OBERLIN — Oberlin College welcomed Carmen Twillie Ambar as its 15th president Tuesday — the college’s first African-American president and the second woman to lead in the school in its 184-year history.
Ambar, 49, will take the helm in September. She succeeds President Marvin Krislov, who announced last year that he would leave and later that he accepted the president’s job at Pace University in New York. Krislov’s last day is June 30.
A search committee led by chair Lille Edwards and representatives from the Board of Trustees, alumni, faculty, staff and student body conducted several months of interviews before deciding on Ambar.
Ambar comes to Oberlin after nine years as president of Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pa. She was vice president and dean of Douglass College at Rutgers University and assistant dean of graduate education at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. As an attorney, she worked in the New York City Law Department as an assistant corporation counsel.
She earned her juris doctorate at Columbia Law School, her master’s in public affairs at Princeton University and her bachelor of science in foreign service at Georgetown University.
Ambar and her husband, Saladin Ambar, have three children, 10-year-old triplets Gabrielle, Luke and Daniel. Saladin Ambar is an associate professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey and he will continue at that position.
Ambar’s parents, Manuel and Gwendolyn Twillie, were in the audience during the announcement.
During a speech to faculty and the community, Ambar talked about her upbringing in Little Rock, Ark., and how the decisions her parents made changed the trajectory of her life. In particular, her father was a cotton picker before he had the opportunity to go to college.
“Just imagine the Deep South, the heat, and he would look up at the hot beating sun as he was out there picking cotton and he would say to himself, ‘I don’t know what I want to do but I know I don’t want to do this,’ ” Ambar said.
Edwards, the search committee chair, thanked the community and the students for their patience during the eight months it took to vet president hopefuls. He did not say how many candidates the committee considered.
Edwards called Ambar a “visionary” in her passion to carrying Oberlin’s mission into the 21st century.
“She is compassionate about who has access to this transformation,” Edwards said. “These principles are not only professional; for her they are also movingly personal. They reveal how much learning and labor are already in her DNA.”
Q: How does it feel to be part of this historic moment?
A: It’s exciting. It’s not lost on me that, whenever there is a first at any institution, it means something to young boys and young girls out there that are aspiring to whatever it is they want to achieve in life. I’m excited to be that example of that if that’s what I am.
I think it’s also the sharing that moment with my parents that’s so special. Knowing my family’s background — it’s that moment of knowing when my dad was standing there in that cotton field, could he ever have thought that his daughter would have the opportunity to be president of Oberlin College?
Oberlin’s history is so intertwined with the history of African-Americans that I think that too adds a special ring to it.
Q: This has been a tumultuous year between the college and the community, how will you bridge that gap?
A: At first, it’s just listening. Whenever you’re new to an institution and to a community, the first months are just listening to people’s concerns and issues and trying to figure out what the big rocks are. Whenever you take on a new leadership role, you can do anything, but you can’t do everything, and so part of those first few weeks, months, is trying to figure out what the key issues are and sometimes just that shift can help everybody take a deep breath … and figure out, what are we really trying to accomplish?
Sometimes just that simple question gives everyone an opportunity to say, OK, we really do have interests that are not competing. We have similar interests. We may have different ways of getting there, let’s find a way we can both be satisfied.
Q: What is an issue you’re looking to tackle?
A: Small liberal arts colleges are facing this world in which we have a declining number of high school graduates nationally, and we have some competition from unlikely sources and have families questioning not just the cost, but the value of the academic experience in particular.
So, how do you maintain that mission and still have a sustainable institution financially? If there’s anything I’m going to spend my time on, it’s how to do that and the multiple ways to get to the end game there.
It could be new academic programs, it could be expanding into graduate degrees, it could be rethinking some of the programs we have here, it could be defining how we look at those programs to help families understand what the outcome is so they understand the practical application of the liberal arts.
It’s going to take us some time to do, but I’m excited about the Oberlin community, and it seems that they’re ready for some of the changes we have to make.
Q: Are you concerned with the reputation of Oberlin College both locally and nationally?
A: I’ve heard that comment, about the outside reputation and concerns. Some of this is about the national landscape, right, so some of the issues that Oberlin has experienced have happened on college campuses across the country as we’re all dealing with a different climate.
People in Oberlin and the town have felt it acutely, but I think those of us on the outside have thought of it in the same way we’ve thought about a lot of those issues on college campuses. I’m not quite sure it’s as profound as it might feel to the people that are here.
On the other hand, I do think it’s important to pay attention to people’s perceptions of our situation. I think it does impact prospective students’ choices, and it can sometimes impact donors.
Some of our work may be, not so much to try to change that particular narrative, but just making sure people understand the complexity and depth of Oberlin in a way that when they hear about those things, that also have other things in their mind.
That’s some work that a president can do. If you can find a way to be more on the national stage and talking about those issues, then people can connect Oberlin to a broader narrative instead of just a singular issue around a protest that happened on campus or whatever may be the sound bite moment of the day.
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