Carmen Twillie Ambar’s father picked cotton on a rural Arkansas farm.
“He would look up from the hot, beating sun… and say to himself, ‘I don’t know what I want to do but I don’t want to do this,’” she said.
Today his daughter has been chosen as the 15th president of Oberlin College — the first African-American to hold the post in the institution’s 184-year history.
In an announcement ceremony Tuesday at the Carnegie Building, Ambar spoke about her family’s legacy.
Just a handful of generations removed from slavery, her father, Manuel Twillie, left farm life to become a school principal. Her mother, Gwendolyn Brown Twillie, earned a doctorate in dance and later chaired a department at the University of Arkansas.
Both were present as Ambar was formally introduced at Oberlin College and received a standing ovation.
The example set by her parents led Ambar to earn degrees from Columbia Law School, Princeton University, and Georgetown University. She worked in the New York City law department as an assistant corporation counsel, then was hired as assistant dean of graduate education at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.
After serving as vice president and dean of students at Douglass College at Rutgers University, she was named president of Cedar Crest College in 2008. It is a women’s college in Allentown, Pa.
Under her leadership, Cedar Crest launched 18 new academic programs, increased its endowment by more than 90 percent, and saw three straight years of budget surpluses and a 35 percent growth in net assets.
When Oberlin College president Marvin Krislov announced last year that he would step down, a search committee spent nearly nine months looking for his successor.
Lillie Edwards, who chaired the committee, thanked the Oberlin community for putting patience and trust in the process.
“So everyone exhale. I know you have been holding your breath with me,” she said Tuesday.
In a written statement, Edwards said, “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.”
Jennifer Bryan, associate professor of English, also served on the search committee.
“I think of Carmen Ambar as the pragmatist’s idealist,” she said in a release from the college. “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.”
Ambar said Oberlin College is the only place that has combined both academic and musical excellence in the commitment to the liberal arts, “intertwined with that commitment to social justice, to equity, to access, to opportunity. There’s really no institution in the country that’s done that the way Oberlin has. It’s that intertwined mission that drew me.”
Krislov told Ambar she will find Oberlin is an extended family with members from coast to coast and around the world — a family whose members are committed to asking the big questions.
“There’s a sense of yearning and a sense to try to make the world better. It’s really extraordinary and I know you’ll enjoy that,” he said.
A native of Little Rock, Ark., Ambar is married to Saladin Malik Ambar, associate professor of political science and senior scholar at the Center on the American Governor at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.
They have 10-year-old triplets: Gabrielle, Luke, and Daniel.
Ambar will be on campus full-time beginning in September.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.