In the rhythm and cycle of academic life, Hamilton College President David Wippman doesn’t sense much of a difference in his last year before retirement. Since guiding the institution through the grips of the pandemic and navigating the liberal arts institution’s students and staff through new modes of learning and teaching, he’s finally returned to center.
“It feels like a pretty normal year,” he says.
Wippman has enjoyed a lengthy eight-year stay at the helm of Hamilton College in New York. It’s been a tenure he can look back on fondly. A week before announcing his retirement in May, Hamilton reached a historic $400 million fundraising goal.
But Wippman’s tempo is due to change when Hamilton announces his successor. As the community shifts its focus to welcome the new president and their new priorities, things can begin to “feel different,” President Emeritus Joan Stewart has told Wippman.
In his last cycle at Hamilton, he feels a need to entrench some of the college’s most notable initiatives, such as its efforts in communicating student support and tackling mental health. He is also making one last plea to the public on the importance of higher education while the light is still shining on him.
“I feel some sense of urgency to get some things either completed or at least solidly underway and also a responsibility to try and position my successor as well as I can before that person arrives,” Wippman says.
Addressing political attacks on higher education
In the time that Wippman announced his retirement, he co-published a series of opinion articles on The Hill highly critical of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ efforts to abolish diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education and the state’s Board of Education changing its Black history standards.
“Apparently, Board members don’t know anything about—or want to erase—the actual history of slavery and racism in their state,” wrote Wippman and co-author Glenn Altschuler, a professor at Cornell University.
While many institutional leaders may shudder at the idea of speaking out against lawmakers, regardless of what state they represent, Wippman feels a certain “responsibility” to address these matters.
“If we in higher education don’t try to correct some of the misconceptions, address some of the politicized efforts to shape what we do in ways that we think are not in the best interest—not just of our students or of our college communities, but of American higher education in our society in general—we really should be speaking out on these issues.”
However, Wippman does recognize he’s in a fortunate position, being that he speaks from a well-endowed, financially viable institution in a blue state.
Meeting students in their time of need
Student support is about more than just providing services—it’s whether students are aware of them. First-generation students, for example, sometimes miss out, Wippman says.
“One of the things we realized was that we have a tremendous range of resources on campus to support our students, but they don’t always know what all those resources are,” he says. “And that’s particularly true of students who might come to campus with less social capital than some of their peers.”
In line with an initiative that Hamilton blueprinted in 2018, Wippman has made it a priority for students to find student support resources more accessible on campus. ALEX Advisers act as a librarian of sorts to whom students can reach out to find assistance.
The launch of this advising model has coincided with the rise of higher education’s campus mental health crisis. “The pandemic exacerbated those demands that this trend was already well underway before the pandemic happened,” he says. “We’ve gone through a fundamental transformation in how we approach student mental health.”
When Hamilton struggled to find enough therapists and students were forced to wait weeks for an appointment, Wippman helped shift Hamilton to a stepped-care model of counseling. The wait time now is “one or two business days.”
While this may not be the complete solution, he hopes it provides a strong building block for his successor.
“It’s allowed us really to do a much better job of meeting the, the needs of our student population, but those needs continue to grow,” Wippman says. “I don’t know what the stopping point will be but it’s something that that really we have completely transformed the way we approach.”