The following is a conversation between David Wippman, President of Hamilton College, Aron Ain, Member of the Board of Trustees, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: There hasn’t been a Broadway show that has captured the public’s imagination in quite the same way that “Hamilton” has. And, Oh, about 250 miles northwest of Broadway, in Clinton, New York, there’s another Hamilton. And this one has captured the attention of scholars, parents and students. It’s Hamilton College, named after the subject of that Broadway musical. And it’s a pleasure for me to welcome to the show the President of Hamilton College, David Wippman, as well as a member of their Board of Trustees, Aron Ain. Good evening, gentlemen, and thanks for being with us this evening!
David: Thanks so much for having us.
Aron: Yes, thank you.
Denver: David, for those listeners who may not be familiar with Hamilton College, tell us about the school and its history.
David: So, we like to say that before there was the musical, there was the college, and I’d say it’s about 200 years before. The college actually started as a project of a man named Reverend Samuel Kirkland in 1793. And he set up an academy that was intended to educate the children of white settlers in the area, and the children of Oneida Indians. He went to George Washington for support for his educational plan and got his support, and that of Alexander Hamilton, who eventually lent his name to the college. The three chartered it as a college in 1812, and not too many years ago, we celebrated the bicentennial. So it’s a residential liberal arts college of about 1,900 students located in Clinton, New York.
Denver: Which is where?
David: Clinton, New York is about four hours from New York City. It’s about an hour, a little less, east of Syracuse.
What need-blind does is make it possible for anyone to apply to the college, whether they have an ability to pay the full tuition–or any tuition, in fact, or any fees–to go to the college.
Denver: Aron, let me ask you about something that is quite unique to Hamilton. There are not many colleges and universities that are “need-blind” when it comes to admission… three, perhaps four dozen in the entire country. What exactly does it mean to be need-blind and how did the school ultimately come to this decision?
Aron: Sure. Hamilton has always been a college that really takes very seriously its role in making itself available to students of all backgrounds, all abilities. And as you know, colleges today are quite expensive. And so the college– part of its ethos– is that it wants to be as open and available to as many people as possible. So, what need-blind does is make it possible for anyone to apply to the college, whether they have an ability to pay the full tuition– or any tuition, in fact, or any fees– to go to the college. So the admissions department does not take into account whether someone has the ability to pay to go to school when we’re making decisions about who can come to the school.
Now, this is not easy to do. It really took the deep support of lots of people who love Hamilton, including the trustees and parents and staff and faculty and a broad group of supporters– that raised over $40 million, starting in 2010– to go and create an endowment to be able to make it possible for Hamilton to be need-blind. And today, Hamilton is completely need-blind. Anyone who gets in and has a demonstrated need… that they need financial support… can come and be part of Hamilton College
Denver: That’s absolutely fantastic. And this all happened spontaneously at a meeting here in New York at the Yale Club?
Aron: That’s right. So it was a dream of the leadership. The staff, the executive leadership of the school, the professionals, as well as members of the board wanted to do it and came up with how much it was going to cost. And it was determined that it was going to cost about $2 million a year to be need-blind– the additional financial aid that was required. And if you think about an endowment, it meant to raise about $40 million of endowed funds. We thought how long would that take. And at that meeting, members of the board of trustees, one by one, raised their hand and said, “Let’s not wait. I’ll pledge this; I’ll pledge that; I’ll pledge this!” And before the meeting was over, there was enough money raised to get the need-blind started immediately. Really a wonderful moment! And really a reflection of what the values of the school are!
Hamilton is preparing students for a lifetime of not just economic success and career success,… but we’re preparing them for lives of meaning and purpose, and that’s something that you can’t really put a price tag on.
Denver: Absolutely. That is a great moment in Hamilton history. Well, let’s talk a little bit, David, about the cost of college. As you know, in recent years people have questioned the value of a college education, and specifically, a liberal arts education. Accenture did a college graduate survey, and 51% of college graduates consider themselves to be underemployed. A Gallup poll recently came out indicating that 42% of Americans believe college is not necessary for success. That is a 13% drop from 2009. So, what do you make of these findings? And what’s the case you would make today for getting a liberal arts education?
David: So, it may be true that college isn’t necessary for success, but I can tell you it’s an enormous advantage. And if you look at the data, what I think you’ll find is that there is a huge wage premium for anyone with a four-year college degree. And the better the institution you attend, the more likely you are to benefit from that premium. I also would say to people, it’s probably a mistake to focus only on dollars and cents when you’re looking at return on investment. We are preparing students for a lifetime of not just economic success and career success, although we do do that, but we’re preparing them for lives of meaning and purpose. And that’s something that you can’t really put a price tag on.
So, what I would say to parents or to students who are concerned about reports that you can’t do well with a liberal arts degree: The statistics don’t bear that out. Our graduates are doing great, and so are graduates of peer institutions. You may have to be a little bit more creative sometimes in your career search, but you are given the tools you need to succeed. And you’re given the tools you need to have a really rich and productive life.
Denver: Very well said. And I think you’re also looking at nations who are looking at GDP and wondered how we ever got to the point where we measure the success of the nation based on GDP, and GDP alone. It really seems to be quite limited. Is the concept of a liberal arts education changing in the 21st century, where you are embedding engineering and computer science and so on, or is it still pretty much the classical one we all think of?
David: The concept of liberal arts education, I would say, has changed continuously, not just over the last decade or even the last century, but over hundreds of years. When the college started, you were required to know Latin and Greek before you got there, and the curriculum consisted largely of the study of Classics. When they added fields like chemistry, it was a radical innovation.
So we’re constantly seeing some change and evolution in the nature of liberal arts education. We do offer things like computer science now, and it’s quite a popular major. But the core of liberal arts education is really still some of the basic disciplines that most people would associate with that experience. What we’re really doing is teaching students to think deeply about a particular area, which becomes their major, but also to think broadly across a range of disciplines, and to develop those skills of critical thinking, of oral and written expression, that are really invaluable in whatever career our students pursue.
Denver: Aron, let me ask you this. Is the role of technology, the internet, and specifically online education changing the character of higher education?
Aron: I think a place like Hamilton, which I really have the most experience with, is very focused on classroom teaching on campus– what happens there. But at the same time, we are investing actively, we are thinking about how to use online tools to enhance the learning we have– both for our students who are there, as well as friends of the college– whether that be alumni or parents or other people who just can benefit from what the college has to offer in these ways. So, it’s a way for us both to broaden what we do, and also enhance what’s happening on campus on a regular basis from an education point of view.
Certainly from how we communicate out about what’s happening with the college, the whole online world and social media have become a very important part of who we are. It’s something that we invest in actively, and we think about how we can use that to enhance both the experience of people who want to stay connected to the college, as well as for people who are there every day.
Denver: David, my daughter is a graduate of Hamilton and loved the school, and it is notable for its absence of distribution requirements. I know you put a lot of emphasis on writing, but there are not a lot of required courses, maybe one or two others. But in the fall of 2017, there will be a diversity requirement which came about in response to a student group called “The Movement.” Tell us about this. Some of these courses, I guess, are going to be tied to a student’s major. What kind of courses are these going to be?
David: The decision to include a diversity requirement as part of a student’s major actually was part of a process that predated “The Movement.” The Movement was a group of students who expressed concerns around inclusion and diversity at Hamilton, as students of college campuses across the country have done. But the college was already studying this question, and we have a set of educational objectives, which includes teaching our students to embrace difference. As part of that, the faculty of the college determined that it would be valuable for every student to have at least one course in which they explored questions about difference and inclusion.
We did that as part of the major for a couple of reasons: 1) We wanted to make sure that the course was relevant to each student’s area of interest; and 2) We wanted to engage a broad range of faculty. We didn’t want to say that this was the responsibility of only a single department, or a couple of departments. It would be the responsibility of every faculty member at the college to think about how best to do that. What that means is there are going to be many different approaches, and it will vary, depending on the department. In some departments, it will be very easy – in the literature department or in the history department or in the economics department. In others, such as chemistry or math, it will be more challenging. But they’re coming up with some very innovative approaches to it. It hasn’t actually started. It will start next year, so I’m looking forward to seeing how it works out.
If you’re constantly talking to people who think as you do, you’re not going to learn as much as you would if you talk to people who have views that are different than your own.
You should not only encourage, but insist on engaging with a full range of viewpoints. But you should also encourage and insist that people do it in a respectful manner.
Denver: Well, as you know, we are in a period of increased student activism, and I think that every college president is seeking that right balance between freedom of speech and concerns with inclusivity. What do you think is the appropriate level of tension on the college campus–one where there’s a place for uncomfortable arguments to go on, but one where people are not being needlessly offended?
David: It’s a really interesting question that’s popped up on campuses everywhere. In my view, college is a place where students not only can, but should experience a wide range of viewpoints, and they should argue them out. They should engage with each other and with the faculty, and that’s how you learn. If you’re constantly talking to people who think as you do, you’re not going to learn as much as you would if you talk to people who have views that are different than your own.
At the same time, we want to create a campus environment in which every student feels welcome, and every student can thrive. And so the question is how to do that, and what I’ve said to students is, “You should not only encourage, but insist on engaging with a full range of viewpoints. But you should also encourage and insist that people do it in a respectful manner.” And I don’t think those two things are mutually incompatible.
David: It is changing the character in a couple of different ways. On the one hand, with social media, it’s much easier for a group of students to almost spontaneously organize, whether it’s for a protest, or to come together in some way around a common issue. It’s also possible for students anonymously– through venues like Yik Yak– to express views that they are uncomfortable expressing in person. Sometimes that can be beneficial; often it can be negative as students will feel unrestrained. And not just students, everyone can use social media in ways that sometimes allow them to express viewpoints that they wouldn’t express in person.
We tell our students we want them to be engaged and active citizens…We try to equip them with the intellectual tools, both to be critical thinkers– not to accept ideas uncritically, but to really think them through– but also to have the courage of their convictions. And our students have shown that they do.
Denver: When I went to school, I was interested in analyzing the world and seeing the difference I could make down the road. But today, students want to have an immediate impact on it. How is Hamilton helping students make a difference in the world right now?
David: We tell our students we want them to be engaged and active citizens. We encourage them to be politically active, and I think the liberal arts education that they get helps prepare them to do that. They want to change the world, and they have the ability and the talent to do it. They’re often impatient, and I give them credit for that. Sometimes they don’t understand what barriers to change might exist, and why it may take some time to overcome those barriers. But we try to equip them with the intellectual tools, both to be critical thinkers– not to accept ideas uncritically, but to really think them through– but also to have the courage of their convictions. And our students have shown that they do. Sometimes that’s uncomfortable for administrators, so it sometimes falls into the “Beware of what you wish for!” category. But I applaud our students for being engaged and active.
Denver: Aron, President Wippman assumed this job back on July 1, so he’s been at it at a relatively short period of time. And no matter how well prepared you are to run a college, you’re never fully prepared to be the president of a college. What can a board do to help a new president with this transition?
Aron: I think the important thing is that… and I think we’ve done this with David, is to help him get up to speed as best we can before he assumes his position, communicate with him actively about what our observations are, make everything available to him to help him get off to a fast start. And then? Be by his side through these early days and through all aspects of his role at the college.
The trustees are deeply committed to the college. This is not a paid position for us. This is something we do because we really love Hamilton College, and we enjoy and support the many things that David talked about. So we’re as committed to him being successful as we are committed to supporting the school. So it’s active communications; it’s listening and learning from each other.
The thing I like best about having a new president of the college: it’s new ideas. I’m anxious to hear what David has to say. While I’ve been a trustee for a period of time– as other trustees have been– the thing that’s most fun about it for me is hearing what he has to say… new ideas that can help take the college to a level that it might not get to without his participation. So, it’s encouraging him to go and charge forward, and have this be the place where he is the president of the school, and do that almost fearlessly.
Denver: Being the president of the school, David… I had a guest on earlier who said that running a college is almost akin to running a small nation state. And I know you’ve been at this for a short while, but how are you finding you’re spending your time? Is it as you had imagined?
David: One of the joys about being a college president is that every day is different. There is such an extraordinary range of activity on campus. I think we calculated recently that there are 41 different events– on average– a day when we’re in session. So I spend my time doing a whole range of things. Part of it is engaging with alumni and with trustees, and that’s been enormously rewarding because we have a remarkably accomplished and talented group. They’re dedicated to the college, and so it’s a joy to work with them. Much of my time is spent getting to know the faculty and trying to deal with issues that faculty raise, and helping them think through where we want to go with the academic program. A good amount of time is just spent on financial management of the institution, and working with staff and trustees and others to make sure that we can continue to provide the kind of education in the future that we’re providing now.
And I particularly enjoy spending time with our students, whether it’s sitting with a group of students in the dining hall or going to a football game, or attending a play or a concert. It’s just a lot of fun seeing the extraordinary talent that they have, hearing their ideas. And I always ask them: ”If you could change one thing at the college, what would it be?”
Denver: What would it be?
David: And the answers range from: “Everything!” to “Can you fix the dryer in Bundy Hall?” to more serious proposals around diversity and inclusion. We recently got a petition to make the college a sanctuary campus, as have many other colleges and universities. So, it’s an extraordinary range of things that they suggest. But one of the things that most impresses me is when I ask that question, they have to stop and think. There’s no obvious answer, and they take it seriously, and they really care about the place.
Aron: From what we hear, there are three or four David Wippmans at Hamilton College on campus because he seems to get to all 41 things each day, and it’s noticeable.
Denver: Well, he’s new.
David: Fair point.
Aron: I know, but he’s very quick, though. He just can get place to place, and it really has made a difference on the campus.
Denver: Well, I should ask you what kind of bicycle you have, David.
David: I have a Trek Domane. I’m probably mispronouncing that. One of the joys of being in Clinton is it’s a great territory for cycling. And I tell this story all the time, but I ride with some of the faculty who are terrific cyclists. Much better than I am! And people will hear that, and they say, “Oh, Wow! You’re riding with A certain cyclist. You must be a really good cyclist.” The truth is: one of the great advantages of being president is that when you ride with faculty, you never get dropped.
Denver: And also Hamilton is on a hill, so a couple more years there, you’ll be a much better cyclist.
David: I can only get stronger. Minnesota didn’t have a lot of hills.
Denver: So, if you don’t mind me asking, David, tell us a little bit about your background. I know you had a love for English Literature. But tell us the series of posts you went through that got you to this post… and maybe some of the influences that those positions had on your currently being president.
David: So it was a pretty indirect route. I went to school at Princeton, had a wonderful liberal arts education there. I was an English major and loved it. I took a couple of years after Princeton that probably terrified my parents. I was a ski bum.
Denver: Oh, you took your gap year.
David: I took a gap year, and actually, it was a wonderful year. I drove a taxi in Minneapolis and learned a lot doing that, and then spent a year in Vail, Colorado as an assistant prep cook. And my parents thought, “Well, this is what we paid Princeton all those thousands of dollars for.” And then I went to graduate school with the intention of getting a PhD in English and decided that wasn’t for me. I wanted something a little bit more actively engaged with the world. Went to law school at Yale; I loved it. Ended up practicing law for about nine years and completely by accident, got into the field of international law. Had some phenomenal experiences representing developing countries.
But because I always wanted to move back to the world of academia, I went to teach at Cornell, spent 16 years there. In the last four years, I was a vice provost for international relations, so I worked on all the university’s international programs. Then spent eight years back in Minnesota, my home state, as dean of the University of Minnesota Law School; had a great experience there. But what I think for me is the culminating opportunity of my career, and that has just begun now, is President of Hamilton.
Corporate culture and employee engagement drive great outcomes.
Denver: Your company, Aron, Kronos, is one of the most highly regarded in workforce management and human capital management, and the company itself has a well-earned reputation for having just a marvelous corporate culture. How would you describe the culture of Hamilton College? And how involved do you believe the board of trustees should be involved in helping create that culture?
Aron: I believe deeply that what happens at Kronos every day… that corporate culture and employee engagement drive great outcomes, and I wouldn’t be actively involved with Hamilton in my role unless I felt it shared those values. It shares those values every day in terms of treating all members of the community with dignity and respect and being thoughtful, as well as challenging all of us to continue to improve. So, each time I’m on campus, I just feel invigorated. I feel like I’m just waking up again each time that happens in a positive way. It really reflects a culture of all the things David talked about– around inclusion, but also learning and striving to self-improve and do better.
I went to Hamilton, but I have two daughters who went to Hamilton, and I also have a new son-in-law who went to Hamilton. And so to some extent, I describe it to people as I’m a fully-owned subsidiary of Hamilton at this point. But more importantly, I understand and I see what it’s done for my daughters as well… how it’s given them these values that are special. And that continues to happen every day on the hill. It happens through the faculty. It happens through the administration, through the staff, through the students. And so the culture really is what makes Hamilton extra special in my eyes.
Denver: And let me close with this with you, David, along the same lines. You’ve seen a number of the nation’s finest academic institutions up close and personal. What is there about Hamilton College that you find particularly distinctive and unique and just quite special?
David: I can’t help but say, it’s a wonderful place. It’s a spectacular campus, great faculty, great students. But what really distinguishes it, I think, is the culture of caring at the college, how much students care… not just for each other, but they develop relations with the faculty.
One of the things that really surprised me since I got to the college is how engaged and busy they are in so many different things. They’re doing a rigorous academic program; they’re playing on a sports team; they’re singing in an acapella group. Many of them are doing double majors, they’re volunteering in a local school system. And it really is true at the college. People do care about each other in a way that I think is unique.
Denver: Fantastic. Well, David Wippman, President of Hamilton College, and Aron Ain, who serves as a member of the Board of Trustees at Hamilton, I want to thank you both for being here this evening. David, if people want to get more information about the school, your website is?
Denver: Great. It was a real pleasure to have both of you on the program.
David: Thanks so much.
Aron: Thank you.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6 and 7 PM Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on I Heart Radio. You can follow us at bizofgive on twitter and at facebook.com/businessofgiving.