“Our Identity, Our Purpose, Our Future”

Carmen Twillie Ambar, Esq.
13th President, Cedar Crest College
September 5, 2008

Play the video

Good afternoon.   Thank you Kristin for that wonderful introduction and thank you to the Chair of our Board of Trustees.  It is an honor to be here today and to speak before our faculty, staff, students, trustees, and alumnae – and I never take that opportunity lightly – so I thank you in advance for your time and attention today.

All College Address

One of the things that happens when you take on a role like this, the sort of standard question you are asked is “Are you settled in?  Are you feeling settled yet, Carmen?”  Well, as most of you know, I have 16 month old triplets (many of you I am sure have seen them around campus).  Now when you have 16 month old triplets -- – and I am not sure it is possible to ever feel settled in, but our family certainly feels welcomed.  My husband Din and I, and Gabrielle, Luke, and Daniel, feel completely a part of this community, warmly embraced, and that is a testament to the wonderful people in Allentown and at Cedar Crest College. 

We have an exceptional student body here at Cedar Crest College and our students are without question, the lifeblood of this institution.  Our faculty and staff are, in one word, dedicated.  Year after year, their expertise and commitment continue to make Cedar Crest a place where all are deeply satisfied to call home.  Our alumnae and trustees are in so many ways the keepers of the flame; your work often goes unheralded and is done in private.  But for any who know Cedar Crest College – it is because of you and what you give (both in time and resources) that is the difference here at Cedar Crest.

And so, I begin my tenure as the thirteenth president of Cedar Crest College – an institution whose history dates all the way back to 1867, making us one of the nation’s earliest women’s colleges.  In fact, on July 12th of 1867, when the idea for founding the College was first accepted, The New York Times ran headlines that day that speak to how far we’ve come as a nation.  They included stories surrounding the trial of one of the plotters of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (“Trial of Surratt”); one story was on “The Reconstruction Bill” as it made its way successfully through the House of Representatives.  Another story was on “Indian Troubles in Arizona,” and numerous other covered affairs from Europe which were brought to the Times’ readers by Atlantic cable, including the prospects for the creation of a new country in Europe.  Today, we know that country as Italy.  Indeed, Cedar Crest College has been around for some time.

So while I am new to Cedar Crest, the history, mission and identity of this College is not new.  Our identity is deep, and long, and glorious.

I thought I would focus my address today on identity, purpose, and our future – to give our community insights into the direction we will broadly be heading to ensure that the next one hundred and forty years of this College are equal to, and even greater, than the first seven score years. 

First, I think it is important for you to have a sense of my own identity and background before we talk about that of Cedar Crest’s.  I am proudly here today with my parents who are only visiting, contrary to popular belief.  They have been helping us get “settled in.”

It is impossible to give you a sense of who I am without helping you all know just who they are.  My mother and father met at a historically black college in Little Rock, Arkansas – Philander Smith College.  Shortly thereafter they married and started a family.  There is so much to say about both of them and about my siblings, so I will spare you by illuminating one important story that gets to the heart of a narrative about why I value higher education as I do, and why I think women’s colleges have played, and continue to play, an important role in the constellation of choices available to students in the United States and around the world. 

My mother earned her doctorate in dance and related arts.  The closest institution with this offering was about six hours from home in the town of Denton, Texas.  It was Texas Woman’s University – a women’s college—and in order to accomplish her goal she and my family undertook a truly amazing project –one particularly non-traditional at the time.  My mother went to Denton and lived there full time during the academic year, while my father remained home (working) but also raising my older brother David who was twelve at the time, me [I was seven], and my younger brother Mat who was four.  She was away from her family, pursuing her Ph.D.  When I look back on her days as a student, I marvel at how radical and powerful a statement her own education was for me.  This pursuit by my mother taught me that motherhood, matrimony, and a life of the mind were not mutually exclusive.  My father, a devout and extraordinarily wise man, taught me that fatherhood and masculinity could co-exist in a man who saw his wife’s intellectual and professional growth as a foundation for the success of his family.  My mother’s success was family success.  These were powerful lessons for me.  My parents come from very, very small towns.  Searcy and Colt, Arkansas where my parents are from respectively, are sui generis - they are not urban, they are not suburban, they are not exurban.  They are just there.  In fact, my father is not truly from Colt, Arkansas, but rather a small enclave just near it – where a few African-American families clung close together.  The town was nameless other than its common appellation, “Darkcorner.”  

In my parents’ world, Brown vs. Board of Education was not text in a history book, but something they lived and they somehow managed to see beyond the limits imposed upon them by society.    They were fearless, strong, caring, and unapologetic about the high expectations they had of their children.  And as for my mother – I am part of a generation of women who did not know the women’s movement first hand or intimately; but I lived under the tutelage of Gwendolyn Twillie every day.  She was the women’s movement as far as I was concerned.  Yes, she was Dr. Twillie – but she was always mom to me.  Together, my parents painted a vision for my brothers and me – one filled with possibilities.  So yes, I have some academic training, and my professional accomplishments are what they are.  But my identity, and the real reason I am here today as President of Cedar Crest College is bound up in the vision of these two people.  They were the ones who first taught me the relationship between education, and if you have access to it, its transformational nature and limitless possibilities.  Would you please help me recognize my parents, Mr. Manuel and Dr. Gwendolyn Twillie?

So you now have a window into my identity…..even as I become more rooted in the identity and rich legacy of Cedar Crest College.  While much of our work in the upcoming weeks and months will be devoted to a strong collaboration amongst faculty, staff, students, alumnae and the Board, over how we will further strengthen our identity there is one fundamental point that remains inexorable and paramount – we are proudly a women’s college and we will fully embrace that tradition.

Now, some would claim that there is much risk in this complete embrace  but I would suggest that there is never a risk in fully embracing who you are.  And while we do have to do some work to help this generation of young women understand that this is not your mother’s women’s college, there are plenty of successes that we can point to that indicate that if we do this right, our risk is minimal.

Through the early 90s and into the early part of this century, there was a storyline about women’s colleges that is in opposition to what you typically hear reported.  You know the storyline – we are not sure women’s colleges are relevant any more – some women’s colleges have closed – are they still a value added – you’ve heard this storyline, right?  Nod yes.  Here is some information in opposition to that storyline.  First, (remember early nineties – into this century) applications to women’s colleges in the United States grew by 85% while overall college applications increased between 30-40% (there’s opportunity there).  We rarely hear that the research about women’s colleges shows that attending a college dedicated to women’s advancement and success is a competitive advantage for those young women.  I should say, as an aside, that I do not offer this perspective as a woman who attended a women’s college, and sometimes that gives me more credibility because this is not me saying my experience must be your experience  but rather that the research - quantitatively, qualitatively, and anecdotally establishes that:

  1. Women’s college graduates are more likely to be disproportionate high achievers; (b) to demonstrate a greater mastery in academic skill areas such as writing, critical thinking, cultural awareness; (c) to indicate more positive relationships with faculty and peers; (d) women at women’s colleges demonstrate higher self-esteem and confidence than their peers at co-educational institutions; (6) that the women’s college environment [asks students] to take risks and discover their strengths; encouraging young women through programs both curricularly and co-curricularly to develop skills that contribute to their future success; (7) that we push women to take advantage of enhanced opportunities to hold leadership positions and we provide more moments for women to “practice” leadership, than our co-educational counterparts.

You just don’t hear this part of the story much and most people in higher education know that women’s colleges are on the cutting edge of reformist movements,  that we are recognized for our innovative work in the areas of scholarship on women and gender, civic engagement,  global education, science and math education, and women’s leadership.   We remain unsurpassed in our ability to foster achievement capacities in young women, so much so that today women’s colleges are often referred to as “leadership factories” and “training grounds for women leaders.”  The best women’s colleges have become increasingly dynamic and have garnered growing public interest.  And, so shall we; so shall we.

We will take this identity and move boldly towards our purpose:
First is that of preparing young women for leadership.  To be a 21st Century women’s college we must take the idea of women’s leadership and tie it to a very specific type of education.   This work will take the form of a variety of leadership programs, our active engagement in the public leadership education network for students at women’s colleges interested in public leadership, lecture series, and the infusing of this leadership work throughout our academic courses and student life experience.  One could imagine certificate programs in leadership, specialized coursework, initiatives around women in politics, law, service, science – all designed to help our students achieve at the highest levels in whatever fields they choose.

I, for one, believe that the world could use more women leaders and initiatives to this end are the secrets to our continued relevance and our ability [unlike any other institutions] to be disproportionally effective in promoting leadership.

Second, preparing our students not just for leadership, but leadership in this new global environment.   Our goal will be to reshape the global landscape, one Cedar Crest student at a time.  This work will require an emphasis on helping our students study abroad, strengthening aspects of our curriculum with a global focus, making linkages with colleges internationally, the development of centers and institutions – like a center for women’s global leadership.  We must develop living and learning communities that seamlessly integrate academic courses and the residential experience.  Imagine our campus luring students who are interested in living in language and cultural houses, or topical issue houses like human rights, health and wellness, the arts, the environment.  These students would take a course in an academic discipline, live together and think and research together, and study abroad together around issues affecting women around the world.   This work would mean that our students would be engaged in collaborative learning and hands-on opportunities designed to prepare them for this ever changing global environment.  Along with our continued commitment to community service our goal will be to cultivate an ethic to become a citizen leader in the world community by fostering a sense of civic responsibility.

This emphasis is rooted in understanding the imperatives of not only a women’s college, but all institutions of higher education in the 21st Century.  All colleges must be broad enough to attract outstanding students but in this century, both here and around the world, these colleges must be intellectually rigorous, diverse, and steeped in a mission that ties its programs of study and research to the international community.  Any college that fails to recognize this will soon become a relic; any that embraces this challenge will have a perpetual place in the market.

Third, as we move boldly towards our purpose we must reinvigorate our commitment to our status as a liberal arts college.  Yes, we educate nurses, biologists, chemists, and forensic scientists; but we also educate women in the arts, psychology, social work, English, philosophy, and much more.  Our recruitment efforts and enhancement of academic programs must establish that we are rooted firmly in the liberal arts.  This means we provide an excellent array of majors and course offerings suited to the diverse array of opportunities.  We must find a way for aspects of our first year experience to be common – and broad – to reflect our values as a college for women and a liberal arts college.  We must find a way for honors program to be even more distinctive, providing more than just an impressive group of courses, but an intellectual community both inside and outside the classroom.

 To be not only a women’s college but also a liberal arts college means that we take teaching seriously and see its connections to research and the creation of new knowledge.  It means we don’t take for granted that even today, in this age of hand held devices, blue-ray DVDs and plasma televisions with 24 hour news and 24 hours of diversion that the classroom remains part of what it has always been since Plato first founded the Academy.  It is a hall for intellectual transformation; a safe-house to contest and challenge the conventions of the day.  It is a place where the mind is fed even unto the soul.  If we lose this, if we totally lose what the liberal arts colleges represent, and simply give ourselves over to the production line of graduating automatons, we lose some of the spirit of higher education in this country.  If we let our liberal arts commitment die quietly in what we call “prioritization” and only focus narrowly on how the market drives us, we will lose out on the next Toni Morrison, or Margaret Meade – but we also lose out on our best scientist and genetic engineers.

Fourth, in our purposeful efforts, we will expand our graduate programs.  We need not view graduate education as competition with our undergraduate mission but rather an enhancement of our already great work.  We have already established a commanding reputation with our masters in education, forensic science, and nursing   but whether it is through formal graduate programs in art therapy or marketing; or certificate programs beyond a bachelor’s degree, graduate work ensures that our students are prepared to solve the world’s big, complex problems.

And finally, have no doubt, despite these new areas of growth, we will not lose sight of the areas where we have demonstrated prowess.  We will continue our stellar work in nursing, biology, forensic science, and other areas where women have been traditionally underrepresented.

Now some of you may be sitting there thinking, “President Ambar , these are some lofty goals.”  They may be. But I guess I am not so sure how lofty there are, but I am sure of how critically important they are to our success at Cedar Crest and to the world beyond our borders. 
If you believe as I believe, that you can determine the growth of a society by looking at the status of women, then you know that where women are limited, development is limited; and where women are not encouraged to lead, nations cannot advance.  So lofty though I may be, we are in many respects educating, teaching and shaping the lives of women for the sake of democracy and human progress here at home and around the world.

So as we embrace our identity, boldly move towards our purpose, we will grasp our future and stake our small claim on reshaping the world.

I suspect that you may now be thinking, “Well, President Ambar, we understand our identity and we know the types of efforts that will boldly move us towards our purpose, and you’ve explained why we have to be lofty about it sometimes.

But, how we are we going to get this done? I mean, really, how are we going to get this done?  Because this is looking dangerously like a lot of work.”

True.  First, we are going to embark upon a vigorous strategic planning process.  This process will involve students, faculty, alumnae, staff, and trustees over the course of the next 12-18 months.  This will require deep thinking and deep work.  I will be asking you to think strategically about new initiatives, our campus, facilities, governance, advising, athletics, and more.  At the end of this process we will not only have a vision piece, but also a real step by step plan for these new initiatives, and strategies that we will employ to get there, and measureable outcomes by which we can judge progress, and the strategic financing piece that establishes what funding we need for true success.  And then we will head into a capital campaign armed with a transformative vision that our alumnae, friends, and supporters will adopt as their own.

Now listen to me - 99.9 percent of the great ideas that are generated through this process will not come from me but they’ll come from our students, faculty, staff, alumnae and our trustees.  And while I promise to give my all, the truth is, that 99.9 percent of the work will not be mine but it will be that of our students, our faculty, our staff, our alumnae and our trustees.  And, 99.9 percent of the victory in our success as we accomplish our goals will not be mine; but it will that of our students, faculty, staff, alumnae and trustees.
Our efforts towards these goals are not short term; they are long term effort and they are multi-year efforts. 

Many of you have said to me  as I have walked across campus, or met you in your department, or eaten lunch or breakfast with you around Allentown and beyond – “We’re ready, President Ambar, we’re ready, we’re with ya.”  I am convinced that you are.  I am convinced of your readiness but in that readiness, you also must be prepared for the work, for the challenge as we sometimes fall short of our aspirations, for the patience, for the perseverance. 

To say we need you in this endeavor is an understatement.   Transitioning the college from its status as an excellent college to one poised to comprehend all that is demanded of a 21st Century women’s college will not be without difficulty.   Everyone in this room and those who are not but who care about our work will have to be encamped in the stronghold of this college.

There has never been a more important moment to be dedicated to and engaged in women’s education and in connecting our students to the world beyond our gates.  We are tied into a region of tremendous growth and vitality, housed between the nation’s first two capitals, New York and Philadelphia, and hours away from our current capital.  We are part of a great corridor of scientific, technological, and cultural innovation; and we and our students stand to benefit from it and then to continue to contribute to it.  We are tied to an international community by virtue of our changing global community and economy; so our academic agenda has to take our students from the Lehigh Valley to the Great Rift Valley.  From Bethlehem, Pennsylvania – to Bethlehem, Israel.  From Cedar Crest to the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon.  Today, no one’s education can be limited.  I would suggest to you that the only real limitations that we have here at Cedar Crest is the scope of our vision. 
Thank you and welcome to the start of the 2008-2009 academic year.