A ‘calm energy’
UR’s new leader stresses liberal arts, mentoring and civil discussions
- January 28, 2016
When Ronald Crutcher stepped down as president of Wheaton College in 2014, he had no plans to stop working but also had no intention of leading another school.
During his 10 years at the Norton, Mass., college, he had increased enrollment, created new academic programs and raised $137.6 million despite the ravages of the Great Recession. Before Wheaton, he had been provost and executive vice president for academic affairs for five years at Miami University of Ohio, his alma mater.
An accomplished cellist who has played with many symphony orchestras, Crutcher thought he was ready for a break from academia, perhaps leading an arts organization instead. But while being interviewed to be president of a major symphony orchestra, “I found myself talking very passionately about some aspects of the educational program for the symphony, and it occurred to me, literally as I spoke, that I hadn’t been that passionate when talking about raising money for classical music concerts,” he says.
I had to really take a step back and think about that,” he adds. “And so, after the interview, I wrote the search consultant and I said, ‘Thanks for the opportunity, but it’s clear to me I don’t have the passion for this job. I think it’s best for me to stay in my own lane.’ ”
Crutcher realized that, although he had been Wheaton’s president during a challenging time for all colleges, the job didn’t seem like work to him. He told his wife, Betty, “If I can find the right school, a school where faculty and staff take their roles as mentors to students seriously, as was the case at Wheaton, I’ll do it again.”
He had one additional requirement: “I wanted a school that didn’t need fixing” culturally or financially.
The University of Richmond fit the bill. In July, Crutcher became UR’s 10th president, succeeding Ed Ayers who had led the school since 2007.
Increasingly diverse campus
Crutcher, who turns 69 in February, believes the 186-year-old Richmond university combines the best qualities of Wheaton and Miami. Wheaton is a private liberal arts college with about 1,600 students, while Miami is a public university with an enrollment of about 16,000. UR, a private institution, has about 4,200 students pursuing undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees in five schools. “I like the smaller size, but I also like the complexity we have here” because of the five schools, he says.
UR trustees appear to be equally confident they found the right person for the job. Allison Weinstein, a trustee who co-chaired the search committee, says the candidate pool was strong. Even before committee members met Crutcher, however, they considered him to be in the top tier, she says. On paper, he was a compelling candidate because of his administrative experience and accomplishments in the performing arts.
“Meeting him sealed the deal,” Weinstein says. “He possesses qualities that don’t often go together. He exuded what I would describe as a calm energy. He appeared extremely disciplined and somewhat formal but also managed to show that he is warm and fun-loving.”
Crutcher is the first African-American president at UR, whose student body has become increasingly diverse in recent years. “We have about 23 percent students of color on the campus, and if you include the international students, it’s close to 30 percent. Ten years ago that number was not quite even 10 percent,” says Crutcher, who notes that in coming years nearly half of the students graduating from U.S. high schools will be first-generation Americans and/or persons of color.
A high priority for Crutcher is creating a campus on which students from diverse backgrounds can learn from each other and thrive. He believes, however, that simply recruiting more minorities doesn’t break down barriers. For him, an important part of encouraging diversity is learning how to have a civil discourse among people with differing views.
“The challenge is most young people don’t know how to do that, and I think there are a lot of reasons for that,” he says. “They haven’t had any good models. Certainly the Congress is not a model. Social media also doesn’t help in that regard … What we need to do is find a way to teach our students how to have these conversations, and it means patience. It means focusing on listening skills, understanding.”
Wheaton developed “dialogue action teams,” in which small groups of students from varying backgrounds worked with a facilitator to develop a plan to deal with a certain topic or problem. “The goal is to develop a trust level among the participants so you can have very open and honest conversations,” Crutcher says.
Becoming a ‘flexible learner’
The new UR president also is a staunch champion of liberal arts. He is founding co-chair of Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP), a national campaign begun by the Association of American Colleges & Universities to promote liberal arts.
“I think, unfortunately, many people don’t really understand what a liberal education is,” Crutcher says. “They make it either/or. Either you get a liberal education or you get skills for jobs … The way we see it at LEAP is that, in order to flourish in the 21st century, in a global, information-based society where things are changing rapidly, you have to be what I call a flexible learner.”
He notes that, according to one estimate, students who graduated from college in 2010 will have 13 to 16 different jobs by the time they are 40. The experience of Crutcher’s daughter, Sara, seems to confirm that prediction. Since graduating from Hampton University nine years ago, she already has had eight jobs in four cities.
A liberal-arts education, Crutcher maintains, prepares “today’s graduates to deal with solving problems that we’re not even aware of yet, using tools that haven’t been developed yet and approaches that people haven’t thought of yet.”
A collaborative style
The veteran college administrator has a collaborative management style, which reflects the influence of his musical background. For the past 36 years, he has performed in the U.S. and Europe as a member of The Klemperer Trio with violinist Erika Klemperer and pianist Gordon Back. (Klemperer and Back are married and live in London.)
In an ensemble, musicians have no conductor and must negotiate with one another in deciding how to play a piece, Crutcher says — “how fast you go, how slow you go, how loud as well as other nuances of the interpretation.”
“I’m also a good listener, which is important for a leader,” he says. “I know when to assert myself and when to kind of sit back and let other people take the lead. Being a leader is not all about you making all the decisions yourself. You have to have a team of people.”
Highly important to Crutcher is the ability of faculty members to listen to students. That emphasis stems in part from the influence a music professor had in mentoring him when he was a teenager (see related story "An ear for music".) He is proud to list that focus on students as one of UR’s strengths.
“One of the things that you hear consistently from both current students as well as alums is the fact that faculty here really care about their students and take the time to get to know their students,” Crutcher says. “Any student who graduates from the University of Richmond and hasn’t connected with at least one faculty member to the extent that he or she can get a recommendation from that faculty member has missed an opportunity.”
Patricia Rowland, the rector of the UR board trustees, says that, since arriving at the university, Crutcher and his wife also have been mentoring students, continuing a practice they began at Wheaton. The university president also has formed a relationship with every trustee, she says.
“I think the board just feels we could not have made a better selection,” Rowland says. “This is working out even better than we thought it would. He has emerged as such a great leader.”
Academic career: 10th president and professor of music, University of Richmond, since 2015; president emeritus, Wheaton College, Norton, Mass., since 2014; president, Wheaton College, 2004-2014; provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, Miami University of Ohio, Oxford, Ohio, 1999-2004; director and Florence Thelma Hall Chair of Music, Butler School of Music, University of Texas at Austin, 1994-1999; vice president of academic affairs and dean of the conservatory, Cleveland Institute of Music, 1990-1994; assistant/associate professor of music and associate vice chancellor for academic affairs, University of North Carolina at Greensboro,
Education: Bachelor’s degree (Phi Beta Kappa), Miami University of Ohio; master’s degree and doctorate, Yale University
Fellowships: Fulbright Fellowship, Ford Foundation Doctoral Fellowship and Woodrow Wilson Fellowship.
Honorary degrees: Wheaton College, Colgate University, Muhlenberg College
Musical career: A member of The Klemperer Trio and member of the Richmond Symphony board; former member of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and several other symphonies; former board member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Berklee College of Music; former president of Chamber Music America.
Family: Married to Betty Neal Crutcher, founder and president, Cross Cultural Mentoring Consultants. They have a daughter, Sara, a graduate of Hampton University, who works in advertising in Detroit.
Interests: Music, cycling, working out, cooking.