Sitting in his office situated on the sprawling, leafy green campus of the University of Richmond on a sunny fall afternoon, Dr. Ronald Crutcher, the institution’s new president, is looking quite fresh for a man of 68. After stepping down last year after 10 years as president of Wheaton College, Crutcher, an accomplished cellist, says he planned originally to go on to lead an arts organization. He even interviewed for the presidency of a top symphony orchestra. Yet his passion remained higher ed leadership.
“I realized it hadn’t seemed like work to me. There were ups and downs but I enjoyed” serving as president of Wheaton. “It really got me going. And so I said to my wife, ‘I think if I can find the right institution, I’m going to do this again,’” he relates.
Crutcher makes history as Richmond’s first African-American president; he was also the first African-American to lead Wheaton College. In fact, Crutcher’s been breaking barriers his whole career—he was also the first cellist to earn a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Yale University.
Crutcher says the reception he and his wife, Dr. Betty Neal Crutcher, have received at Richmond has been tremendous. Yet when asked to reflect on the reception he received as the first African-American to lead Richmond compared to the reception he received as the first African-American to assume the presidency of Wheaton, he says he has observed a “distinct” difference.
“We were welcomed warmly by the [Wheaton] community. But there was one difference my wife and I have noted about our welcome there and our welcome here. In Massachusetts, I would say seven times out of 10, a person would say, ‘Oh, so happy to have you here,’ and they would always ask me about my background.
“Whereas, here, no one ever asked me about my background. In fact, you know what happens here? People have thanked us for coming here. It could be that’s a difference between a veteran president and a brand new president.” However, “it was more than that. It was almost as if you had to prove that you had the qualifications.”
Crutcher says he first got into college administration when he was asked to serve as associate provost for undergraduate instruction and faculty development at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro after being very active on the faculty senate.
“Initially, I said yes, I’d do it on an interim basis, because I wasn’t really sure that I would enjoy doing that full time. The first year, I actually continued to teach my cello students,” Crutcher says. “And then I found I really loved the job. I loved the fact that every day I had different problems to solve. … I’d already made a decision that I probably needed to do something other than teaching full time for the rest of my career. It wasn’t challenging enough for me.”
Thus, Crutcher went on to become associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at UNC-Greensboro in 1989. He first arrived at UNC-Greensboro as an assistant professor of music in 1979 after having served as an assistant professor and head of the string program at Wittenberg University since 1977.
Crutcher says that, when he took on the associate vice chancellor post at UNC-Greensboro, “I wrote myself three notes: Remember how you got here, by virtue of having been an outstanding faculty member; two, remember why you were here, to serve; and three, do not become obsessed with power. … I had observed people’s behavior when they became even just department chair.”
Crutcher then became vice president of academic affairs and dean of the Conservatory at the Cleveland Institute of Music and, later, director of the School of Music at The University of Texas at Austin. He then served as provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Miami University and finally moved on to Wheaton.
Dr. Jacquelyn S. Fetrow, Richmond’s provost, says she found it notable that, even before he was formally announced as Richmond’s next president, Crutcher offered her the opportunity to call Dr. Linda Eisenmann, her counterpart at Wheaton, to discuss his leadership. Fetrow took him up on the offer.
“I think that was kind of unique that he would offer that, that he trusted that relationship enough to say, ‘Here, call her up and find out what you want to know.’ I appreciated that,” Fetrow says.
In that conversation, Fetrow says Eisenmann gave Crutcher high marks for his collaborative leadership style and accessibility.
“One of the things I really liked about working with Ron so much was that he is not a hands-on kind of manager. He does not micromanage you; he’s really excellent at building a team and giving you the wherewithal to do what you want,” Eisenmann says.
Another key leadership attribute Crutcher has, says Eisenmann, is his humility. She found him open to criticism and suggestions for a new approach. She credits his musical training for giving him the tools to be able to handle criticism, weigh it carefully and make the necessary adjustments.
“When you see your president have that skill of being willing to be critiqued and offer a change, it really frees you up to do the same, and I definitely learned that from him. I don’t think I’ve ever had a senior boss who was so much like that,” Eisenmann says.
Influence of mentorship
Crutcher says that an early mentor, Miami University music professor Elizabeth Potteiger, played a pivotal role in his life when she heard him play the cello at the age of 13 and offered to give him lessons free of charge. This was as long as his parents would take him from Cincinnati to Oxford, Ohio, every week on Saturdays, a 40-mile ride. “And that changed my life because it changed the direction. I doubt that I would have majored in music had it not been for her influence. I was thinking about becoming an architect. … She was the first mentor outside of my family,” he says.
Dr. Stephanie Dupaul, Richmond’s vice president for enrollment management, says the impact of Potteiger’s mentorship is far and wide. “It’s not just the difference she made in his life, but if you look at all the lives he has touched, her action has changed literally hundreds of thousands of lives, because of touching Dr. Crutcher,” Dupaul says. “Every student whom he touches it’s because of what she did. That’s the transformative power of higher education.”
Eisenmann says that she has witnessed Crutcher pay forward the mentorship he has received. When she attended American Council on Education and Association of American Colleges & Universities conferences with Crutcher, she noticed “how many people of color who were being mentored by him. Sometimes quietly; sometimes not. But then, sort of the second thing that I noticed was that a lot of young people, whatever their background, were being mentored by him.”
Indeed, though Eisenmann says Crutcher’s departure was a loss for the Boston area, the legacy of mentorship he left still reverberates.
Crutcher “did leave a legacy not only at his college, but really in the network around Massachusetts and Rhode Island, certainly for leaders of color but for a lot of people who are in that younger stage of their career and really need someone to give advice and a leg up once in a while,” Eisenmann says. “And I would be one of them.”
Crutcher has left an enduring diversity legacy at Wheaton, Eisenmann adds, noting that, as she walks Wheaton’s campus, more than six years into her tenure at Wheaton, “I can physically see a difference among the students of color, the faculty and staff of color, the international students who are coming, and Ron really helped us recognize that this is not just something you do for numbers, this is something you do to make a change in your environment. And Wheaton was really ready for that.”
The Richmond commitment
Among the most notable attributes of the University of Richmond is that it is both need-blind and has committed to meet 100 percent of demonstrated financial need for domestic students. Richmond’s endowment is valued at more than $2.1 billion, and David Hale, Richmond’s vice president for business and finance and treasurer, says that the university has considerable resources to bring to the table when it comes to recruiting diverse classes.
Crutcher “is very committed to equity and access in higher ed, and success, and so I think … one of the very best ways that we can be aligned with that goal is to evaluate students’ applications without regard to the ability to pay,” Hale says. “Ron has said that it’s one of the reasons that he was really attracted to this opportunity.”
“We’re in a rarefied category, financially, which gives us a little bit of leverage to use when we’re trying to build a class and make sure that we’re accessible,” Dupaul adds.
According to Dupaul, the University of Richmond does not recruit with a substantial amount of merit aid. “There are a lot of schools out there who are sort of buying their best students … and are choosing to do that over the decision to meet full financial need.
“If you talk to anyone on this campus … they would all express that commitment to providing access by being need-blind and meeting full financial need. To have that mission, to have that belief system so firmly in place here — it’s very unusual to find in higher education.”
When asked to reflect on the evolution of diversity on higher ed campuses over the past 10 years, even the language, moving from affirmative action, to diversity, to inclusion, Crutcher says he has no problem with the evolution of the language of diversity as long as the goals stay consistent and the benchmarks quantifiable.
“I think, over the past 10 years, there has been a move and almost a reluctance to deal with Black students and Hispanic students and, I tend to like the term, ‘students of color,’” Crutcher says. “I think you need to go beyond that and show how … each group in there [is] doing.”
Once the data are disaggregated by metrics such as race, Crutcher says it can be seen “what the differentials are, then you can put some interventions in place to make the changes. I think that’s one of the things that’s missing, quite frankly, right now. [There] are not enough people who are disaggregating that data and looking at it. They’re happy just to … put everybody in one big group.”
Noting that the University of Richmond has around 25 percent students of color and 10 percent international students, Crutcher’s “question to the community is … what are we doing with that rich diversity? How are we using that as an educational asset to benefit everyone in the university?”
As many University of Richmond students come from wealthy families, Crutcher asks, “How can we ensure that the person who comes from Queens who is [a] first-generation Pell Grant student who’s African-American or Hispanic can come here and see a place for him or herself in this community? That’s the work that we have ahead for us here.” Though he adds that it isn’t that this type of inclusion is not happening already at Richmond, he wants Richmond to be “very intentional about making a place for everyone who comes here.”
At Wheaton, Eisenmann says Crutcher “really both personally embodied and helped everybody understand” that diversity “is a way of enhancing the strengths of your institution. … My expectation is that he will bring that to Richmond. He believes in this in his heart.”
David Pluviose can be reached at email@example.com.