Carmen Twillie Ambar: Stepping Up
As the president of Cedar Crest College, Carmen Twillie Ambar ’94 draws from her own experiences to help shape the next generation of female leaders
When Carmen Twillie Ambar ’94 was selected to head Rutgers University’s Douglass College in May of 2002, at the age of 33, some alumni affectionately referred to her as the “baby dean.” As a top administrator of the women’s college, she was, after all, the youngest dean in Rutger’s history.
Ambar, who now serves as the president of Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Penn., recalls without malice that there were also concerns that a woman of her age might be distracted by thoughts of starting a family. The experienced administrator had a ready, and effective, response. “I said, ‘What types of questions do we ask men when they’re young and in these roles?’” she recounts. “We talk about energy and freshness and commitment—all these positive framings of youth.”
Needless to say, questions about her age and gender quickly faded as Ambar set upon the task of creating leadership programs, launching Douglass’ Alumnae Recruitment Team, and supervising the completion of a $28 million capital campaign, to name just a few initiatives. As a result of her success, Ambar was promoted to an associate vice president role at Rutgers.
Ambar’s experience promoting the advancement of women’s education at Rutgers, combined with her past role as assistant dean for graduate education at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, caught the interest of the board of trustees at Cedar Crest College in 2008. As a result, in May of that year, Ambar earned the chance to become the 13th president of Cedar Crest College, a top ten liberal arts college for women, according to Forbes magazine.
One of Ambar’s first orders of business as president was to rewrite the school’s mission statement. She took what was a paragraph-long initiative and distilled it into two sentences. The first of the two accurately sums up her foremost goal at the school: “Cedar Crest is a liberal arts college for women, dedicated to the education of the next generation of leaders,” Ambar recites, explaining that “what we do is help women achieve at the highest level in whatever field they choose.”
A native of Little Rock, Ark., Ambar grew up in a family that viewed education as a transformative experience. As a young man, her father picked cotton in the segregated South. This work pushed him to excel in school as a means of escaping a life laboring in a field. Ambar’s mother returned to school to earn a Ph.D. when Ambar—who has two siblings—was 7 years old. Ultimately, both her parents became educators.
“While it was a great childhood from the standpoint of having committed, dedicated parents, it was also a childhood with high expectations and a lot of love,” Ambar says. “It was expected of you to perform academically.” Not surprisingly, the intellectual high-achiever took that challenge seriously, earning an undergraduate degree from Georgetown, a master’s from Princeton, and then her J.D. from Columbia Law School.
Ambar explains that her personal path to success is built on the notion of every experience being valuable. “When I was in grad school and law school, I took my roles there seriously,” she says. “I didn’t waste my time.” Ambar points to her experience with the Law School’s Fair Housing Clinic as an example of how much students can achieve when they are earnestly motivated to do good work. “The housing discrimination case that we [worked on] was the highest award negotiated by law school students at the time,” she adds. "We helped a young couple demonstrate that the landlord unfairly turned them away from viewing and ultimately renting an apartment because of their race." This experience in the fair housing clinic only deepened Ambar’s committee to working on issues of race and gender.
“Being the president of a women’s college is in keeping with the passions that were nurtured at Columbia Law school,” Ambar says. At Cedar Crest College, she hopes to impart that passion to the young women under her purview. “Our college is about women’s leadership,” adds Ambar. “[Focusing on that is] how I’ve spent my career over the last 10 years. We’re reshaping the world one Cedar Crest student at a time.”