Let’s get this out of the way: Ronald Crutcher is University of Richmond’s first African-American president.
“Because of where I am in my career, I’ve been the first [African-American] a number of times in my life,” he told The Collegian in March soon after being named Edward Ayer’s successor.
There was a time, though, when having a black president at Richmond was unthinkable.
“I think the university might not have been ready for me 10 years ago, but they are now,” he said. In recent decades, however, Richmond has certainly changed and improved, yet faces new challenges. Crutcher said he aimed to bring Richmond to a new, higher level.
“This ought to be the very best small private university in the country, bar none,” he said. “And if I have anything to do with it, that’s what we will be in a few years.”
Wearing a University of Richmond ball cap and a navy blue polo, Crutcher moved around campus on move-in day, helping new students assemble their dorm rooms. Some students and parents recognized Crutcher right away, but many did not distinguish the small, soft-spoken man that was lugging boxes and carrying clothes to their rooms.
At some point, though, the families learned who this man was. “Hello, I’m Ronald Crutcher. I am the university president,” he would say to families and students, whose jaws fell in awe. The conversations did not end with introductions though -- when Crutcher meets people, he learns who they are. And he remembers them. “He has an absolutely incredible memory for people, places and events,” said Brian Douglas, Wheaton College's vice president for finance and administration.
I shook hands with Crutcher for the first time on move-in day, but I met him over Skype a few weeks earlier. Before I could say anything to him at move-in day, he said, “Nice to see you, Jack.” When Crutcher and I spoke over Skype, I was working at a summer camp in Massachusetts not far from Wheaton College, where Crutcher served as president from 2004 to 2014. Crutcher and his wife, Betty, were still in the process of moving into their new home.
“My wife and I have noticed that the transition has appeared to be almost seamless for us,” Crutcher said.
Part of what made the move appealing was that they had spent some time in the South before, Crutcher said. “Richmond reminds us a lot of Greensboro, North Carolina, so we felt very comfortable in the beginning being here,” he said.
The Crutchers began their married life in Greensboro after what Betty called a whirlwind relationship at the beginning.
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Betty Neal Crutcher, the oldest of four children, grew up in Tuskegee, Ala. Betty grew up surrounded by education – both her parents worked for Tuskegee Institute, then a vocational school and now Tuskegee University, she said. While attending Tuskegee, Betty went on an exchange program to University of Michigan, expecting to only stay for a semester. She ended up attending graduate school there.
Betty still lived in Michigan, having just bought a house in Detroit, when she met Crutcher. She had been working in a job where she helped develop employee-assistance programs in Michigan’s State Department of Public Health for about five years. “I just knew I was ready to settle in as a single person and enjoyed working as a professional,” she said.
“And then I met Ron.”
The two met via a mutual friend, Betty said. Crutcher, who had recently become the first cellist to earn a doctorate at Yale University’s School of Music Doctor of Musical Arts, was visiting a friend from graduate school in Detroit. During his visit, Crutcher took Betty on a date.
“Both of us, in a single night, on one date, knew that there was something very special about the relationship,” Betty said. “I felt the next morning, having met him, that I found the other part of my heart.”
The other part of Betty’s heart was already a decorated musician and academic. Crutcher began playing the cello as a young teenager, but his knack for music was obvious – a test showed he nearly had perfect pitch, according to University of Richmond Magazine, and he performed a Bach cello solo in a competition eight months after he picked up the instrument. He did so well in the competition in fact, that Elizabeth Potteiger, a professor of music at Miami University attending the show, invited him to attend a music camp at the university and proceeded to offer Crutcher free lessons.
Crutcher continued to excel as a cellist, and went on to attend Miami University with a scholarship, according to UR Magazine. After graduating from Miami, where he studied music and German, he continued his studies at Yale University, shining so bright that he earned a Fulbright Scholarship, which funded a five-year stint at Bonn Music School in Germany, where he performed as principal cellist in a chamber orchestra and taught. He returned to America, continuing his musical and academic journey, returning to Yale to earn his doctorate degree.
But meeting Betty changed everything for Crutcher.
“Somehow, I knew instinctively, immediately, that this was the person I wanted to have as a life partner,” he said, according to UR Magazine.
The two were engaged three months later, and married nine months after that. Crutcher was moving into a position at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. While in Greensboro, the Crutcher’s had one daughter, Sara Elizabeth Neal Crutcher.
Greensboro marked the first stop for what would be a family surrounded by moves and exploration. The Crutchers moved to The Cleveland Institute of Music, University of Texas at Austin and Miami University in Ohio before ending up at Wheaton.
Crutcher’s mark on Wheaton is easy to see. He demonstrated his ability to raise money for the institution. He led and oversaw the largest capital project in the college’s history – a $46 million science center – and the college’s most successful campaign in Wheaton’s history – the Go Beyond: Campaign for Wheaton, which raised more than $137 million, according to Richmond’s website.
Crutcher’s impact on Wheaton extends beyond financial improvements. Douglas described Crutcher – who serves a co-chair of National Leadership Council for LEAP, an organization that “champions the importance of a twenty-first-century liberal education,” according to it’s website – as a true intellectual.
“He really is interested in all of the work of the faculty, whether it be arts, sciences or humanities, he is a really intellectually curious person, and really wants to know what’s happening in the intellectual life of the college,” Douglas said. “Richmond is getting a remarkable individual.”
After leaving Wheaton, the Crutchers took a much-needed break. “When I stepped down I wasn’t really certain how I would respond to not having to go to work every day,” Crutcher said.
They coped with this break by going somewhere new. The couple moved to Berlin, Germany to enjoy some leisure time.
“We went to lots of concerts and art museums, made a lot of good friends in Berlin, ate a lot of food, drank a lot of wine,” Crutcher said, laughing. “It was lovely. I don’t think I would be in a position to be energized enough to take on this job had I not had this time off.”
Crutcher took a few additional days off before working as Richmond’s president. Although he officially took over as Richmond’s president July 1, Crutcher did not start working until July 7th – he is still an active musician, and his group, The Klemperer Trio, played two shows in the first few days of July.
Crutcher, who has performed across Europe and America, including at Carnegie Hall, said he would be involved with music at Richmond – he will eventually teach some classes and The Klemperer Trio will likely perform on campus the fall of 2016 – but needs this year to settle into the community.
And settling in, despite its connotation, is not a leisurely experience for the Crutchers. Crutcher has met an array of people connected to the university, ranging from every department on campus to alumni around the country to, of course, students.
“I’ve been keeping busy,” Crutcher said with laughs.
Although Crutcher is not teaching this year, he and Betty will work with students through mentor groups, something he is bringing to Richmond from Wheaton. Each will have a group – one all male with Crutcher, one all female with Betty – that will meet at the their house once a month.
“It’s my way of having a group of students that I really get to know well, and I can share in their growth and development over the four-year period,” Ronald Crutcher said.
Crutcher and other university leaders will also begin preparing a new strategic plan this year, which is typical for new presidents, said Jacquelyn Fetrow, who is in her second year as Richmond’s Provost.
“Even from the beginning, he understands our community, the faculty and the students,” Fetrow said. “He’s a leader who is effectively engaging with all the constituencies in our community.”
Ayers’ strategic plan, The Richmond Promise, was completed last year with the implementation of the Richmond Guarantee, offering every undergraduate student a fellowship of up to $4,000 for a summer internship or faculty-mentored research project.
Fetrow, who said she thought the university has come really far pretty quickly, declined to share some of her ideas for the new strategic plan, as she said she wants the planning process to move naturally. Based on what Crutcher and other leaders have said, it’s fair to assume Richmond will look into ways to enhance its image.
“I do think the quality of the educational experience at Richmond far exceeds our national reputation,” Crutcher said, “and what I want to do is try to close that gap so that people begin to understand what a fabulous place this is.”
“The quality of the education that we offer here at the University of Richmond is just superior to so many schools, but very few people know about it,” Fetrow said. “It offers an opportunity, so we can figure out how to message what we do so that the message is properly conveyed.”
Richmond is working on, using Fetrow’s words, figuring out how to share this message. Crutcher said he and Ayers had worked together to hire a consultant to do an assessment of Richmond’s communications and public relations, as a way to analyze how best to present this message to prospective students.
“What I want to happen for us is that I want students who are the very best students at their high schools across the country to think of Richmond in that first group of schools when they’re trying to decide to apply to schools,” Crutcher said, “as opposed to thinking of us as maybe a safety school in case they don’t get into Princeton or Harvard.”
Richmond, which was ranked 32nd in the U.S. News & World Report's annual ranking of national liberal arts colleges, has certainly traveled on an upward trajectory over the past decade, but it has faced several problems Richmond’s leadership still face.
The aftermath of Richmond’s decision to cut men’s soccer and cross-country in favor of lacrosse can still be felt. As part of the fallout, Bobby Ukrop, one of Richmond's largest donors during his 13-year period on the university’s board, resigned soon after the announcement, and a source close to Ukrop said the decision was made in association with the board's decision cut the two teams. Ukrop’s decision to leave the board was his own, Pat Rowland, rector of Richmond's Board of Trustees, wrote in an email.
“The board is very grateful for his leadership and significant generosity over many decades,” Rowland wrote. “His influence continues to touch every area of the university.”
More recently, Richmond – similar to more than 100 schools nationwide – has found itself in the midst of a federal investigation for a Title IX violation. In the past spring semester, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights came to campus to speak with students for the investigation. In a survey that received responses from about 42 percent of undergraduate females, a Collegian survey found more than half of female respondents answered that they have experienced some sort of unwanted sexual behaviors while at the University of Richmond.
Crutcher said he had been originally concerned by early reports, but had faith in the university’s educational programs.
“One of the things that I have been convinced of is we have excellent education programs for our students,” Crutcher said. “So I am hoping that because of the focus on education and informing folks about what to do, even if you are involved or the victim, that people will be more willing to report them.”
Crutcher further recognized the role alcohol plays in these cases.
“Ideally I would like to see more and more students becoming aware of the role that alcohol plays, aware personally and also as a bystander,” Crutcher said. “If you see something, intervene and do the right thing, because sadly these things happen in our society and I am not unrealistic to believe that they will go away.”
Like any school, Richmond faces difficult challenges, but Crutcher seems confident Richmond is on its way to being viewed as the elite institution he sees it.
“It’s a great story to tell," Crutcher said," a perfect story to tell, and not enough people have the real story.”
Contact editor-in-chief Jack Nicholson at email@example.com
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