James L. Ash Jr., selected last week to be president of Whittier College, is described by colleagues as one of the brightest, most creative administrators in higher education.
Ash is now vice provost for student affairs at the University of Miami, a private university of 13,000 students in Coral Gables, Fla.
The 43-year-old historian, an ordained Presbyterian minister, is credited with raising student enrollment in the university’s honors program from 200 to 1,300. He also drew praise for helping set up a residential dormitory program modeled after programs at America’s Ivy League colleges, which borrowed the idea from England’s Oxford and Cambridge universities.
Ash will become Whittier’s 12th president in July, succeeding Eugene S. Mills, 63. Mills announced last fall that he will retire in June after a decade as president of the small but venerable college, which has been suffering from declining enrollment and chronic budget problems.
Vote Was Unanimous
Trustees of the 101-year-old college and its 500-student law school voted unanimously at a special meeting Wednesday night to give the post to Ash.
He says he was not looking for a job.
“I was minding my own business in Miami,” he said, when he received a call asking if he would be interested. “And the more I discovered, the more I was convinced that Whittier College was an academic jewel.”
In a brief telephone interview from Miami, Ash said: “The challenges are the same challenges that every liberal arts college faces in the next five years in this country.” Two of the most important challenges, he said, are retaining a quality faculty and overcoming what he calls “unfavorable demographics,” a shrinking pool of college-age youngsters.
The next three years, he said, represent a valley in college admissions because there will be fewer people turning 18 and starting college than in previous years. And, as the older academic generation retires and the Ph.D. glut that characterized the 1970s and ‘80s disappears, he said, there is fierce competition for bright young faculty members. Universities are raiding smaller colleges that hired the faculty members during the glut.
Ash acknowledged, too, that Whittier, compared to many other private colleges, has a meager endowment. But the man who always takes a positive approach to problems, according to one Miami colleague, put a positive face on the fund-raising aspect of his new job.
“Part of my responsibility will be to give the Southern California community a chance to participate in the strengthening of one of their major resources,” Ash said.
He said he will maintain Whittier’s generous scholarship policies, which some Whittier administrators have acknowledged contributed to the college’s budget problems.
At Miami, Ash teaches one class a semester and says he will do the same at Whittier, although maybe not the first year. Ash joined the university in 1977 as an assistant professor of religious studies. He later served as chairman of the religious studies department.
He holds a Ph.D. in American social, religious and intellectual history, a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, and a master’s degree in theology from Southern Methodist University. He is a native of Texas and did his undergraduate work at Abilene Christian University.
He wrote “Protestantism in the American University,” published by Southern Methodist University Press, and is finishing another book, “Primitivism in American Religion.”
“That’s what I do to keep intellectually alive and it’s more like fun than work,” Ash said of his writing.
Wife Has Dean’s Job
His wife, Patricia Bryan Ash, will give up her job as assistant dean at the University of Miami Law School, to move to California. The couple have two daughters, ages 11 and 13.
Colleagues and students who were contacted at Miami last week viewed Ash’s impending departure with regret.
“You run into people in your lifetime that have that kind of personality and seem to . . . inspire others,” said David Kling, Ash’s assistant at Miami. “That’s why he’s good for Whittier, because Whittier needs a shot in the arm.”
“It is a tremendous gain for Whittier,” said Deborah Perry, associate provost and dean of enrollments at Miami, where Ash is credited with transforming university enrollment by boosting the number of honors students, and with helping create the residential college system in which faculty families were moved into student living quarters, where seminars were held and learning labs were established.
“Rather than just being a place to sleep, (the dorm) became a place to live and learn,” Perry said.
Bright and Creative
“He is one of the brightest, most creative higher education administrators in the country today,” she said. “With Jim’s guidance,” she said, “the university has been able to bring itself into a stable enrollment environment.”
To draw more honors students to the university, she said, Ash expanded the course offerings in the honors program and drew the best professors on campus into it.
Twice, students have named him professor of the year, said Robert S. Marshall, assistant news editor of the university newspaper. “He’s very respected by everyone on campus who comes in contact with him,” Marshall said.