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  • Eric Santomauro-Stenzel

Hamilton Trustees Begin Unprecedentedly Secret Presidential Soul Search

How history and community input may influence the room where it happens

BUTTRICK HALL, Office of the President – On June 7th, the Vice Chairs of Hamilton’s Board of Trustees appointed members to the Presidential Search Committee (PSC) for President David Wippman’s successor, who unexpectedly announced his retirement on the last day of finals a month ago. The 18 members, two of whom are Co-Chairs Bob Delaney ‘79 and Linda Johnson ‘80, are comprised of three faculty, three members of Senior Staff, ten trustees, and two students. Hamilton’s non-faculty full-time workers, like those in facilities and dining, are not represented on the committee.

Candidates for PSC consideration are being identified by Isaacson, Miller, as has been the case for most high-level positions at Hamilton in recent years. The Committee can be reached at pres-search/@/, has put out a survey to solicit feedback, and plans to identify a finalist(s) for the full Board of Trustees’ consideration in fall 2023.

The committee’s student selection process designed by the Office of the President was criticized heavily by Hamily members, as it used an unsecured Google Form that allowed for unverified respondents to revise their ballots and vote multiple times. At the same time, faculty were given a secure Qualtrics ballot that limited responses and required identity verification. The process has also been criticized as intentionally exclusionary of students for beginning after the conclusion of the spring semester, and for how the final representatives were selected from a slate of six top vote-getters rather than the two outright winners (three, in the case of faculty).

Hamilton has declined numerous requests from Monitor, Student Assembly leadership, senior faculty members, and other community members to make a public statement on the concerns. Senior Hamilton officials also declined to comment for this article, including for fact-checking. Monitor did not find any evidence that the two students who were eventually chosen engaged in fraudulent activity.

According to a June 3rd notices-students email from SA President Nicole Soret ‘25 and VP Ryley McGovern ‘25, the Office of the President privately claimed to have utilized the results from the Google Form after “the email addresses for every vote that was cast was run through a filter to eliminate duplicates, invalid email addresses, and to confirm that the email address belongs to a student on the class of 2024, 2025, or 2026. The filter eliminated YY [sic] number of votes, bringing the total number of votes to ZZZ [sic].”

According to statements to Monitor from the two elected student government representatives, the Office of the President and PSC Co-Chairs did not inform them whether unverified ballots cast without logging in were tabulated, how (or if) they determined which of duplicate ballots were valid, and whether the undefined two-digit number of tossed ballots changed who appeared on the six-person slate for the PSC Co-Chairs to choose from. The PSC has only shared the names of the two students who were chosen.

As the search process continues, many community members are hoping for a course correction to include more transparent, inclusive community engagement, both in feedback structure and in an ideal candidate. Other policy concerns front of mind for many students and recent alumni are diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and student mental and physical health.

The Hamilton Alumni Student Coalition, an organization formed in fall 2022 to support student movements through targeted giving and withholding of donations to the College, told Monitor, “We hope the incoming candidates will explicitly address disability at Hamilton and present a coherent plan to increase physical and digital accessibility in conjunction with current college efforts. The ideal candidate will prioritize student voice, specifically the voices of marginalized students including but not limited to disabled students, BlPOC students, LGBTQIA students, and first generation college students.”

“Past Practice”

In Hamilton Board of Trustees Chair (and Goldman Sachs CEO, whose pay was slashed for the company’s funding of government corruption in Malaysia, who was named in a $12 million settlement with a woman employee for allegedly fostering a sexist, harassing environment at the company, performed at a concert in the Hamptons under the name “DJ D-Sol” at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in violation of NY State health protections, and was recently accused in the Spectator of racially profiling students in the Class of 2023 while dismissing concerns about climate change at a College networking event) David Solomon’s announcement of the search, he claimed the search process would follow “past practice.” This claim was repeated in Delaney and Johnson’s (fossil fuel financier and Brooklyn Public Library President, respectively) announcement days later.

“As David Solomon reported last week, the selection will follow past practice and will be comprised of trustees, staff, faculty, and students,” Johnson and Delaney wrote to the campus community on May 23rd. “Our objective is to create a committee that is diverse, representative, and insightful about their role in recruiting Hamilton’s next president."

In a May 25th email to Monitor when asked whether vote tallies would be released, before student voting began, Secretary to the Board of Trustees and ex officio member of the PSC Gill King claimed that, “As for the voting, Academic Council owns the process for faculty participation, and Student Assembly has been steering the student process. I am not sure whether the results will be made public.”

A Monitor investigation has found the student selection process used by the Trustees this year was a significant departure from past practice, eliminating SA’s formal decision-making role. The process was more opaque and uniquely prone to irregularities compared to recent precedent and that of the faculty’s process. Further, the current search is starting five and a half months later in the academic calendar than the previous one with finalists still said by the PSC to be announced in the fall, cutting the search time and opportunity for community input nearly in half.

“I'm not too sure why the process was different for us this time around,” SA VP McGovern told Monitor. “This information is surprising as I was not aware of Student Assembly's past involvement in this process. As this process continues I hope that the community supports the students on the search committee. I have high hopes that the students will commit themselves to being strong representatives of the student body.”

On December 5th, 2014, President Joan Hinde Stewart (2003 - 2016) announced her plan to retire on June 30th, 2016. The College began the search that found David Wippman, who would use the same subject line in his own retirement email: “Hamilton.” Then-Board Chair Steven Sadove ‘73 and Delaney would co-chair the PSC.

“We were tasked with determining how to select the student representatives, and then actually selecting them,” 2015 SA President Andrew Fischer ‘17 told Monitor in an interview. This would be one of the first tasks of his administration, elected December 12th, 2014 with running mate Silvia Radulescu ‘17.

Through discussions in SA meetings and with peers, the Fischer-Radulescu administration resolved to conduct a student vote using Qualtrics after collecting nominations from the student body. “The student body will vote on all nominees who confirm their ability to participate. The four highest vote-getters will comprise a slate from whom the Presidential Search Committee may choose,” read a January 29th, 2015 notices-students email from SA soliciting nominations.

Filling a role similar to that of Secretary King this year, the SA administration contacted nominees to share details of the responsibility, including discretion and ability to travel for meetings, to confirm their interest in a February 9th email. Days later, confirmed candidates stood for approval voting in a secure students-only Qualtrics election that required log-in and prevented both double responses and ballot revisions, according to contemporary documents, Fischer, and the two students who would eventually be selected by Sadove and Delaney from the slate: Caleb Williamson ‘17 and Phoebe Greenwald ‘16.

“SA played a massive role in identifying candidates,” Williamson told Monitor in an interview. He continued that for the vote, “I had to log in with like, my Hamilton credentials or something. I don't think you could revise the vote. I think it was a one vote thing. Like after you submitted the form, it was closed.”

Both recalled the PSC was a special, amicable, and inclusive process for them. “I really always felt heard on the committee, and not just heard, but really encouraged to speak up and share my thoughts. Other members of the committee would frequently ask me what I thought,” said Greenwald, who stepped back from being her year’s Alumni Class President late last year to focus on medical school.

Community Input

While the 2023 PSC was only formed in early June, in 2015 Isaacson, Miller had already participated in 30 on-campus meetings with community members by April 28th, according to a notices-all email from Sadove and Delaney. Solomon’s May 17th, 2023 notices-all email – the last day of finals and after most students had left or were in the process of leaving campus – said Wippman had informed him of the retirement decision “several weeks” prior.

Of the five faculty and students on the committee (some of whom have previously commented to Monitor on unrelated topics), three did not respond to requests for comment and two declined to comment when contacted, though one of the two initially agreed to an interview at a later date before saying a few days later that they would not be providing any comment going forward. While PSC members are expected to maintain confidentiality regarding the details of the search, Hamilton did not respond to inquiries about the boundaries of expected PSC member confidentiality and whether it would apply to questions such as “What are you hoping for out of Hamilton's next president?” asked by Monitor.

But asked whether 2015’s members were permitted to publicly share their own desires for the type of person and priorities of the next president, Greenwald said, “Totally. As long as we didn’t give any specifics about the candidates.”

Asked the same via text, Williamson wrote, “I personally didn’t bring my thoughts of what I was looking for to the table. I really acted as a mouthpiece for the student desires as I heard them through the on-campus interviews led by the firm.”

In the interview with Monitor Williamson, who interned for Isaacson, Miller the summer after the search and is currently on the Alumni Council’s Nominations Committee, encouraged active participation from the student body in the search process. “The [two] students are a phenomenal vessel for all students to truly share what concerns them, and I'll even say this: if a student is selected, and it wasn't a student that you know, or had any prior relationship with, I fully encourage all students to engage because they will be open and eager to meet with any and everyone.”

“And if there’s two students who are selected, and they're closed off, make it uncomfortable. Have those conversations with them because at the end of the day, the next president of Hamilton College is going to have to cater to the needs of the students of today,” he said.

The 2015 process included a variety of community meetings attended by Isaacson, Miller and portions of the PSC throughout the spring semester, leading to a 14 page position profile drafted by the firm and co-chairs with input from the PSC in the summer.

According to a June 7th, 2023 press release from Hamilton, “The committee will begin working immediately by scheduling a number of Zoom listening sessions, with additional in-person opportunities for feedback in August and September when students and faculty return for the fall semester.”

The 2015 search included varied participation by group. “I'll never forget, I told some of my friends: ‘guys, if you weren't there, you can't complain,’” Wiliamson said. “This was the best chance that we had as a student body to come forward, make our qualms known, make our expectations known.’”

He continued, “when you think about the other breakoff groups that were there like athletics, those athletes, they showed up in numbers to talk about what they wanted. Greek life, they showed up in numbers and talked about what they wanted. Student government showed up in numbers to talk about what they wanted. And then when it was up to the rest of the campus, it was like, 'no my friends and I want to go to Diner.' But I'm like, 'guys, like this is important.'” He said only about ten people attended the open feedback session for all students.

Fischer noted that some of the major issues discussed during his administration related to social life. Recalling an introductory meeting with candidate-Wippman in fall 2015, “I think I mentioned the need for a plan for social life. What do we want social life to look like on campus and then let's make decisions about social life to get us there, as opposed to making these one-off decisions, putting out particular fires making things easier for the administration in a way that ends up just negatively impacting social life.”

Many are hoping for more engagement this time around. Adina Mujica ‘24, who has served in a variety of institutional governance roles and was a candidate for the PSC, told Monitor she was hoping for a president who is “not white, not from generational wealth, and has a previous explicit commitment to student bodies.” She hopes the process will include “a focus group specifically for marginalized students.”

What’s a College President, Anyway?

“That’s a million dollar question,” said Williamson. (Figuratively, of course; the President made a paltry $574,423 in 2021. The literal million dollar question is for Hamilton’s Connecticut-based Chief Investment Officer.)

What a college president does, and who is fit for the job, varies wildly between institutions. Consistent, however, is a lack of diversity. A recent survey of college presidents by the American Council on Education, who says college presidents “function similarly to that of a chief executive officer for a business in the private sector,” found 72.7% of respondents were white (noting Black respondents, 13.6%, were oversampled in the survey). Approximately 61% identified as men. Only about 13% identified as women of color.

Greenwald explained the job, “College President has a lot of jobs, and a lot of jobs that students don't really see. I think the college would fall apart without a halfway decent president.” She elaborated, “I wanted to be confident that our president was going to be able to do the parts that are boring to students. I wanted to make sure our president was an amazing communicator, not just during a commencement day speech, but also on an individual level. That was a person who could be an effective fundraiser.”

At the same time, the President must respond to and follow the wishes of the Board of Trustees. About three quarters of Hamilton’s voting trustees are elected by the Board of Trustees themselves. The other quarter are generally nominated by the Nominations Committee of the Alumni Council, though it is technically possible for any alumnus to run for the position. Most of Hamilton’s trustees are white men, many of whom work or have worked in finance.

President Stewart saw Hamilton through a difficult presidential transition after the plagiarism-caused resignation of President Eugene Tobin, a steadily decreasing acceptance rate and increasing US News & World Report ranking, and perhaps most notably, the change to need-blind admissions. To fund that policy decision, Stewart was frequently off campus to fundraise and has been widely praised for her ability to do so. She has at times been credited with spearheading the institution’s ascent into its current elite, prestigious reputation.

“Hamilton is a great school,” Greenwald said. “It has a good endowment, it's well regarded. But Hamilton isn't like Harvard, you know; it can't fall asleep at the wheel. It has to do things to differentiate itself. It has to be nimble in adapting to what new generations of students want and need and what new generations of parents want for their children.”

Fischer, who is active in the Denver, CO alumni community and applauded the College’s progress, also said he saw some of the changes during and after his time on campus as oriented toward improving ranking rather than the student experience. “Okay, this is a solution in search of a problem,” he said of changes related to off-campus housing and personal statements in the application process. “The reason that we are making this change is because Williams does it this way. Right? So we should do it this way. That's a bad reason. I came to Hamilton because it's Hamilton, not because it's Williams.”

While boosting the College’s finances and reputation, the Stewart administration had a relatively weak presence on campus. “A lot of people felt very disconnected from the President's Office,” Williamson, who interned there, recalled. “An internal-facing president is something that students have been yelling at us about…and that was one of the things that we decided to really advocate for.”

After months of searching, in their, the PSC, and Trustees' view, the person for that job while simultaneously continuing to boost the College’s resources and reputation was David Wippman.

As a fundraiser, Wippman readily filled the role. Just a week and a half before his retirement announcement, he announced the “Because Hamilton” fundraising campaign reached its $400 million goal ahead of schedule. As far as reputation and internal approval goes, there’s considerably more ambiguity. “Because Hamilton Doesn’t Care,” read the header graphic of a June 2020 petition calling for his resignation or removal and April 2019 banner at one of the many protests against his administration.

An Evolving Discussion on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

After the irregularities in the student process were first reported, some faculty members raised concern via the faculty discussion listserv. Then, two days after Soret and McGovern sent their June 3rd email describing the College’s loose ballot verification process, Professor Peter Cannavò, who happened to serve as Government Department Chair this past year, wrote to the faculty listserv and the Office of the President requesting answers from the College which never came.

“I find this troubling. The selection process for our new President is just getting underway and already there are questions about election integrity,” read Cannavò’s email. “This seems to repeat previous moments of insufficient transparency coinciding with the end of the academic year: the selection of the Advisory Council on DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] issues, and the termination of the college's affiliation with Boston Posse.”

The email strikes at two particularly contentious moments in President Wippman’s tenure relating to socioeconomic inequality: Wippman’s heavily-protested as insufficient response to the 2020 Black Lives Matter Uprising caused by the Minneapolis Police Department’s murder of George Floyd, and the decision to cut the Posse Boston scholarship program, wherein the College’s public rationale of “diversifying diversity recruitment” was contradicted by one of the trustees most closely associated with the program and College DEI efforts: Art Massolo, who is alleged to have said he was glad the program was cut due to perceived academic underperformance.

Just days before the Board announced he would be Hamilton’s 20th President in December 2015, Hamilton was thrust into the national spotlight when The Movement, a group of anonymous Black and Brown students that had been protesting widespread inequality and discrimination on campus, released a long set of demands, among them that the next president be a person of color. President Stewart initially shared the demands with the community and sought conversation on the issues, while far-right Hamilton affiliates and national moderate and right-wing press quickly latched onto grammatical errors and demands for quotas as evidence of ignorance and illegitimacy in the group, at times condemning the College’s openness to discussing the substantive issues laid out in the document as submitting to “social justice warriors.”

(Senior Fellowship research by Saphire Ruiz ‘22, “The Settler Colonial and Plantation Politics of Hamilton College,” would find the demands were a draft document released by one member without consent of the group, in part causing The Movement to fizzle out.)

Still, the demands centered DEI as the preeminent concern for the new presidential administration. “I’m well aware of the issues around diversity and inclusion raised both here and around the country,” Wippman, who like all of Hamilton’s presidents is white, told the Utica Observer-Dispatch at a press conference for his announcement. “They are incredibly important issues that need to be addressed. I’m really used to dealing with a lot of the same kinds of issues in international rights. … [sic] I think the international framework will help engage different communities and constituents that make up the Hamilton family.”

Initial openness to engagement with The Movement’s concerns transformed into a more top-down approach. While noting his own qualms with the way some of the demands were framed, Fischer told Monitor, “My perception of the administration's reaction to it was, initially, receptive: not necessarily willing to accept The Movement and other students’ requests at face value, but certainly willing to discuss them and work on solutions.” However, he continued, “that eventually shifted to — they never really said this explicitly — but their position was basically, ‘these students don't speak for the student population, this is a small vocal minority.’ And [Monitor’s] rendering of what's going on now [with the student selection process for the PSC] strikes me as sort of a continuation of that view.”

He speculated that the Trustees and Office of the President may not view what they are doing as selecting students for their own preferences, but choosing a more accurate reflection of the student body than that of election results.

While some are parents of recent alumni or current students, the most recent graduation year of the ten trustees on this PSC is 1995. Their average graduation year is 1982. Martin Carovano of Martin’s Way fame, who spearheaded the takeover of womens’ Kirkland College and resigned after years of widespread anti-Apartheid protests on campus and a related lawsuit for his disciplinary actions which the College eventually lost, was president at the time.

“Hamilton consistently positions itself as progressive, and unfortunately, it does a pretty good job of doing so,” Ruiz told Monitor. “Yet the moment you actually analyze its supposed ‘progressiveness,’ you find nothing but an attempt to change concepts of what whiteness looks like, while upholding and protecting whiteness as a culture and practice and white supremacy.” As a student, Ruiz served as the first SA President* elected in a contested race since 2016 before resigning in protest, as well as chair of both the Black and Latinx Student Union (BLSU) and Feminists of Color Collective (FCC) while protesting Hamilton’s response to the 2020 BLM Uprising.

Community frustrations with Wippman and the College kicked off in earnest when he issued a May 30th, 2020 statement “Condemning Racism and Inequality” that did not affirm “Black Lives Matter.” The associated Instagram post from @hamiltoncollege received hundreds of comments and reposts from enraged students, alumni, faculty, staff, and parents.

Questions about who and how access is granted to decision-making were persistent throughout Wippman’s administration. Wippman later issued a formal apology affirming that Black Lives Matter, and committed to several tangible DEI actions, among them forming an Advisory Council to assess campus issues and make recommendations for College action.

Since-retired Professor Shelley Haley, the only Black woman with tenure for almost all of her decades-long career at Hamilton, wrote Wippman to request membership. He declined, saying there was not space for everyone who wished to join, according to a screenshot Haley shared publicly at the time. He also rejected requests from BLSU and FCC to have representatives from cultural and identity-based student organizations included, instead unilaterally appointing the council himself. Out of 15 members, two were students. Only one of them would remain to the end.

Williamson, who is Black and was a member of BLSU and the Brothers Organization as a student, said he joined the Council “guns ablazing,” ready to engage deeply despite the controversy. He told Monitor he felt Hamilton is a family. “And so when I'm around family, I'm not scared to ask questions, right? You know, if someone's saying something like, ‘oh, yeah, we know how this goes,’ I'm like, ‘No, can you explain that? I am a little confused.’”

“I was just grateful that time and time again, whether it was with the [presidential] search committee, or the Alumni Council, or with the Advisory Council, the minute you say you disagree, no matter how old or young you are, you have the floor,” Williamson said. He also lauded Wippman for his apology and commitment to act, saying it is a tremendously difficult thing to do for the leader and figurehead of an institution.

The Council contracted a third-party DEI consulting firm to facilitate listening sessions and draft a final report. BLSU and FCC advocated for a boycott in protest, and only 42 people participated in the sessions.

Esquilin Consulting concluded that, “Generally, many participants reported feeling a considerable amount of mistrust of the Hamilton administration, and also a great sense of commitment to the college.” Decisions from Wippman and the College “which were made with the explicit intention of addressing racial inequity on campus, left many of the participants feeling voiceless, harmed, invisible, and disempowered.”

Sacharja Cunningham ‘19, who as a student was a member of BLSU, FCC, Caribbean Students Association, Culture Magazine, and worked for LITS from graduation to fall 2021, shared similar sentiments with Monitor.

A first-year when Wippman’s selection was announced, Cunningham recalled, “Being at Hamilton for 7 years, the concurrent historical events radicalized me in ways that made me constantly frustrated with how Hamilton refused to fundamentally change its approaches to addressing systemic oppression. DEI efforts felt increasingly outdated and counterproductive to developing liberation efforts beyond Hamilton to the point where I lost all faith in them by the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

While whether DEI is an effective paradigm for correcting injustice and elevating marginalized communities as a whole remains a hotly-debated issue, unprecedented DEI investments and decisions have been made in the past year. Wippman named Sean Bennett as the inaugural Vice President for DEI, a new position recommended by the Advisory Council (Ruiz was appointed by Wippman to serve on the VP DEI Search Committee after substantial pressure from the community). The Days-Massolo Center (DMC) saw a significant increase in community engagement, according to a recently-released report. In addition to Bennett, Wippman named Ngonidzashe Munemo and Chris Card as Dean of Faculty and Dean of Students, respectively. The three are the first Black people to ever serve on Hamilton’s Senior Staff, and were appointed within months of each other.

The Soul Search

“What are you hoping for in Hamilton’s next president?” is nearly synonymous to most with what they want for Hamilton. So what do students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, and donors (the intersection of the last three being the most influential constituency) want out of Hamilton College? Whether the 21st President of the College will themself have their hand in every part of institutional governance does not change that a presidential search process has the potential to elicit thorough answers to that question, so long as the PSC Co-Chairs, Delaney and Johnson, work to make it happen and recover the trust already lost in their first steps.

“Someone who is a champion for students’ safety and well-being, both mental and physical,” answered Isa Cardoso ‘25, who was a candidate for the PSC and previously served on SA. This concern was dominant among students toward the end of this year after a shooting threat, lockdown, and College decision to decline SA’s request for two days off, instead returning to normal operations less than 12 hours later.

Cunningham wanted more honesty. “I truly don’t have high hopes for a new president. At the very least, I would hope the new president is honest about their role to help run Hamilton as a business first. I’d hope they increase transparency about the daily and general responsibilities they have and the limits of what they can do to meet the needs of Hamilton’s most oppressed community members.”

“The best I can hope for is to get someone who makes tangible changes to the functioning of the College to give students more decision-making power,” Ruiz shared.

We will likely never know which candidates – more progressive or regressive – were avoided in 2015, and the same holds true for 2023.

Reflecting on his experience, Williamson said he hopes the next president can continue the legacy of Stewart and Wippman’s fundraising, as well as Wippman’s community engagement. “I hope that the next president can truly increase the percentage of students who walk across the stage at graduation saying that they're proud that they went to Hamilton.”

Greenwald said it was a hard time to be a college president, in particular through the pandemic, and she hopes the school continues to invest in not only bringing, but supporting, non-traditional (i.e., not white men) students on campus. “Everyone's educational experience is better when, number one, you have a diverse student body, and number two, you're supporting your students such that they can all be kind of like, I don't know, it's really a cheesy word, but: self-actualizing.”

There’s a phrase for that: Know Thyself.

*Disclosure: the author of this article served as their Vice President and participated in their initiatives.

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