Photography by Cade Martin

The Crutcher years

May 18, 2021

Curriculum Vitae

After six years at the helm, Ronald A. Crutcher steps down as Richmond’s president. He leaves a legacy of academic excellence, reputation-building, and institutional self-examination.

By Matthew Dewald

As Ronald A. Crutcher wraps up his tenure as president of the University of Richmond this summer, it’s worth remembering that this second presidency of his career was never part of his plans. He had finished his first one, at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, happy to have capped off a distinguished career in higher education administration and ready to go back to traveling, playing his cello, and spending more time with his wife, Betty Neal Crutcher, their daughter, Sara, and other family and friends.

But he had left the door open, just in case the right institution came calling. It would need to be a university at the right moment in its history, where the momentum it had and the progress it sought were of just the right sort that he was uniquely equipped to lead — if that happened, then he’d consider a second presidency.

Six years later, the imprint of Crutcher’s leadership shows what a fruitful match he and the university made when the board of trustees entrusted him with the presidency in 2015. Under his leadership, the university has strengthened the infrastructure that promotes learning, increased its reach and reputation, and stepped closer to becoming a thriving and inclusive community for every student.

The physical changes to a campus during any president’s tenure are one manifestation of his or her priorities. Under Crutcher’s watch, UR’s facilities have evolved to better connect the academic disciplines with one another and strengthen the university’s core academic excellence. During the past six years, Richmond completed a $30 million renovation of the Modlin Center for the Arts; completed the Queally Athletics Center to enhance academic support for all student-athletes and upgrade basketball team facilities; and began the renovation and expansion of Ryland Hall into a centralized center for the humanities.

Other important changes have been programmatic. The newly established faculty hub cultivates cross-disciplinary interactions among faculty for scholarly exchange and promotes professional development for faculty at all career stages. The university has also launched or is in the process of creating new academic programs in health care studies, Africana studies, and data science, and it is unrolling a campuswide program to cultivate a network of mentors for entering students. The university has also continued to focus on access and affordability to its academic programs by recently adding a no-loan program for Richmond Public Schools graduates to the extensive suite of policies and programs that make a Richmond education available to talented students of all backgrounds. A new international education program, called EnCompass, makes study-abroad opportunities more possible and inviting to the students least likely to take advantage of them.

Crutcher has addressed a conundrum that he felt when he got to Richmond: “That I really should have known the university better than I did,” as he often put it.

Throughout his presidency, Crutcher has also addressed what he often describes as a conundrum that he felt when he got to Richmond: “That I really should have known the university better than I did,” as he often put it. And, more to the point, others should, too. He established the Office of Scholars and Fellowships to encourage more Richmond students to pursue highly competitive national and international awards, which had the dual effects of advancing their futures and demonstrating UR’s academic caliber. He also created a universitywide communications division, the first time in UR’s history when it had a unit focused on advancing the university’s reach and reputation. The results of these changes show up in a variety of metrics, such as the increased numbers of UR students applying for and receiving awards such as Fulbrights, Goldwaters, and others. Recent rankings also reflect UR’s rising profile. Since he took office, UR has risen from No. 32 to No. 22 in U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of national liberal arts institutions, for example.

Crutcher has also focused significant energy on making Richmond the inclusive campus community that it aspires to be and a place where all students can thrive. The Well-Being Center, which opened in January, brought together Richmond’s physical and mental health services and made a significant investment in enhancing student wellness with dedicated spaces for learning about and practicing healthy eating and mindfulness techniques such as yoga and meditation. The university has also created new administrative structures to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout campus. Through a distributed leadership model, leaders across campus have responsibility for advancing this work.

Crutcher has also turned the university’s attention to new areas of its own history, commissioning research to share previously untold stories and allow the campus community to better understand the institution’s development. These efforts have revealed the location of a burying ground for enslaved people, which is now being memorialized, and resulted in the publication of reports on the lives and perspectives of Robert Ryland, who essentially built what became the University of Richmond, and Douglas Southall Freeman, an alumnus and former rector. One goal of this research has been to use the university’s past to open opportunities for teaching students how to confront and navigate difficult conversations about complex subjects. As a result, UR’s history continues to be incorporated more and more into classroom discussions, course offerings, and new-student orientation.

And then there is the management of the institution during the pandemic. During Crutcher’s inaugural address in 2015, he described the power of a liberal arts education as giving students the ability “to address complex new realities and unscripted problems that will inevitably develop.” Under his leadership, the institution as a whole rose to this challenge in 2020–21, responding to the crisis with quick fiscal and physical adjustments that maintained its commitment to academic excellence and positioned it to emerge strongly from the crisis while protecting the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff.

After a sabbatical, during which he plans to spend time working on another book, reading, traveling, and visiting family, Crutcher will do what so many recent Richmond presidents have done: return to campus. For the first time in decades, his primary role will be as a professor teaching undergraduates. He also plans to continue mentoring, both on campus and throughout his wide network in higher education, extending his careerlong commitment to preparing the next generation of leaders.

Photograph by Cade Martin

Q&A with President Crutcher

The phrase “lives of purpose” from Richmond’s mission statement has often shown up in your speeches and writings. What is it about that phrase that resonates with you?
Your life is more than simply a sum of its many parts — your mind, your family, your job, your outside activities, and such. I feel strongly that a focus on purpose can fulfill you in ways that money, prestige, or title cannot. For me, what really fuels me is the fact that I’m having an impact on the growth, development, and, hopefully, transformation of students’ lives.

Everybody doesn’t have to have the same kind of purpose, but I think it’s helpful to think about it.

You became Richmond’s first Black president. Do people ever talk about that with you? Do you think much about it?
I remember very clearly at my inauguration, when [UMBC president] Freeman Hrabowski was introducing me. He veered off from his prepared remarks and said to the audience, “You know, we need to just take a moment to reflect on the fact that this is an historic moment. When I was a student at Hampton” — and then he looked at my daughter, Sara, who is also a Hampton University graduate — “and Sara, when you were a student, nobody would have ever thought that the University of Richmond would have a Black president.” I mean, it’s something only Freeman could do [laughs]. It was the elephant in the room, and nobody was talking about it, but he said, “Let’s talk about this,” and it was a special moment.

But, honestly, I’ve been a first many, many times throughout my career, going back to when I was a doctoral student at Yale — the first cellist of any race to receive a Doctor of Musical Arts. I’m very happy that people are proud of the fact that I’m in this position, but it’s not necessarily something I think a lot about.

Are there areas where you wish the university had made more progress during your tenure?
One is alumni participation. We have made some progress, but not nearly as much as I would have liked. People are under the impression that because we have such a large endowment, we don’t really need their annual gifts. I always make the case that we’ve made some very important, very big commitments like the Richmond’s Promise to Virginia and the Richmond Guarantee. We want to be able to pay for those 50 years from now.

Another relates to our work in diversity, equity, and inclusion. If there’s one thing that I could do over in my inauguration address, it would be in the part where I challenged the community to use the rich representational diversity that we developed under [former president] Ed Ayers’ leadership. I wish I had reminded people that the kind of cultural change I was talking about — ensuring that everyone can feel as though they belong here and that everyone can thrive — doesn’t happen in five years or even 10 years. It takes a long, long time.

Another area is related to our DEI initiatives. We’re just now at the place where we have begun helping students and everybody on campus hone the necessary skills to have uncomfortable conversations in an open and honest way. I think that’s critically important for any university in today’s climate, but particularly for this university. I wish that three years ago we could have been where we are now.

What changes are you most looking forward to once your Richmond presidency ends?
Not being heavily scheduled. In that sense, this last year has been nice because while I am still heavily scheduled, I have not had to travel for the university at all. I was traveling 60 to 65% of the time. I have started resigning from or turning down any new board affiliations. The only thing I’m going to be doing is complete my term as chair of the board of the American Council of Education, which goes through next March.

I’m looking forward to having more time to read what I want to read and to write. I plan to play my cello a lot more, and I think I’m going to start singing again. I’ll also be able to spend more time with family. But make no mistake: I’ve been very pleased and proud to be in this position, and I believe we’ve accomplished a great deal.