OBERLIN — Boldness. Tradition. Vision. These are the three themes for the inauguration ceremony for Oberlin College President Carmen Twillie Ambar on Oct. 5.
The inauguration planning committee chose the themes as a result of Ambar citing Oberlin’s vision and tradition for boldness. Ambar said Oberlin College’s boldness is what led it to achieving so many milestones as an American institution.
“I’ve said to people that we oftentimes point to Oberlin’s firsts, but the true Oberlin first was boldness, it was a decision to be bold,” she said. “And from those decisions float all of these firsts.”
The college became the first in the country to allow both black and female students in its doors in the late 19th century. She became the college’s first black president. To her, the inauguration ceremony and traditions attached are less about her and more about the celebration of the college.
“I kind of pull myself out of it a little bit and think that what I’m really doing is representing Oberlin as it exists right now and Oberlin’s aspirations for the future,” she said.
The co-chairs of the inauguration planning committee are associate professor of Africana studies Meredith Gadsby and associate professor of music theory Jan Miyake. Due to a lot of other events happening the same day, including homecoming weekend Oct. 5 to 7, Miyake said the committee decided to make it a two-day celebration.
“Since there are already so many people here and we’re geared up for a lot of special events, it made a lot of sense to combine the inauguration with those,” she said.
The inauguration ceremony will be kickoff with an Oct. 4 symposium honoring Ambar. The first part of the symposium will have a lecture from Sir David Adjaye, a Ghanaian-British architect who led the design of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. That will be from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. in Warner Concert Hall. The other half of the symposium will be a panel of community experts discussing creativity and innovation 6:45 to 7:45 p.m. The day will end with an inaugural concert 9 to 10 p.m. at Finney Chapel.
Friday, the undergraduate research open house will be 1 to 2 p.m. and the inauguration ceremony will be 4:30 p.m. Oct. 5 at Finney Chapel.
Although Ambar started in the job about a year ago, she wanted to spend her time learning about the campus before the inauguration.
Ambar, in an interview with The Chronicle-Telegram on Monday, said she’s been trying to understand the culture of the campus, observing how the college works and connecting with alumni. Ambar said she is focusing on the opportunities for the college and challenges faced by small, private liberal arts colleges.
This year, Oberlin has seen a slight increase in enrollment, with the school trying to focus more on preparing students for life after graduating from the college.
In the past year, Standard and Poor as well as Moody’s Investor Service downgraded the college’s outlook rating from stable to negative. Although the college’s long-term credit rating of AA from S&P — the second-highest rating that defines it as having a very strong capacity to pay money back — remained unchanged, the outlook only shows the rating as a possibility.
One of the largest reasons the college’s two-year outlook rating went down was because of enrollment struggles. S&P cited the enrollment drop from 2015 to 2016, when the college went from 2,912 students in 2015 to 2,895 in 2016, and another drop in the 2017-18 academic year to 2,827 students.
Ambar said outlook is a reflection of what most colleges are going through. Ambar said Oberlin College is not an outlier, citing Moody’s filing a report lowering the outlook on the entire U.S. higher education sector in 2017 from stable to negative.
This year, Ambar said the freshman enrollment has increased by about 100 students. It’s not a lot, but it’s a start, she said.
“Will our total, overall enrollment go down this year? Yes it will, because we had these bigger classes graduating and these smaller classes come in,” she said. “But you have to start somewhere, and the first step is to have a strong enrollment and try to build on it overtime.”
‘Good Neighbor’ program
In August, Ambar issued a statement to the local business community about a plan to have students learn to be good neighbors.
The college has pushed student participation in a number of ways. The college first encouraged students to shop local. Another initiative the college designed was a new orientation program “Community 101: An Obie’s Guide to Being a Good Neighbor,” to help students think through what it means to be a responsible resident in Oberlin.
In 2016, tensions erupted when a student tried to buy alcohol with a fake ID and shoplift at Gibson’s Bakery while Allyn Gibson, who is the son of the bakery’s owner, David Gibson, was working. Allyn Gibson followed the student out of the store, and the two got into a physical altercation.
Two other students got involved and police have said when they arrived the three students were hitting Allyn Gibson while he was on the ground. The incident was viewed as racially charged because Allyn Gibson is white and the students are black. All three students pleaded guilty in August 2017 to misdemeanor charges and read statements into the record acknowledging that Allyn Gibson was within his right to detain the shoplifter and that his actions were not racially motivated.
The bakery contends it lost business as a result of the protests by Oberlin College students and community members that ensued after the incident. The business sued the college in 2017 and the lawsuit is ongoing, according to court documents.
In her time learning about the campus culture, Ambar said she found that Oberlin College has an intense involvement in social and civil discourse — signing petitions, protesting and taking other politically motivated actions in the local community. The college’s students were heavily involved with protesting the construction of the NEXUS natural gas pipeline at the City Council meetings.
Ambar said she believes that that involvement is one of the college’s strengths and wants to better refine it through a new project called sustained dialogue. The projects allow students to discuss with each other through multiple weeks sensitive and controversial subjects.
Before coming to Oberlin, Ambar served as president of Cedar Crest College in Allentown from 2008 to 2017. Her other past positions include 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. She has a law degree from Columbia University, and served as assistant corporation counsel for the New York City Law Department.
A native of Little Rock, Arkansas, Ambar earned a bachelor’s degree in foreign service at Georgetown University and a master’s in public affairs at Princeton.
Information on the inauguration and the other events can be found online.
- History made at Oberlin College
- London architect Sir David Adjaye discusses his work at Oberlin lecture
- Oberlin College welcomes the class of 2022
- Oberlin College to begin 'good neighbor' service plan for students
- Standard & Poor's downgrades Oberlin College's rating
- 'Visionary' announced as next Oberlin president
- Oberlin announces Cedar Crest's Ambar as new president