Dr. Carmen Twillie Ambar: Leading at the Crossroads of Gender and Race

Cheryl C. Boots, Boston University, College of General Studies

Thanks to Dr. Carmen Twillie Ambar, Dr. Melissane Schrems, and Ms. Jennifer Bradfield for their invaluable assistance in making this essay possible.

On a beautiful October day in 2006, I met Dr. Carmen Twillie Ambar at a mutual friend’s wedding. I do not recall much about the substance of our conversation except that we (like the bride) shared some of our experiences as women in higher education administration and teaching. At the time, she was the Vice President and Dean of Douglass College at Rutgers University, a college historically founded for women. Because I had been a dean at two other women’s colleges, we affirmed the positive role that women’s colleges play in cultivating women leaders. Beyond that, I do recall the warmth of her smile and of her easy, infectious laughter. Since then, from some distance, I have followed her professional trajectory with increasing interest.

As an African-American woman who has moved through successive layers of academic positions in public and private institutions to become the president at two different American liberal arts colleges, Dr. Ambar’s career path consistently has brought her to the crossroads of gender and race in higher education. There she has made dynamic leadership decisions impacting thousands of students. She is a rarity. The American Council on Education (ACE) and TIAA Institute in its “American College Presidential Study” reported in 2017, that a mere 5% of all presidents of U.S. colleges and universities are women of color. According to the study, the total number of women presidents has increased in recent years; however, their numbers continue to be disproportionately small. Interviews with four women presidents and chancellors as part of the same report, shared some key insights regarding the qualities of women leaders including the need for women to have confidence in their abilities and the importance of women leaders to be attuned to the needs of diverse student populations (www.tiaainstitute.org). This brief case study of Dr. Ambar’s career, especially at Douglass College, Cedar Crest College, and at Oberlin College, reveals how she has lived into both of those characteristics identified by the ACE focus group. In addition, Dr. Ambar’s Presidential Initiative at Oberlin College demonstrates one strategy that colleges and universities can use to confront and change institutional racism in the United States.

Personal Integrity by “Standing Tall”

In 2016, while she was the President of Cedar Crest College, Dr. Ambar contributed an essay to Women in the Academy: Learning from our Diverse Career Pathways. One of twelve women academics included in this collection, she wrote the first chapter, “Standing Tall.” In it, Dr. Ambar reflects on her life story and her career. The title comes from her mother’s admonitions (as part of her training as a dancer) for her daughter to “stand tall.” While that coaching literally applied to Ambar’s physical posture, Ambar also translated the expectation into other realms as well. “In my house we were taught to stand tall in all things. Tall in our womanhood. Tall in our blackness. And tall in our humanity” (“Standing Tall” np). This sense of confidence and purpose has permeated Dr. Ambar’s professional life.

Ambar’s emphasis on personal integrity and concern about historically disadvantaged groups flows from her early years growing up in the crucible of the Southern Rights Movement in Little Rock, Arkansas. She was born just months after Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. Her family’s life orbited near Central High School, site of the Little Rock Nine’s embattled integration. As first-generation college students, her parents earned bachelors’ degrees and advanced degrees, which transformed their lives. Ambar saw first-hand what the value of education offered her family. Her mother taught at Little Rock High School, earned a Ph.D., and chaired the Theatre Department at the University of Arkansas—Little Rock. Dr. Ambar observed how a woman could be an academic leader (“Standing Tall” np).

Besides her mother’s advice to stand tall, her father’s background growing up on a farm also comes into play in her identity and self-confidence. He grew up in a farming family. Each person, no matter how old or young, had work to do; and every family member’s work was essential for success. Her father’s injunction— “Plow to the end of your row”—demanded that no task should be abandoned before it was completed. Ambar explains how these core principles from both of her parents influenced her. “When you have folks who were slaughtering hogs and fighting for civil rights, you learned not to finish until the job was done.” She recalls one example: as a young lawyer working for the City of New York, she spent long nights burning the midnight oil to complete work needed for her clients. Ultimately, her parents inspired their children, who pushed their own boundaries to become “a doctor, a teacher, and a college president.” (“Standing Tall” np).

While validating multiple routes to and through academic leadership, Ambar’s reflection on women and leadership clearly grounds her advances in her ethical stance. She adopted values handed down from her parents and leavened by Southern Rights Movement principles. Ambar applied those life lessons to her education and to her professional life. During her years as a young administrator at Douglass College, she relied upon her ability to stand tall even when advised to bend to the pressure (“Standing Tall” np).

Currently Douglass College describes itself as “the only residential women’s college in the nation that is housed within a world-class public research university” (Rutgers). In 2002, Dr. Ambar had been the youngest person appointed to be its dean. During the process of confronting institutional priorities, Rutgers University leaders promoted a plan to close the historic women’s college. Some seasoned administrators advised Ambar not to resist the proposal because doing so might threaten her blossoming career. Despite that advice, as a matter of personal integrity, Ambar worked successfully to preserve Douglass College. In her essay, she describes her rationale to risk her career on behalf of the college as growing out of her belief that a college education is relevant and crucial for “historically disadvantaged groups.” Specifically, she enumerated those groups: “people of color, the poor, first-generation college students, and women.” Her commitment to women’s education inaugurated at Douglass College continued when she subsequently became President of Cedar Crest College. From her vantage point on the platform at graduations, President Ambar joyfully watched first-generation women college students lift their diplomas in victory while they crossed the graduation stage (“Standing Tall” np).

“Corescendency” and Leadership

In her writing about women and leadership, Dr. Ambar expresses her concern that women leaders be evaluated in ways beyond simply aggregate numbers. Numbers alone do not tell the whole story. Furthermore, not all leadership styles (by women or by men) ought to be replicated. How to determine the leadership approaches that best serve students and their institutions? Dr. Ambar has devised a rubric for analyzing women leaders. Ambar proposes her concept of “corescendency” a term that combines “core” and “transcendence.” She defines it as “the attribute of transcending gender when necessary to reach a broader audience.” She advises that the transcendence must be constrained, however, so that women leaders do not “lose the core of who you are, rendering your gender irrelevant” (“Standing Tall” np).

Affirming that women should be “advancing ethical and democratic causes that ultimately better the lives for the masses of society,” she calls for women to be ethical teachers, role models, and thinkers. To that end of “adding to the discourse,” the Corescendency Test she created assesses women leaders in education. She implies that the same evaluation could also be applied to women leaders in politics and business (“Standing Tall” np).

For Ambar, women’s leadership at its best is connected to a larger movement and a broader history. Women leaders are entwined in community. Women who are not connected and who, by implication, do not value community are “lacking a critical element of corescendency. And we should be a little wary” she warns. Carrying this idea of connection further, Ambar prioritizes collectivity. The question she poses here is whether a woman leader sees “her struggle as part of a communal recipe for change or advancement.” If the woman leader has a “purely personal, parochial, or private” agenda, once again caution is advisable (“Standing Tall” np).

Ambar’s self-understanding as a woman of color shines through her assertions about women’s relationships. “Those women who also assess their personal accomplishments as collective add more value.” The benefit to the community comes from their conscious choices to “make individual decisions that come out of collective inquiry.” When leaders share their victories collectively, “they are better citizens of our women’s community” (“Standing Tall” np). Ambar’s thinking about community, connectedness, and collectivity merge feminist ideas about the personal being political with the ideal of “beloved community” seen early in the Southern Freedom Movement. While the “beloved community” ideal is often associated with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Congressman John Lewis, the careers of Southern Freedom Movement women leaders like Septima Clark, Diane Nash, and JoAnn Robinson reveal its combination with a feminist mentalité.

In a recent interview, President Ambar acknowledges that intersectionality has an institutional aspect in her work. She has made career choices where she can “think about the institution across all types of issues…other things to consider besides race or gender.” She has found that “in the rooms I’ve been in” whether universities or businesses, “sometimes people want you to bring a validator that is not being a woman or a person of color.” Nevertheless, intersectionality is “another layer of challenge.” She explains that, as a college president, intersectionality “comes into play in the way I build a leadership team.” She intentionally includes persons of color, and “wherever people are on the gender spectrum… I think I have one of the more diverse leadership teams around.” More diverse decision-makers means that decisions have a broader perspective, which ultimately leads to better results. “There is a certain power in that,” she says. “There is a positive effect on the bottom line. Even if institutions may not be committed to the ideal of diversity, they care about that!” (Ambar 12/22/21).

President Ambar continues to be aware of the ways that students and young professionals observe her. “All of us need images to look to and to believe what they want to do is possible. That is how the space of being a woman of color is what I experience…at this place in my career.” Although she does not make a point of discussing the demands of being a single mother of three, she has acknowledged that there are structural needs in American society to support professional women and their families. “One of the things that I have hopefully demonstrated is that this is do-able” (Ambar 12/21/22).

Antiracism at Oberlin

In the spring of 2017, Dr. Ambar became only the second woman and the first person of color to preside over Oberlin College and Oberlin Conservatory. Her first two years took aim at internal organization of the renowned liberal arts college noted for its progressive—and often activist—students (Oberlin). Then came the Covid-19 pandemic necessitating Oberlin’s shut down on March 16, 2020 and shift to online learning. In short order, the earth-shattering murder of George Floyd exploded, shaking the national consciousness. In her interview with New York Times journalist Kara Swisher, Dr. Ambar recalled her response to Floyd’s death. “[A]s a Black woman, I was exhausted of these images,” she says passionately. “Oh my God, I cannot take another one of these!” Despite the hours of effort to pivot to online learning and “reshaping the campus” for Covid compliance, Ambar rallied her campus to address racism and create an antiracist strategy. The Presidential Initiative was “born out of pain” to take an interdisciplinary and multifaceted approach to identifying and remediating institutional racism (quoted in Swisher). “Oberlin has a long history of doing race work,” Ambar points out. At this point, the institutional focus “needs to be in a systematic framework. We need to dig deeper. Be willing to look across disciplines. Take a deeper more rigorous analysis” (Ambar 12/22/21).

Oberlin’s Presidential Initiative

The Presidential Initiative at Oberlin implements an approach that resonates with the work of Ibram X. Kendi. “The only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it—and then dismantle it.” Institutional anti-racism examines policies, conditions, systems, and structures to determine what is wrong and then to initiate change (Thompson). While Dr. Ambar acknowledges that she knows Kendi’s work, she explained in her interview that The Presidential Initiative emerged from her own experience and reflections: “[W]hat’s Oberlin’s part in this? What role can we play in what I hope will be a nationwide effort to rethink ourselves?” (quoted in Swisher). She readily points out that “Oberlin has a long history” of awareness and activism about racial inequity and racial inclusion, which has positioned it to undertake this initiative (Ambar 12/22/21).

Dr. Ambar freely acknowledges to Swisher that she faces a multifaceted context at Oberlin. On the one hand, “a president of a campus for 3,000 students may have more influence and ability to encourage…collective action than it may be for a president with 20,000 students.” However, “creating a diverse campus that looks like the world yet is selective” presents a conundrum. She enumerates five key institutional foci: 1. “Create a financial framework to create accessibility” 2. “Create a campus environment that is supportive and welcoming” 3. “What does the staff look like?” 4. “What does the faculty look like?” 5. “What is the curriculum?” (quoted in Swisher). These institutional thrusts could well serve as a template for other higher education institutions to approach systemic diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

Oberlin’s Sustained Dialogue and Bridging the Gap Programs

One of the Presidential Initiative programs that Dr. Ambar feels particularly strongly about is “Sustained Dialogue.” She points out to Swisher that “the truth of the matter is that we all need to practice how we listen” [to each other].” Difficult conversations are most productive when people “listen with the purpose of understanding, not with the purpose of changing people’s minds.” The “Sustained Dialogue” program gives students a way to “literally practice how to talk to people who have different perspectives, and to take these lightning rod issues and just practice [listening].” As its name suggests, the program brings students together to have challenging conversations in a series of sessions with the same people. “[W]hat that means,” Ambar observes, “is that you don’t get a chance to be rude and walk out the door and never talk to that person again.” But, more than simple courtesy, “Sustained Conversations” develops skills that Dr. Ambar believes are vital beyond campus life. “[I]t’s important to our democracy…what good citizenship is,” she claims. “It’s about the nuance of the different lived experiences that I think we all have in this country and how we hear that from the other person.” The “ability to hear and listen and understand and appreciate different narratives are some critical skills that I think we have to provide our students” (quoted in Swisher). Currently 250-300 Oberlin students participate in “Sustained Dialogue.” “The goal is to provide a framework where every student can do it once during their time at Oberlin” (Ambar 12/22/21).

“Bridging the Gap” expands the scope of the “Sustained Dialogue” program. Oberlin has established a partnership with another small college nearby “where students with different experiences can interact—again, in an ongoing basis.” Some people “see Oberlin as a place that celebrates difference, but only the difference we agree with,” Ambar acknowledges. It has been “a purposeful choice” to be “linked with institutions with different missions” (Ambar 12/22/21). Ambar told Swisher that the “Bridging the Gap” approach is “instead of calling somebody out, how do you call somebody in?” For Dr. Ambar, there are two, crucial learnings: “don’t start with the personal [such as name calling,] and remember we’re going to have to see each other again.” The hoped-for outcome is to “have a conversation that’s about colleagues” and to learn “what it means to be a great partner” (quoted in Swisher).

She also points out that listening is relevant for people besides college students. “This doesn’t come that natural to any of us. Practicing it is the way to all be better at listening to different perspectives.” It’s an important skill set: “How to have a hard back (standing firm in your beliefs) but have a soft front (allowing you to hear others and others to hear you).” She continues, “For BIPOC folks to confront institutional racism challenges—we’re gonna need white folks. I don’t see how we’re going to get to the root of the challenge without working together” (Ambar 12/22/21).

The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Center at Oberlin

Announced in a press release on December 8, 2021, The Center for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion has been designed to “ensure that Oberlin is consistently contributing to the national conversation on race” (Oberlin DEI Center). Not only an academic enterprise, The Center also takes a multifaceted approach that combines academic study with “real world experiences that students care about” President Ambar explained. “Co-curricular experiences, career programming, mentorship, and community building” draw the DEI Center into the campus at large as it connects with other, already established programs while cultivating new ones. President Ambar enthusiastically describes how The Center extends beyond the college and conservatory borders with opportunities for students to obtain work experience. Especially students who arrive at Oberlin without prior employment now can build their resume as they confront topics like mass incarceration, police-community relations, educational opportunities, and other systemic issues that foster racial inequity (Ambar 12/22/21). Still in the formative stages, The Center will be staffed by an executive director and student fellows “engaging in funded research and internships that tackle the issues” (Oberlin DEI Center).

The Crossroads

The crossroads in African American folklore is a place of power, opportunity, and mystery. Its liminality offers access to spiritual powers from other worlds for heroes (and “sheroes”) to accomplish important cultural deeds. In the discourse about American racism, some observers view the intersectionality of race and gender as a debilitating overlay of two handicapping conditions. Yet, Dr. Carmen Twillie Ambar’s career path and her current leadership as Oberlin College and Conservatory President serves as a case study to show the positive power of race and gender. She successfully traverses intersectionality in her career as a woman professional of color. Her leadership offers valuable antiracism strategies at the institutional level in higher education.

Dr. Ambar is one of the few women who have been working at the crossroads of gender and race in a variety of institutions for over twenty years. If more women of color are to be nurtured as institutional leaders, her accomplishments and her reflections offer valuable insights about the challenges and potential for women of color in education and in American society. Her reflections on her development of a strong sense of integrity and self-worth confirms key components for women leaders as presented by the ACE study of American college and university presidents.

In addition, Dr. Ambar’s work reflects the American College President Study finding that top level leaders must be aware of and responsive to the needs of diverse students. The murders of George Floyd (as well as Breanna Taylor and many others) nationally elevated concerns about American racism. Programs promoting antiracism strategies at the institutional level have begun to address the hidden biases of established organizations. The self-analysis that leads to identifying racist systems and structures is part of the remediation process that dismantles institutional racism. The five foci of Dr. Ambar’s Presidential Initiative at Oberlin offer a heuristic model for other organizations. The “Sustained Dialogue” and “Bridging the Gap” programs bring antiracism attention to the grassroots level, literally to where students live. The Center for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, particularly its internships, both remediate students’ needs for employment experience and extend the benefits of academic research into the larger society.

Dr. Ambar’s strategies to “do better in diversity across all ranks of the institution” (quoted in Swisher) demonstrate her concept of “corescendency” in women’s leadership. She has kept the community at Oberlin at the center of her vision while retaining her core values and integrity. Her success is linked inextricably with the advancement of “historically disadvantaged groups” (“Standing Tall” np). In essence, she practices what she preaches. Particularly since the Covid pandemic began, she has told students: “When you’re facing a really challenging situation, you have to look for the seed of opportunity. And this will transform you… You have to ask, what can you learn from this transformative moment in your life?” (quoted in Swisher). Dr. Carmen Twillie Ambar has shown that her career at the crossroads of gender and race have provided her with many seeds of opportunity. Learning from the transformative moments in her life, she has used her leadership as a woman of color in shaping the future of higher education institutions and the lives of their students while confronting institutional racism.

Works Cited

Ambar, Carmen Twillie. Interview. By Cheryl C. Boots. 22 December 2021.

Ambar, Carmen Twillie. “Standing Tall” Women in the Academy: Learning from our Diverse Career Pathways, edited by Angela R. Linse. Kindle, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016, np.

Gagliardi, Jonathan S., Lorelle S. Espinosa, Jonathan M. Turk, Morgan Taylor. “American College President Study.” American Council on Education and TIAA Institute. 2017. https://www.tiaainstitute.org/publication/american-college-president-study-2017

Oberlin College. Carmen Twillie Ambar. About Oberlin. https://www.oberlin.edu/carmen-twillie-ambar

Rutgers University. Rutgers: Douglass College. https://douglass.rutgers.edu/

Swisher, Kara “No parties. No Sports. How Oberlin College is Surviving.” Sway. Interview with Dr. Carmen Tillie Ambar. New York Times. February 18, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/18/opinion/sway-kara-swisher-carmen-twillie-ambar.html?showTranscript=1

Thompson, Khari. “Anti-racism’s Ibram Kendi Thinks Big: Why not Equality Right Now?” USA Today. February 2, 2021 and February 4, 2021. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2021/02/02/black-history-month-anti-racism-ibram-kendi/6568208002/