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  • Eric Santomauro-Stenzel

Breaking down Wippman’s Fallcoming speech

BURKE LIBRARY STEPS - Hamilton College President David Wippman delivered his annual Fallcoming address and took questions from a crowd of mainly parents and alumni on Saturday morning. His speech spoke on issues ranging from the College endowment to legal threats to academic freedom. While present on the events and Fallcoming calendars, the event was not specifically announced as its own event to students via campus listservs, similar to last year. A full transcript of the speech and questions can be found here.

Wippman addressed a crowd of approximately a hundred parents, alumni, staff, and some students after being presented with an award by the new Alumni Association President, John J. Christopher ‘83 P’14. The award commended College staff for their work through the pandemic and for their work “to combat cultural prejudice and eliminate racial discrimination.”

Wippman opened his speech by talking about Covid-19. “Let's talk about the elephant that's not in the room. And that is Covid.”

The College has dropped almost all protections against the virus this year despite continued daily case counts nationally in the tens of thousands and a spring 2022 semester that saw nearly half of students become infected with low-level protections. “What we learned last spring is that with these new variants, it's so transmissible, that nothing short of really draconian measures is going to stop transmission.”

He shared that the College will, however, be offering flu vaccine clinics and encourage students to get the Covid-19 booster. Wippman was hopeful that the College will continue to operate without need for Covid-19 protections.

“But most of the classes are without masks and all the activities are open, and we're really fully back. Whether that will continue, your guess is as good as mine, it's always possible we'll have a new variant. But for as long as we can, we want to do everything we can to create as full and rich a learning environment for your students as possible.”

Hamilton no longer requires masking, despite research from this year by the Centers for Disease Control showing that masking can reduce risk of infection by as much as 83%. Covid-19 can disable those it infects, as seen in the case of one student who recently withdrew from Hamilton due to the physical inaccessibility of Hamilton’s campus following a rapid decline in their health from Covid-19; they contracted the case at an on-campus indoor party.

Asked whether requiring masking is a “draconian” measure, as Wippman described, and why protections were lifted, Hamilton’s Communications & Marketing Office referred Monitor to Covid-19 Task Force Chair, Vice President for Administration & Finance Karen Leach.

Leach did not respond to request for comment.

Wippman moved on to assessing the College’s enrollment and financial status, reporting steady growth and success, in contrast to much of higher education.

“We have record applications, we've had new records that are three out of the last four years. Our yield [percent of accepted students who enroll] is remarkably high, we used to be 34 to 36%, in our yield for many years, and then two years ago, went up to 40%. Last year, it went up to 41%. We have a record low acceptance rate of 11.8%. Last year, the students were just incredible, more talented than ever. Test scores and grades are remarkably high. They bring all kinds of skills to the campus, we're recruiting phenomenal faculty, our financial position is pretty good.”

While Hamilton’s acceptance pool has become more selective, and more students have decided to enroll, its representation of Black and Indigenous students continues to remain far below national demographics. According to College data from October 15th, 2021, the Class of 2025 contained zero “American Indian or Alaska Native, non-Hispanic” and zero “Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, nonHispanic” students. Data showed only twenty “Black or African American, non-Hispanic” students in the year, making up only 3.8% of the class year compared to US Census data showing 13.6% of US residents as Black.

Wippman still spoke to the importance of race-conscious admissions in recruiting underrepresented groups and the College’s opposition to an ongoing Supreme Court case challenging the practice. “You can see that immediately after the bans [of race-conscious admissions in other states] are adopted, there is a very precipitous decline in the representation of underrepresented groups in the campus community. And that's really a terrible thing for our educational values and our goals, and what we're trying to do as an institution.”

He spent the bulk of his speech addressing similar challenges to higher education from political actors, decrying statements and legislation from politicians across the ideological spectrum and a general decrease of faith in a college education across the country. In particular, he spoke against potential federal legislation taxing wealthy colleges’ endowments and potential NY State legislation barring early decision applications.

Of the effort to restrict educational content regarding LGBTQ+ and racial issues, Wippman cited research from Pen America, “They describe these as educational gag orders, and they're proliferating, they're up to 150%, just over the last year. And these are orders that tried to restrict what is taught around American history, how race is handled in both K through 12, and higher education, of issues about LGBTQ+ identities are handled, increasing their efforts to restrict what are called divisive concepts. And to prevent those from being discussed, both in K through 12 education, and higher education.”

The issues Wippman names have also been present at Hamilton. The Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI), a Clinton-based think tank founded by Hamilton professors with significant support from former members of the Hamilton Board of Trustees, and with an on-campus recognized student organization affiliate that has received College resources, is one such group pushing for the “educational gag orders” Wippman mentioned.

Their representatives have submitted testimony in favor of such laws and have partnered with Moms for Liberty, a national group that has frequently taken over school board meetings in opposition to “divisive concepts” like books on Martin Luther King Jr. or affirmation for LGBTQ+ students. They have also levied these criticisms at Hamilton, its President Robert Paquette criticizing Hamilton as “[giving] up any pretense of being a serious liberal arts college and now caters its events largely to the social-justice warriors,” in response to a Black History Month event hosted by the Days-Massolo Center covered by the right-wing national publication the College Fix.

Misaki Funada ‘22.5, who delivered a scathing Commencement speech in May and was a lead organizer of the Our Hamilton protest in response to former Professor Mariam Durrani’s resignation caused in part by alleged discrimination by AHI, was “not surprised” by Wippman’s choice not to speak about AHI. However, “I’m surprised that he thought he could get away from students’ backlashes after hypocritically critiquing the general trend in right-wing censorship of higher ed. I found it comedic at first, but I guess it makes total sense if he was talking to parents who have no idea what’s going on on campus.”

Asked whether Hamilton had comment to offer on its relationship to AHI, Dr. Mariam Durrani’s New York State Division of Human Rights complaint, the Our Hamilton protest, or whether the threats Wippman named exist on campus or at AHI, the College only answered the first portion of the question. “While faculty members are free to associate with AHI, the College has no affiliation with the Institute. It is completely independent of the College,” said Vice President for Communications & Marketing Melissa Richards.

Wippman also confronted an increasing public perception that Colleges should be judged by their return on investment. He argued that a liberal arts education has unique value and that judging a major by its average post-grad earnings ignores that the liberal arts allow its students to go into many fields beyond their study, citing alumni like Marc Randolph ‘81, who was a geosciences major that became CEO of Netflix.

He said the focus on return on investment, “ignores all the intrinsic and non pecuniary benefits of higher education. So what do we know on average, those who have a college degree, they earn more, they live longer, they're healthier, they make better parenting choices, they have better marriages, you know, pretty much everybody has greater life satisfaction.”

The speech concluded with an appeal to parents for donations to the near-complete Because Hamilton campaign. He opened the floor to questions, of which there were four from a mix of parents and alumni.

Wippman has not created much space for open-ended public Q&A from students since a September 21st, 2020 Student Assembly meeting, and has not held a non-Covid-specific town hall with students since before the pandemic.

Richards told Monitor Wippman’s address, “was publicized with all the other Family Weekend activities (numerous emails were sent from the Advancement Office who plans the weekend), on the weekend agenda on the event website, and listed on the Daily Events Calendar. It was well attended, and I noticed that some students attended with their parents.” She spoke to Wippman’s availability for questions, saying, “As you know, COVID-19 protocols have prohibited or restricted large gatherings for most of the past two academic years, but President Wippman welcomes questions when he speaks at events. He also holds open office hours regularly.”

Asked by a parent about mental health on campus, Wippman detailed the College’s counseling services and expressed that he felt Hamilton’s services are now “best in class” following years of increased investment; he claimed students are able to get a first appointment at the Counseling Center within one to two business days. He stressed that the school now uses a “stepped care model” that offers students a variety of options ranging from individual therapy to providing weighted blankets. He also emphasized that the College now uses a “case management model” that creates communication between the College’s different departments that ensures “nothing falls through the gap.”

“We do not believe the College has done enough in the wake of our son’s death to safeguard other students,” wrote the parents of one student who died from suicide in a 2018 open letter to the Hamilton community. The switch to a case management system was one advocacy raised by a Hamilton student researcher in NY Times coverage following several suicides at Hamilton about five years ago.

Julia Dupuis ‘21 conducted an investigation in spring 2021 that revealed the College had been encouraging students with suicidal ideation to stay off campus; they recently claimed they felt the College had made a concerted effort to prevent them from writing the article. “They were willing to throw obstacles in my way in the hopes I would give up or run out of time. They wanted me confused and frustrated and gaslit,” Dupuis told Monitor.

The final question regarded campus dissent. The alumnus posited that several years ago they saw signs of discontent, but today, “I got the idea most people are happy, but a few people had big problems with something. I come here, and there's no sign of dissent.” He asked, “I'm just wondering what is the general level of dissent? And again, mental issues, mental health issues? Is it all that common, peaceful, or is it just an illusion?”

Wippman opened, sarcastically, “It is a carefully manicured illusion.” He continued, “No, there's always dissent on campus, and there certainly is now and it would be unhealthy if there weren't. So we encourage a broad range of viewpoints. We encourage students to express themselves, we recognize that they're going to have different viewpoints.” He said the most recent issue to come to the fore was campus accessibility and that the College is spending money on outside consultants to assist them with making improvements.

Unless there is a new event, it is unlikely that Wippman will speak in a public forum where all members of the community may ask questions until next Family Weekend.


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