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  • Eric Santomauro-Stenzel

How Hamilton's leadership is changing, and what it means for the future

BUTTRICK HALL, Office of the President – By the start of the 2024-2025 academic year, less than half of Hamilton’s Senior Staff, the Vice Presidents who ultimately oversee all College employees, will be the same individuals as three years prior. Lower levels of administration, like many director positions, have also shifted in recent years. Meanwhile, nearly a quarter of the faculty arrived this academic year alone. With a new College President arriving and some staff having decades in their roles, additional changes are likely. The unusual level of turnover is likely to present new opportunities and challenges as the institution transforms.

The first major departures included former Dean of Students, Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer Terry Martinez and Dean of Faculty Suzanne Keen in 2022. They were replaced following search committee candidate selection and appointment by President David Wippman. Dean of Students Chris Card, Dean of Faculty Ngonidzashe Munemo, and inaugural Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Sean Bennett arrived. The three are Hamilton’s first Black members of Senior Staff.

Since the start of the academic year, the inaugural Vice President for Communications and Marketing, Melissa Richards, departed for a Vice President and Chief of Staff role at Emerson College. Twenty-year Vice President for Enrollment Management Monica Inzer also announced her retirement at the conclusion of this academic year. Both positions have open candidate searches.

As stands, Vice President for Library and Information Technology Joe Shelley, Vice President for Advancement Lori Dennison ‘87, Chief of Staff and Secretary to the Board of Trustees Gill King, and Vice President for Administration and Finance Karen Leach will remain. President David Wippman’s retirement and President-elect Steven Tepper’s arrival this summer heralds a new era in institutional governance. At Hamilton and across the higher education industry, a new college president often comes with new senior-level hires.

These changes coincide with high turnover or additions in director and dean positions since 2022 in areas like the Days-Massolo Center, Admissions, Student Activities, ALEX, the Career Center, International Student Services, Facilities Management, Spiritual and Religious Life (formerly the Chaplaincy), and more. Further, forty-two new faculty members, mostly early to mid career, arrived this academic year.

Some effects are already being felt. Dean of Faculty Munemo, who has already challenged orthodoxy by facilitating ongoing efforts to start an Indigenous Studies program and played a key role in the return of Rev. Jeff McArn as an adjunct, recently opened a conversation Hamilton has avoided for decades. At the February 6th faculty meeting, Dean Munemo invited faculty into ongoing conversation about “our curriculum, considering what we've added and want to invest in, what we value” over the next five to ten years. 

Munemo’s invitation touches a tender chord at an institution that, since adopting the open curriculum in 2000, it has rarely discussed. Aside from edge tweaks like dropping the “Sophomore Seminar” and instituting the Social, Structural, and Institutional Hierarchies requirement, Hamilton’s curricular requirements have largely remained unchanged. Some have increasingly felt that Hamilton’s open curriculum as constructed, rather than fostering the interdisciplinary and cross-departmental collaboration as intended, has led many students, staff, and faculty to silo themselves into a narrow set of work.

Faculty, for their part, have played a key role in challenging previous norms at Hamilton. In the spring 2023 semester, faculty fell just short of a 2/3rds majority vote required to offer lecturers voting rights in governance. The initiative, pushed by professors organizing with Hamilton’s local American Association of University Professors (AAUP), represents a broader generational push against the adjunctification of faculty in higher education. The attitudinal shift in Hamilton’s faculty may be best represented by their chosen representatives on the Presidential Search Committee which recommended President-elect Tepper. Each of the three faculty arrived less than a decade ago – two only in 2018 – and have histories of being involved with advocacy on campus.

On the student end, Dean of Students and Vice President for Student Life Chris Card has spearheaded efforts to revive post-pandemic social life and offered support for a more hands-on approach to student engagement. By renovating the Sadove basement into “The Underground” (where he personally delivered remarks upon opening), facilitating College-organized events with alcohol, and himself being a member of a Greek organization, Card has taken an approach that contrasts with previous institutional efforts. Additional staffing in the Student Activities office, led by Ariel Adams since the start of this academic year, has enabled more comprehensive advising and leadership support for a massive per-capita number of student organizations: approximately one group for every ten students.

Associate Vice President for Facilities and Planning Mike Klapmeyer has played a key role in recent major renovations like Root Hall and developing a new Campus Master Plan which will guide the school’s building investments for decades to come. To occupy those facilities, Dean of Admission John McLaughlin is faced with difficult questions about building a diverse student body following the Supreme Court’s decision against race-based affirmative action. Vice President for DEI Bennett is at the center of conversations about support for marginalized communities on campus, situated in context prior to his arrival rife with conflict between campus racial justice advocates and administration, particularly on retaining faculty of color.

Those battles, however, also severely weakened DEI’s loudest opponent on the hill: the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. The group once boasted dozens of affiliates on campus and frequently successfully leveraged national right-wing media outlets to pressure the College away – at times successfully – from its DEI initiatives. Its strategy has also resulted in targeted harassment of community members. While Hamilton itself has avoided criticizing the independent nonprofit since their split nearly two decades ago, sustained community response to the group since the 2021-2022 academic year has all but erased AHI’s presence on campus, though it maintains a long-standing relationship with the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity. 

Dr. Steven Tepper will be Hamilton College's 21st president, succeeding President David Wippman. | Photo courtesy of Hamilton College

The Board of Trustees’ decision to appoint Steven Tepper signals an openness to larger institutional change than in the past, though how far they will go remains to be seen. College marketing has packaged Tepper as a socially-conscious, outward-looking creative who is willing to experiment, even if it means learning from failure. The message is vastly different from his predecessor’s administration, known for cautiously staying the course even in spite of widespread, near-semesterly protests, preferring to follow the lead of oft-cited “peer institutions” like Williams and Amherst.

While Hamilton has steadily climbed in rankings and wealth, many with a more intimate view than US News & World Report have questioned this external focus. Throughout the presidential search, many community members called for strong, visionary leadership.

With a broad pedagogical vision centered on creativity and a suite of fresh, mostly controversy-free faces surrounding him, President-elect Tepper may have the greatest opportunity and mandate in decades to transform the institution into what its community aspires for it to be – so long as he doesn’t throw away his shot.

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