Charles Ambrose
Provided by the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education

Charles "Chuck" Ambrose counts a record enrollment growth of 27 percent in six years as one of his achievements at the University of Central Missouri, according to his resume.

Ambrose, one of four finalists for the president post at the University of Montana, also counts an increase in campus diversity among his accomplishments. And he said first-year persistence rates have consistently jumped from a half-percent to 1 percent, a "big step forward" when it comes to retention.

But if the UCM president lands at UM, he'll lead a university that's 24 percent smaller than his current one.

Since 2010, Ambrose has been at the helm of UCM, which has an enrollment of 14,395 compared to UM's 10,999, according to U.S. News & World Report statistics.

Ambrose said the position at UM is appealing because while UCM has a larger enrollment, it isn't a flagship. And he said he would like the opportunity to apply the work he's done at UCM at a flagship university and work with the Montana Board of Regents and Commissioner's Office to shape higher education across the state.

"That's the real attraction," Ambrose said.

He also said he and his wife have an affection for the West and love interacting with students, and in particular, with a campus and community that help define each other.

"Work has got to be productive, but it has to be enjoyable," Ambrose said. "We're in the college business. It's where lives are changed and experiences are formative for a lifetime, so how can you not have fun?"

According to the Daily Star Journal, Ambrose was recruited to apply for the job at UM. A spokesman for the Commissioner's Office said nominations are common in higher education recruitment.

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Ambrose is familiar with the budget and enrollment challenges higher education faces, ones that have been particularly thorny at UM in recent years.

In January, he announced that he anticipated a significant loss in international students at UCM this fall due to federal policies, according to the Daily Star-Journal. The news outlet reported in August that first-time undergraduate enrollment is up and noted specifics would be available after the Sept. 12 census.

Michael Bersin, a UCM Faculty Senate member and former president, said Ambrose is adept at communicating challenges to constituencies, including legislators.

"You've got to be diplomatic, but you've got to tell people the way it is," said Bersin, a UCM faculty member of 28 years. "That's a deliberate balancing act, and he has plenty of experience doing that in Missouri."

Ambrose's resume notes he has expertise in the financial side of the operation. In March 2016, he served as a panelist for a presentation called "Sustainable Innovation: Applying a Business Model Lens to the Academic Portfolio."

This summer, budget cuts in Missouri hit UCM hard and resulted in "200 jobs vacated through early retirement, a hiring freeze and elimination of nearly a quarter of graduate assistantships," according to the Daily Star-Journal.

But Ambrose still sounds optimistic about creating a "value proposition" for students and building a model that gets them to the finish line and interested in supporting the institution in the future.

"If you're an institutional leader today, you're going to recognize that there's a tremendous amount of potential to move public higher education forward, but there's really no place without a challenge," Ambrose said.

Ultimately, he said, the business model in academia is driven by student success: How many students are enrolled? How much can you charge them? And do they see the value of their education and experience?

"If it's transformative, they're going to give back in the form of charitable dollars and other resources. ... It's all about the net. You've got to be net productive," Ambrose said.

At UM, like at UCM, he said, a smaller number of majors likely drives 40 percent of enrollment, and university officials need to ensure those programs have enough money: "Do we resource them so they continue to feed the engine?"

He said more shared governance and shared responsibilities deeper in the organization also are part of a solid business model. Shared governance has been a theme at UM, with faculty calling for truly being able to influence the administration's decisions.

"Ultimately, it's faculty and programs that know how to make their own delivery more meaningful and attractive to students," Ambrose said.

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While Ambrose has a mind for business, faculty and student leaders said he has a positive relationship with students and other constituencies.

"Empowering students is the most important thing to him," said Luke Hawley, president of the student body for a second year in a row.

Asked if Ambrose could do one thing differently, Hawley joked: "Staying in Missouri, probably. We'd be really sad to see him leave."

Hawley, who has been active in student government four years, said he hosts many forums for the president to talk with students, and he considers Ambrose a charismatic leader.

"When President Ambrose walks into a room, everybody knows it," Hawley said. "He lights the whole thing up, and everyone typically loves him."

James Loch, member of the Faculty Senate and former president, said Ambrose is in almost constant contact with students through social media and his walks around campus. Loch said Ambrose's strength is "his passionate support for the students."

"His advocacy for students has extended very richly towards the support of a diverse populace on campus," he said.

On his resume, Ambrose notes he's been part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Gender Equity Task Force since 2014. He also noted his 2015-2016 membership in the U.S. Department of Justice and National Center for Campus Safety Clery Act Task Force; the Clery Act requires colleges and universities that receive federal funds to report crime statistics and their policies on preventing sexual assault.

Loch said Ambrose is a strong advocate for Title IX and Title IX reporting. One or two years ago, he said, a student intern was harassed at the Capitol, and she went through UCM's reporting and was satisfied with it.

"He is an affable and approachable man who is deeply invested in what he does and the success of every student that he's responsible for," Loch said.

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Ambrose's resume includes athletic connections, such as his affiliation with the National Collegiate Athletic Association. He served as a mentor for the same organization, and he completed a charity bicycle ride in 2003 with his wife, a golf professional, to support fundraising for breast cancer research.

His resume doesn't include the same significant ties to the arts, but Bersin, another former president of the Faculty Senate, said he doesn't believe the arts at UM would be shorted under Ambrose.

"He's actually very supportive of the arts," Bersin said. "I'm actually in the Department of Music. He's very supportive of the mission of the institution and what it does and how the the institution interacts with the community."

Ambrose himself said he was "an all-South Jersey violinist" in high school and played piano for 12 years and some oboe, too. Picking up his violin again is on his bucket list.

"But the only thing you'd want me to pick up now is my 12-string guitar," he said.

Ambrose said he himself is a product of the liberal arts and humanities, and he believes in giving students opportunities to do community service and study abroad as part of their degrees.

"There are values across the curricula and the humanities that translate very directly to outcomes that make students very competitive in their journey, both career and life," he said.

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When he first came to UCM, Ambrose said it was an institution that could easily have been described as "in a death spiral" if one looked through a glass half-empty. But he said the heart of the institution, the quality of its faculty and the reason students attended, showed it had "good bones" and "was still moving forward even when people felt like it wasn't."

At UCM, with the help of governing boards, he's built a model focused on student success and on making college possible and accessible for students, he said. He believes the tools he used in Missouri would be of value in Missoula.

"When I come to Missoula, growth is really non-negotiable," Ambrose said. "You have to grow because the state most likely doesn't have large sources of new money to give you."

Ambrose said he's energized by UM because its mission is defined by place and people, and he sees great potential for higher education in Montana. He's excited to think about how to reshape UM, a research and scholarship institution, into a campus that's highly competitive.

"All of that coming together makes for a very forward thinking, future kind of conversation that I'm looking forward to at the end of the month," Ambrose said.

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Reporter for the Missoulian