Oberlin College and Conservatory announced this week that it had named its first Black-American president in the institution's 184-year history.
Carmen Twillie Ambar sat down with WKYC Channel 3’s Hilary Golston to discuss the historic move.
Ambar is also the second woman to hold the post at Oberlin College.
She's currently a sitting president at Cedar Crest College, a private liberal arts women's college in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
The search process was not public, so the unveiling was a surprise on Oberlin's campus.
Ambar says she could hear gasps in the audience adding to the excitement and energy of the reveal.
"Part of what this is about is people being excited," Ambar told Golston. "Those gasps and hesitations were an excitement about what it might mean to have a president that hasn't looked like or been like any president before."
Ambar will take the helm as the 15th president of the institution following the conclusion of current president Marvin Krislov's tenure as the leader of the college.
Krislov announced his resignation last year and is expected to conclude his term at the end of the month.
Ambar has made history before, when she served as the youngest dean in Rutger University's history.
"It's certainly a shift. It's a shift in people's understanding of what it means to be president of Oberlin," Ambar said in addressing the historic significance of the announcement. "It wasn't lost on me that I was the first African American president.... It's not lost on me given Oberlin's history."
Oberlin for example was a major stop in the underground railroad, a network set up by abolitionists to aid fugitive slaves in escaping bondage in the antebellum south. The institution was an early adopter of race and gender blind admission, a progressive policy which dates back to 1835.
Positioning students to create positive change in their communities, is part of how Ambar sees Oberlin continuing its twenty-first century embrace of social justice. "I think Oberlin's framing on social justice and equity is not only about access and opportunity, but it's also about helping students change the world for good," Ambar explained.
The Georgetown, Princeton and Columbia graduate also spoke about the cost of higher education, which has become increasingly bloated.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports in a 10 year span from January 2006 to July 2016, college tuition and associated fees increased by 63 percent.
The most recently available data indicates Americans now owe more than $1.3 trillion in student debt.
66 percent of Ohioans graduating from college will leave with debt. The average cost of loans for these students will exceed $30,000.
"It should be affordable... there should be a way for you to have this academic experience without being so overburdened with debt that you can't afford to do the things you want to do afterwards."
Ambar says she views Oberlin as a "bellwether" institution on the matter of educational access and affordability and hopes to position the college in a way that "so goes Oberlin, so goes the entire higher education framework."
Ambar acknowledges the simple optics of the choice as a way to expand possibilities and aspirations in the minds of students and community members, drawing parallels to the visual message sent by the election of America's first African American President, Barack Obama.
The Oberlin College Board of Trustees released the following statement about Ambar:
“The Oberlin College Board of Trustees announced today that Carmen Twillie Ambar will become the College’s 15th president and first African American leader in the institution's 184-year history. Ambar, currently president of Cedar Crest College, will be on campus full time."
Ambar’s values align closely with Oberlin’s mission. “Oberlin is a singular institution in American higher education, with an historic commitment to social justice, academic and musical excellence, and the liberal arts,” Ambar says. “I look forward to my work with Oberlin’s faculty, staff, students, board, and alumni to think creatively and collaboratively together. I am humbled to be joining this institution and excited about the opportunity to lead it into its next era.”
Lillie Edwards ’75, Chair of the Presidential Search Committee, says, “I look forward to seeing the ways in which Oberlin and President Ambar will inspire each other. She is passionate about the ways music and the liberal arts are powerfully transformative. She is visionary in thinking about how we can carry our mission into the 21st century. She is compassionate about who has access to this transformation. 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.”
Ambar has served as the 13th president of Cedar Crest College since 2008, following a highly successful tenure as vice president and dean of Douglass College at Rutgers University, where she was the youngest dean in the University’s history. Cedar Crest has thrived under her leadership. Three straight years with budget surpluses and a 35 percent growth in net assets have allowed the college to make significant investments in the campus without borrowing, and the college’s endowment has increased by almost 92 percent. Ambar has presided over the launch of 18 new academic programs and, during her tenure, Cedar Crest has seen enrollment growth in six of the last seven years and this fall will welcome its largest freshman class since 2007.
“I'm incredibly excited to work with Carmen Ambar as Oberlin's next president,” says Chris Canavan ’84, Chair-Elect of Oberlin’s Board of Trustees. “Her life story, her academic achievements, her devotion to the liberal arts and her love of music make her the very embodiment of Oberlin. Under her leadership, I'm confident that Oberlin can advance with the times without losing sight of who we are.”
The Presidential Search Committee was impressed with Ambar’s deep commitment to helping students see their potential in new and creative ways, achieve at the highest levels in whatever field they choose, and ultimately change the world for the better. "President Ambar has a record of recognizing and embracing the importance of participatory governance, knowing that the community is integral to an institution's trajectory,” says Jeremy Poe ’18. “She understands both the challenges of equitable access to education and the equity disparities students face after matriculating. Her theories about how an institution can and should adapt will forestall concerns about a top-down approach. I'm excited to see and be a part of what Oberlin is able to do under her leadership, and I know other students will be similarly excited."
Access and retention are paramount priorities for Ambar. At Cedar Crest, she led initiatives to expand the access of high-impact practices for all students including: “The Sophomore Expedition,” a shared short-term study abroad experience funded almost entirely by the college for all sophomores beginning spring 2018; campus vibrancy initiatives and a robust First-Year-Experience that have increased retention by 11 percent; the 4-Year Guarantee, which provides a clear path to graduation; dual degrees, to help students get their master’s faster; and living learning communities. Under her leadership, the diversity of the student body increased from 16 percent in fall 2008 to 37 percent in fall 2016, with the highest increases in Hispanic and African American populations.
Oberlin faculty who served on the Presidential Search Committee were inspired by Ambar’s vision. Jennifer Bryan, Associate Professor of English, says, “I think of Carmen Ambar as the pragmatist's idealist. She's clear-eyed and tough-minded, honest and smart, and she believes passionately in the transformative power and social impact of what we do. I think she's really inspiring, and I'm confident that she's going to be a powerful voice for Oberlin's mission and values.”
Jan Miyake '96, Associate Professor of Music Theory, echoes: “I was impressed by her broad thinking, mission-driven approach, and listening skills, and I am confident that she is an experienced leader who is ready to guide us through these next years at Oberlin.”
Ambar serves on several boards including the Colonial States Athletic Conference, for which she is Chair; the Women’s College Coalition; and the Pennsylvania Campus Compact board. In 2014, she was honored by the governor’s office as a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania. Additionally, she has earned several awards for her support of women including the 2012 Girls Scouts “Take the Lead” Award, the 2011 American Association of University Women (AAUW) Gateway to Equity Award from the organization’s Allentown Branch, and the 2010 Athena Award from the Women’s Business Council (WBC) of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce.
Prior to her time at Rutgers, Ambar served as assistant dean of graduate education at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. As an attorney, she previously worked in the New York City Law Department as an assistant corporation counsel.
Ambar earned her juris doctor at Columbia Law School, her master’s in public affairs at Princeton University, and her B.S. in Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is married to Saladin Malik Ambar, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and Senior Scholar at the Center on the American Governor at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. A native of Little Rock, Arkansas, Ambar has ten-year-old triplets, Gabrielle, Luke, and Daniel.
Carol Levine '84, President-Elect of the Oberlin Alumni Association, also welcomes Ambar’s selection: “Carmen Ambar is compelling, warm and engaging. She drew us in with her insight and commentary based on thoughtful research. She immediately got the pulse of Oberlin - both strengths and weaknesses - and delved right into even the most difficult subjects. I believe she will be a great motivator. She is present, driven and ready to take on everything Oberlin is and hopes to be.”
The nationwide search for Oberlin’s 15th president began in autumn 2016, when Marvin Krislov announced his resignation from the presidency effective June 30, 2017. A search committee, which included representatives from the Board of Trustees, alumni, faculty, staff, and the student body, solicited nominations, closely reviewed the credentials of the candidates, and conducted extensive interviews.”