team from Duke, and they moved us to a case management model to help make sure that no one slipped through the cracks; if a student went home on break, someone was still overseeing them.

Then we moved to a “stepped care” model because we realized students are going to the counseling center with all kinds of concerns. Some are issues that do require support from a licensed therapist. But often, maybe it’s a roommate conflict or issue that doesn’t require a licensed therapist. It could just be spending time with an adult—maybe somebody in student affairs, or attending group therapy or peer counseling. There’s a whole range of options.

The thing we’re looking at now is how do we change the mental model so that students look at some of these issues differently? How do we cultivate resilience? What concerns me, for a host of reasons, is how things we’ve all heard about—the impact of technology, political polarization, school shootings, all those things—have come together in a way that has rendered an entire generation of young people much more vulnerable to these kinds of challenges. We, as a society, need to figure out how we are going to address that.

Q: There are a lot of presidential vacancies right now, as you know. What words of advice and/or caution would you give somebody seeking one of those jobs?

A: They’re incredible jobs. They really are. But they’re really challenging jobs. They’re stressful jobs. I participated in the Harvard workshop for new presidents for the last two years, and I’ll do it again this summer. One of the things I always tell new presidents is, “Find a rabbi”—someone you can go to and really talk issues through with in a very candid way. To whom you can say, “Here’s what’s going on. I’m getting pressure from the board and the faculty want me to do one thing, the students something else; what am I going to do?” Someone who is thoughtful and understands higher ed, and has your interests at heart, and has no dog in the fight other than you.

Q: So what would you say is the most important quality in a college president?

A: Resilience. It’s a job that I think requires a lot of self-possession and a willingness to accept criticism. Whenever the institution is perceived to be doing something that someone doesn’t like—parents, students, faculty, staff, alumni, board members—the president is going to hear about it, sometimes in really strong terms. You can’t please all the people all the time; all the time, you will not please all of the people. And so, you just have to be prepared to accept that and have enough self-confidence to say, “I think this is the right path. And that’s why I’m going to stay on it.”



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