Good Schools Guide

First African-American woman to lead Oberlin College overcomes gender and racial barriers

  • Thanks to the person who inspired her to dream big when she was seven, she is now the president of a leading liberal arts college in the US
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2018, 12:29pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2018, 9:29am

For Carmen Twillie Ambar, 15th president of Oberlin College in Ohio and the first African-American woman to lead the institution, her image of success came to her when she was seven years old.

Growing up in Arkansas in the US Deep South, an area that has planted difficult hurdles for African-Americans since her childhood, the 49-year-old school president was well aware of the barricades that stood between her and what she wanted to become. However, thanks to one person, she wasn’t ready to give up.

“My mum grew up in a small town and she, this little black girl in the South during segregation – [a time] when there were barriers for black people, especially black women – somehow decided to believe that she could get a doctorate at the university,” Ambar says, adding that her parents had three mouths to feed at the time. “It was a very important image for me because she was doing something that was really unheard of for black women.”

Ambar’s mother, a dance choreographer who went on to become the chair of the arts and theatre department at a university, became a living example of how “a life of the mind” and motherhood can coexist in the same human being.

As people often live by the paradigms they know, it is worth mentioning that Ambar herself was, too, mothering triplets when she came on board as the leader of the private liberal arts college in 2017.

“I think if you don’t see someone do it, you can think it’s easier than it is. [That’s why] sometimes it’s important to not only see the person be successful, but to also see the challenges , so you can realise that when it’s challenging for you – that’s okay, you can still do it,” she says.

The college president was in town to talk about women and leadership in higher education at the Asia Society in late October.

With an original academic focus on international relations, Ambar equipped herself with a bachelor’s degree in foreign service from Georgetown University, and later pursued a law degree from Columbia University, after which she practised law for a while.

After leaving the legal profession, she completed a master’s degree in public affairs at Princeton University, where she became interested in leading an institution as well as creating a vision and getting the faculty and students committed to that vision.

This degree led her to lead two small women’s colleges, Douglass Residential College, of Rutgers University, in 2002, and private liberal arts institution Cedar Crest College in 2008. “That’s where I started to focus on women’s leadership, women’s education and helping women,” she says.

After she stepped down from her nine-year leadership at Cedar Crest, she joined Oberlin College & Conservatory. The tertiary institute was a forerunner in taking a stand against social discrimination back in the 1800s, when, according to Ambar, it was already admitting students regardless of race, and was the first co-educational institution from founding in US history. The college website states that the first batch of female students were admitted to the baccalaureate programme in 1837, while the first black student earned his bachelor’s degree in 1844.

“So we have this long history of diversity, [of] co-education, and [of] what I would describe as social justice – [think] about an institution and its ability to make social change because of the institution’s commitments,” she says.

“I think people who come to Oberlin are bright, it’s a rigorous place, but they also have a desire to change the world and it’s really wonderful. And that’s why Oberlin is a distinctive place.”

Throughout our 40-minute interview, Ambar uses the word “rigour” another five times. One such instance occurred when we talked about the school’s conservatory of music.

“It’s a very rigorous environment and difficult to be admitted, but the students play all over the world,” she says.

The complex houses nine concert venues, more than a dozen master classes and jazz clinics, and more than 25 students ensembles of all shapes and sizes – think orchestra, voice band and jazz.

Oberlin invented a five-year double degree programme through which students can earn a degree from both the college and the conservatory. For instance, students can leave school with a bachelor of music in piano performance and a bachelor of arts in history.

Jazz music can be heard wafting from the school’s Cat in the Cream coffee house on Friday afternoons, when students will pick up instruments from the stage and do an improvised jazz number.

“When you are in a musical ensemble, you have to listen to the other person. You have to be generous in your willingness to accept their view of the music. You have to work together to perform. You have to build your own audience. And all of that experience is an important part of what you have to do in your work environment,” Ambar says. “There’s something entrepreneurial about music.”

With one tenth of its student mix from international backgrounds, Oberlin attempts to curate a diverse learning environment with people from heterogeneous cultures, ethnicities, gender identities, economic backgrounds and geographical origins. “Because it’s in the working together and the hearing of different perspectives that the best decisions are made,” Ambar says, adding that this diversity was also on the table when she assembled her senior management team.

The team now consists of a Latino vice-president of admissions, an African-American general attorney, an Asian dean of arts and sciences, and a Latino chief financial officer, among others. Research into Fortune 500 companies has, according to Ambar, discovered that the more gender diversity there is among the board of directors, the more profit they make.

“Part of my job as the president is to show our students that people from all backgrounds can be seen as leaders and can be successful,” Ambar says, citing herself as an example. “If you’re a young girl and you’ve never seen a woman be in a leadership position, it’s harder to believe that you can do that.”

If you’re a young girl and you’ve never seen a woman be in a leadership position, it’s harder to believe that you can do that
Carmen Ambar

The college has also been pushing the envelope in terms of gay rights, with initiatives such as an annual Queer Festival, drag ball and various chartered LGBTQ student organisations within the school. During orientations, students are encouraged to introduce themselves by a pronoun they identify with, so that every individual with varying perspectives can feel welcome – including transgender students.

The school’s liberal arts education capitalises on its multitude of study areas – from Africana studies and Greek literature, to engineering and neuroscience – to gear its students up with a broad range of skills to solve complex problems in a rapidly changing world.

“So you have different analytical, statistical, political, sociological skills,” Ambar says. “The reason why that’s important in this rapidly changing environment is that when a student starts university, whole industries get created before they even graduate.” She adds that in the US, people experience a change of job or a switch of industry on an average of 15 times a lifetime, and 11 times before 40.

Another advantage liberal arts gifts its students is the cultural competence to work with different types of people, which can mean speaking different languages and empathising with other cultures.

As an example, the 185-year-old school has forged ties with Hong Kong’s own liberal arts college, Lingnan University, where students work with Hong Kong faculty members during winter term on projects involving a wide array of subjects including public health and journalism.