OBERLIN — After roughly a year in the position, Oberlin College installed Carmen Twillie Ambar as its 15th president Friday evening in Finney Chapel.
Ambar is the college’s first black leader and second female president in the college’s almost 185-year history.
Before Board of Trustees Chairman Chris Canavan presented her with the presidential medal and presidential oath, a number of speakers touched on Ambar’s importance in the university’s history.
Johnnetta Betsch, director emerita of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and president emerita of Spelman and Bennett colleges, began the program. She noted Ambar’s importance, and called on her to keep the college’s legacy of activism alive.
“It is so clear that you, sister president, are intensely committed to fostering (diversity), equity, accessibility and inclusion at Oberlin, in this nation, and throughout our world. Back in the day, when I arrived at Oberlin, I found a place where my education helped me to better understand the world and it helped me to understand my responsibility to help make the world better. I know we can count on you, sister president, to honor Oberlin’s long and righteous position of activism.”
As for filling the mantle as the second woman to lead the institution, Betsch quoted an Ethiopian proverb demonstrating what kind of leader the community expects Ambar to be — “When women lead, streams run uphill.”
Alumni Association President Carol Levine and Alumni Association of African Ancestry Co-Chairwoman Carolyn Cunningham touched on what their respective groups thought and expect of the new president. Levine reminded Ambar of the importance of listening to the college’s roughly 40,000 alumni, now scattered throughout the world, and urged alumni to trust the college’s administration goals for the success of the institution.
Cunningham noted the significance of Ambar’s appointment — citing a 2017 study that found only 3 in 10 higher education leaders are women, 17 percent are minorities and 5 percent are women of color.
For current student Naeisha McClain, class of 2020, seeing an African-American president appointed last year was exciting — and getting the chance to speak at her inauguration even more so.
She continued, apologizing to Ambar for missing part of her speech during last year’s live-stream because she started blasting Jeezy’s “My President.” She noted Ambar’s dedication to the college, despite only being there a year, and the high hopes students have for her continued administration.
“As the days went on for that upcoming year, my excitement started to grow,” McClain said. “And after experiencing her leadership and dedication to the college after just one year, I can honestly say that my excitement continues to grow for the years to come.”
She also reminded students to be bold — another theme for the night’s speeches.
“She cares about what happens here and she cares about the student body … This year, she’s reminding students to be bold and to take chances — whether that means applying for your dream internship, doing work in the community or even taking that initial step and going to your professor’s office hours. Being bold embodies various definitions for a variety of students, but whatever the case may be, she reminds us to push ourselves in a way that we may have been too afraid to, or never thought of before. She wants to see us succeed and thrive as a student body and as a college.”
Ambar was introduced by Cheryl Wall, of Rutgers University where Ambar had been dean of Douglass College, prior to working at Cedar Crest and coming to Oberlin.
Wall remembered the administration at Rutger’s deliberation around appointing the youngest dean in the university’s history. Even then, Ambar said her goal was to be a college president — something Wall had no surprise seeing her accomplish.
In her address, Ambar noted her ancestry — how her parents got her to her place at Finney Chapel. Coming from humble means, her parents persevered “against all odds” in Arkansas. Her father was a cotton farmer, and she shared a quote from him that she lives by — “plow to the end of your row.”
“He was saying to me, work hard and do it well. He taught us to be people of faith, to have faith in something bigger than yourself. And my parents taught me that anything is possible — even if there weren’t really any images around them that demonstrated that that was true — but they taught it to us anyway. So I stand here today … because of the efforts of Manuel and Gwendolyn Twillie as the 15th president of Oberlin College.”
She went on to note Oberlin’s uniqueness in its admission of African-Americans and women in its early years, noting that history has smoothed the rancor that surrounded those decisions. Called “one of the great colleges” by Martin Luther King Jr. in a commencement speech he gave there in 1965, she said the world needs the example of Oberlin — and more of its students — to spread the college’s way of thinking and values.
As the country faces uncertain times, Ambar noted the advantage of the college’s “bold DNA” to navigate what lies ahead for liberal arts colleges and the kind of education they offer.
“We have to remember who we are, that we have the ability to lead,” she said. “That through our history, we’ve not only been open to change, in fact we’ve been open to fairly radical change as compared to our peers. And that we can do the difficult, and deal with the disagreements in life on our way to rethinking and having the change that will serve us best.”
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