Charles Ambrose

Chancellor, Henderson State University

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Dr. Chuck Ambrose was appointed the first Chancellor of Henderson State University in November 2021.  He is a fervent advocate of servant leadership, innovation, student success, and engaged learning.  Most recently, he served as the president and CEO of KnowledgeWorks, a national foundation committed to creating the future of learning through Personalized Competency-based Learning.  Dr. Ambrose bridges the world between K-12, higher education, and the workforce with a demonstrated ability to help realize a community’s aspirational vision, align learning pathways, and transform the way teachers teach, learners learn, and institutions serve.   A listener, convener, and encourager, Dr. Ambrose supports leaders, communities, and campuses in enhancing how education can serve the needs of each individual learner - both now and into the future.  At KnowledgeWorks, Dr. Ambrose formulated state-wide transformation partnerships with the States of North Dakota, Arizona, Ohio, and South Carolina utilizing Personalized Competency Based Learning to create the future of learning.

The leadership position required the building of a new strategic vision and positioning for the Foundation, fiscal restructuring to provide a long-term sustainable future with measurable impact metrics, acquisition of the Student at the Center Research Collaborative from Jobs for the Future (JFF), strong financial performance and revenue growth (driven by grants and contracts), synthesis of the organization’s work in teams in partnership with state-level systems change goals and metrics, deep justice, equity, inclusion and diversity work in partnership with Promise54, organizational COVID response, and a comprehensive collaboration model with the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University.

He previously served as the President of the University of Central Missouri (2010-2018), Dr. Ambroses’ dedication to new models for higher education created  P-16 Accelerated Pathways, Strategic Governance and Resource Models, and a comprehensive Contract for Completion that accelerated the time it takes for students to complete a degree, reduce their debt burden, and enhance their completion rates.  These initiatives led to the creation of the Missouri Innovation Campus in 2012 and were recognized by the President of the United States in 2013.  Dr. Ambrose also received Missouri’s Economic Development Achievement Award from Governor Jay Nixon.

With over 14,000 students, UCM experienced record enrollments under Dr. Ambrose’s leadership, where he sought to keep tuition increases to the lowest in the nation while significantly reducing student debt load, provided leadership to the largest capital project in the University’s history, and the Learning to a Greater Degree Contract for Student Completion including a 15 to Finish Scholarship Program that led to the highest student success rates for any public university in Missouri.  In 2018 he was awarded the Commander’s Service Award by Global Strike Command for his ongoing efforts on behalf of US Air Force active service members and their families.

Prior to joining UCM, Dr. Ambrose served as President of Pfeiffer University (1998-2010) where he was the youngest serving president in the NC at age 36 and served for 12 years.  During that time Pfeiffer doubled their enrollment, operating revenues, and endowment.  From 2004-2008, Dr. Ambrose was a member of the NCAA Division II President’s Council serving on the Executive Committee of the NCAA and Chair of Division II (2006-2008).  His career in higher education leadership focused on expanding college access and opportunity and took him to Carson-Newman College, Western Carolina University, Furman University, and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, where he served as Executive Assistant to the President.

Dr. Ambrose attended Furman University, where he was a four-year letterman and three-time All-Southern Conference soccer player.  After graduating from Furman with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, he earned two advanced degrees in higher education administration, a Master’s from the University of Louisville and a Doctor of Education degree from the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia. In 2003, he and his wife Kristen created the Ride for the Ribbon, a 1000-mile bike ride that generated over $200,000 of support for breast cancer research and scholarships for students impacted by cancer.  In 2006, he was recognized with the Distinguished Alumnus Award from Furman University.

How did you find your way to where you are today? Share a little about your professional journey.

When Harry Shucker and Wayne King provided the opportunity to be a resident assistant during my sophomore year at Furman in 1980, the seeds of a career in higher education were planted for a 32-year career (including 18.5 years as a college president).

With the ongoing encouragement of Dr. Gordon Blackwell and Dr. John Johns, I left Furman with the thought that being a college president might be the coolest job on the planet (or at least they both seemed to make it true). They also underlined what most students say is one of the most valuable outcomes of college – the mentor who made the difference.

Giving to others what Furman provided me became my path and my career. With graduate degrees in higher education administration from The University of Louisville and The University of Georgia, my professional journey has included working at Louisville, Furman, Georgia, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, Western-Carolina University, Carson-Newman College, Pfeiffer University, and the University of Central Missouri. These are experiences defined by committed and talented colleagues/friends along with students who appreciate and value their college experiences.

What motivations fueled your career path?

My parents defined the value and belief systems that have been the foundation for my career path. A minister and nurse anesthetist, they both lived a life of service to others and a non-negotiable insistence that a college degree was required. My dad completed his doctorate at age 63 and raised the bar for our family that learning was truly life-long. A Baptist preacher’s kid, my parents gave me two choices for college – Wake Forest (where they both graduated) or Furman. The cumulative effect of my Furman experience, both inside and outside the classroom, provided the primary motivation for a career in higher education. Role models like Dr. Johns provided the aspiration for me to consider the possibility of being a college president. The combination of both influences has provided a career-long focus on servant leadership as a tool to help others reach their fullest potential.

When providing advice for professional development, what are some tools or resources one should consider?

The best professional development tools-- especially within the field of higher education – involve the ongoing pursuit of advanced degrees and within certain fields required for professional advancement. I utilize the network of relationships with fellow students and professors on an active basis today.

Three books remain at the top of my list: Switch, by the Heath Brothers, The Energy Bus, and Boys in the Boat. All three of these books speak to the requirements of leadership within today’s increasingly urgent society as well as ways to motivate an organizational will to embrace change. For higher education networking, I utilize the Association of Governing Boards, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and remain active with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) as a former student-athlete. I have been associated throughout my career pathway as a member, participant, or consultant with two-dozen professional associations or organizations that can be a multiplier of relationships within my own network of relationships.

How would you recommend someone interested in the same career/vocation pursue a similar path?

Stay focused on your big goal. Do not underestimate the speed at which you can reach your objectives and utilize your mentors as the tools to clear your path. The dynamic requirements of leadership today will allow for a wider range of career pathways and the utilization of new tools to enable success. The speed at which you reach the credentials required for your career aspirations is a determinant of the distance you can travel to achieve your goals.

What are some challenges you face in your industry?

Higher education is the fastest rising cost to American families while the majority of those same families has less disposable income to spend. The divestment of state support of public universities and the reliance of private institutions to increase their tuition at a level second only to the increase in healthcare make college costs, the expansion of the required resources to increase learning outcomes, and the means to increase the overall productivity of the enterprise increasingly more challenging. But, with the changing nature of the learner and the disruption of technology, there has never been a more dynamic period to manage change. It is like so many other elements of today’s economy – is your glass half full or your glass half empty? I choose half full!

What do you wish you would have known getting started in your field?

I am grateful for the many people who opened doors and provided insights into the requirements of a career within higher education and, more specifically, for presidential leadership on a college or university campus. There are certain institutions (within the 4,000 postsecondary institutions in the nation) that will only consider credentials, experiences or degrees within sector specific or reputation of defined peer institutions. As a Furman alumnus, where I chose to go to graduate school and the types of institutions that I gained experience define many of the opportunities that I may have access to in my journey ahead. The cool aspect of that pathway is that, in many ways both personal and institutional, mission has defined that direction. I had a specific objective of becoming a college president and from that point over 18 years ago I have been content in the wide range of institutional types I have been privileged to serve.

Is there anything unique about getting into the industry?

Many within higher education believe there are unique attributes but because of the specialization of competencies required to lead a $200 million enterprise, there are many transferable skills and diverse experiences that can give you great career pathways within a college or university. The culture of higher education, driven by learning, does have a unique culture and pace of change. But, following the great recession and its impact on the value of college, the willingness to innovate and invest in ways to help people respond to change opens a number of exciting doors ahead in the areas of strategic finance, instructional technology, economic development, and student learning outcomes. Advanced degrees and credentials define leadership opportunities in higher education.

How has your liberal arts background shaped your career path or supported your success?

At Furman, I learned to be a great thinker and that has carried me through my career. There is no way I could have prepared myself for the exact scenarios I have overcome over the past ten years in my career. Because I was conditioned at Furman to think about larger problems and themes, I was able to look at anything new in any industry I have worked in through the same lens.

What extracurricular activities helped you develop professionally?

The privilege to play soccer and be a student-athlete helped define the values I associate with the co-curricular experience you would like to provide for every student. Clark and Trow were absolutely correct: “The more you actively engage in your undergraduate experience, the more likely you are to succeed.” Intercollegiate athletics is one of those powerful engagement tools that teach so many life lessons. I have remained active in intercollegiate athletics as a member of the NCAA Executive Committee, Chair of the President’s Council of DII, and currently serve on the NCAA Gender Task Force. I married a student-athlete who is also a Furman women’s golf alumna and both of our kids have had the opportunity of being intercollegiate athletes. Coach Scarpa gave me that opportunity at Furman and it has provided career-long appreciation for the impact coaches can have on both the pathway and success of a college student.