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  • Vivian R. Miller & Eric Santomauro-Stenzel

Community Presents Unified Priorities at Presidential Search Listening Session

Seats in the Red PIt, Kirner-Johnson 127. | Vivian R. Miller '26 for Monitor

KIRNER-JOHNSON, Red Pit – About 25 faculty, students, and staff attended a listening session Monday, September 11th hosted by search firm Isaacson, Miller for the ongoing presidential search for President David Wippman’s successor after he retires in June 2024. Community members consistently expressed a desire for strong, transparent leadership that leans into cross-constituency, cross-department publicly reflective conversations about Hamilton’s future and unique values, especially around promoting a more diverse and inclusive campus community that engages deeply with experiential learning opportunities on and off the hill. Few positive words were said about the current president, David Wippman, during the session.

Two faculty members and one member of Senior Staff on the Presidential Search Committee (PSC), the body of community members involved in the search, attended. One student and a trustee on the committee, Aron J. Ain ’79, P ’09,’11, were present at a lightly attended Zoom student listening session last week.

The other nine trustees on the committee attended neither: Linda Johnson ’80, Robert V. Delaney, Jr. ’79 (PSC co-chairs and Board Vice Chairs), David M. Solomon ’84, P’16 (Board Chair), Mark T. Fedorcik ’95, Kevin W. Kennedy ’70, Lea H. Kuck ’87, P’24, Jeff F. Little ’71, P’04, Sharon D. Madison ’84, and Daniel T.H. Nye ’88, P’24.

The Isaacson, Miller search team member present, Kate Barry, said she would pass along the attendees’ comments without attribution. Barry recognized that there are “different points of view on how involved trustees should be in a conversation like this,” saying that some people may feel uncomfortable sharing their views with trustees present. A student suggested an option to do both, but it is unclear whether the Board will consider that request; the Board has not responded to any requests for comment from Monitor, ever.

Out of respect for the expectation of unattributed feedback, Monitor has only used quotes with permission.

Student interests

Students raised a variety of desires and concerns, including transparency and inclusion in College decision-making, stronger action on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) that center perspectives from marginalized communities, growth of experiential learning opportunities, more efforts to get students into local communities in a mutual way, and a more integrated, less siloed experience and institutional governance structure. Some explicitly pointed to Kirkland College, the women’s college chartered in 1965 and taken over in 1978 by Hamilton, as an inspiration for the kind of flexible, inclusive, dynamic, and interdisciplinary college they desired.

“I think that someone in such an important position in administration should actually have the ability to interact with others that may have a dissenting position in any of their choices,” Pedro Lacerda ‘26 said in the session. “I don't want to feel that any time that I'm speaking to you as a leader – and I'm saying this out of experience – I don't want that to immediately be you justifying your decision.”

“I want to have someone I don't have to beg to please listen to what I am saying.”

DEI issues were brought up repeatedly in the session.

Mia Horvath ‘25 expressed that some of her favorite classes have been with faculty of color who, though she was interested in continuing to learn from them, left Hamilton soon after. “I think that is indicative of this whole trend we have here of a lack of transparency, lack of willingness to keep professors here, who are people of color, who are queer, who are international.”

Lacerda explained, “One thing that worries me a lot is: are efforts being made for diversity, equity, and inclusion just there for show, or are they actually there to make concrete decisions and policies that are actually going to last?”

Attendees consistently drew attention to the siloing of campus operations, calling for a president who would help unify the campus in a shared direction, and – unlike their perception of the current administration – do so with public-facing collaboration.

Gabriel Bit-Babik ‘25, who is also on Monitor’s editorial board but did not attend on behalf of the organization, said casual conversations about institutional governance with peers and employees “are my favorite elements of Hamilton and where I feel like I'm able to demonstrate what I’ve learned academically in a practical way.” He continued, “A very important idea of ‘knowing thyself’ is to be critically reflective of where you're doing well, and not doing well. Those conversations should not be isolated within these departments.”

“In many ways, Hamilton has tried to go away from being a self-critical organization publicly,” Bit-Babik added. “By opening it up publicly, by allowing these conversations that we're having right now in a more gradual, continual manner, rather than just when we need a new president, we can have a continual process of self-reflection, self-improvement, and inclusion of every element, especially those folks who don't feel included right now by the College.”

“It was interesting to hear that students almost always complimented specific centers and resources within Hamilton,” Lacerda later told Monitor. “They rarely recognized the senior administration or Hamilton itself for good work.”

Acknowledging there may be a plethora of reasons for this, Lacerda said “Hamilton’s ‘bureaucracy’ (if we may call it that) runs under a neoliberalized system in which everyone does their own thing. A centralized basis for support in endeavors crucial to student life is absent.” He drew comparisons between changes in the Chaplaincy, an office widely appreciated on campus but recently reorganized without clear explanation, and the oft-praised Levitt Public Affairs Center, where a large portion of student engagement in the local community is housed.

“Just as the secluded and unsupported institution of the Chaplaincy was discarded (in the blink of an eye) and is now crumbling, could the same happen to the Levitt Center? How centralized is the Levitt Center to Hamilton? Is Hamilton one institution, or is Hamilton just made up of several institutions that are almost arbitrarily funded by Hamilton?”

Horvath summarized the listening session to Monitor. “Faculty, staff, and students were in agreement that the lack of transparency, communication, trust, and action towards campus issues brought up by the community by the presidential office are main concerns in the current search.”

“They often are insufficiently or not at all addressed, which continues to indicate the current president's direction that the campus community wants to move away from. A willingness to listen, and to frankly, care about the humans of Hamilton College over external pressures is a key quality we want to see in this search and ultimate decision.”

Faculty interests

Administrative lack of transparency, poor faculty retention, and concerns regarding the soul of Hamilton motivated faculty voices during the meeting.

While at first the mood of the room was hesitant, once faculty members began to speak it became clear that there were shared concerns. Multiple faculty members discussed a general lack of transparency among administration detracting from Hamilton’s sense of community and shared identity. This concern, highlighted by responses to the firing of Jeff McArn, has ironically proven to be a uniting force among the wider community.

A significant focus of the discussion was attention to the after-effects of the Hamilton-Kirkland acquisition. The College hired many staff during the takeover who have been retiring rapidly in recent years. This has contributed to higher turnover in recent years and faculty of color continue to face mistreatment and low retention rates.

Another principal concern raised was Hamilton’s commitment to image over substance. The general sentiment was that the president’s attention to outward reputation and matching peer institutions has diminished Hamilton’s unique identity. According to some, the way the institution markets itself as an open and exploratory place does not necessarily match Hamilton’s more rigid structures.

As was raised in the discussion, Hamilton’s much-touted open curriculum was not a proactive choice but rather the result of the inability of the faculty to agree on an academic direction. Faculty raised questions about how the institution can more fully flesh out a shared path forward. To many, that path should also include more experiential learning and mutual engagement with the Utica-Rome area.

What to expect moving forward

Concerns about democratic voice in decision-making have extended to the search itself.

“The inclusion of a democratic accepted student vote for student representatives to the search committee wouldn't hurt either,” Horvath told Monitor. “Instead, there was a botched vote to elect six student nominees, not representatives, to the committee, which the current administration and Board of Trustees then hand-picked two from—removing the little agency we had as students rather than trusting in our top selections.”

“This is not to say that the chosen representatives are not advocates for the student body, but rather that the principle of the election, the agency, is at the least minimized and at the most totally removed.”

Updates from the search committee have been periodically posted on the college’s website since May with the latest posted August 22. The appointment process in 2015 from 19th College President Joan Hinde Stewart to David Wippman took roughly a year to complete. If the current process wraps this winter, as is the goal, it would be on a markedly shorter timeline.

The PSC has released a position profile for the role, essentially a very detailed job description for candidates, and said they will be updating it in accordance with community feedback.

Any community member can fill out a community feedback survey that sends results to Isaacson, Miller and the PSC. It will be open throughout the search.

Editor’s note: The authors of this article contributed limited feedback during the session, including support for the open curriculum by Miller, and calls for increased transparency and an end to institutional tokenization of students of color by Santomauro-Stenzel.

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