Colleagues at The University of Texas at El Paso said Charles “Chuck” Ambler, Ph.D., used his good humor, calm demeanor and insightful leadership skills to help UTEP become a top research institution that serves all levels of students
Ambler, a scholar, educator and administrator at the institution, announced his retirement in 2020. UTEP’s Department of History honored him for his 36 years of service during a two-day virtual workshop, “Cinema and Popular Culture Across Borders,” on March 19-20, 2021.
The former professor of history also served twice as dean of UTEP’s Graduate School, where he reorganized procedures to facilitate admissions and retention, and established support systems for graduate students. He helped expand the University’s doctoral programs from six in 1996 to the current 22 high-quality degrees throughout the University.
While committed to his research – he is an internationally respected historian in the area of 19th- and 20th-century Africa – he also dedicated himself to undergraduates and regularly taught large section courses. He developed cost-effective instructional strategies, which included technology-based learning and targeted communication with class members, to enhance engagement in large science, business and liberal arts classes. These efforts led to higher student test scores and completion rates.
Ambler, a native of Pennsylvania, said he was lucky to have been part of UTEP’s development into a top research university that continues to serve its community. He said that he is confident that the University and his department will go on to even greater success.
“I have been extremely fortunate to have a career at UTEP both as a faculty member and as an administrator, and to be part of the remarkable transformation of the institution over the last several decades and which continues now,” said Ambler, who added that what he misses most about University life is the engagement with students and colleagues.
UTEP’s President Emerita Diana Natalicio said that Ambler was involved in many campus accomplishments, but the most important thing he did was to help the University develop a climate for graduate programs with an emphasis on doctoral degree planning and a related research agenda. She said this was an essential component of the campus’ “access and excellence” strategy to attract regional students and provide them with a quality education.
“Dr. Ambler understood that extremely well,” said President Emerita Natalicio, who called him imaginative and tenacious in this effort. She praised his level of preparation for the doctoral degree proposals to ensure positive evaluations. “He was very strategic in how he approached the development of doctoral programs. He knew exactly what needed to be done, and made a very, very clear plan on how to move forward, and that made all the difference in the world.”
Ambler emphasized that his accomplishments were the result of collaboration. He cited his work with former Provost Stephen Riter, Ph.D., during his first term as Graduate School dean from 1996 to 2005, where they nurtured new doctoral programs and a culture of doctoral education that was consistent with UTEP’s mission. This created a foundation for the University to achieve an R1 top tier research university designation from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. He also mentioned how pleased he was to have helped create additional funding sources and support infrastructure for graduate students.
President Emerita Natalicio also noted the special effort Ambler made to learn the proper pronunciation of doctoral candidates’ names for Commencement, especially those from countries where the names could be hard to pronounce. She said several graduates shared with her their appreciation of Ambler’s efforts, which she said reflected his character and respect for others.
Former colleagues and students remember him as a humorous, thoughtful and creative mentor who was committed to the University, dedicated to student success and an advocate for diversity in graduate education.
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, one of Ambler’s former students, recognized his career accomplishments in the Congressional Record on Sept. 14, 2020. She said his contributions helped move UTEP to its current position as a higher education leader.
Ambler said that the recognition reminded him of the enormous strides the University had made since 1984 when he arrived on campus. UTEP hired Ambler soon after he earned his doctorate in African history from Yale University. Along with instruction, he served a four-year term as chair of the Department of History starting in 1989. His second term as associate provost and dean of the Graduate School was 2014-19. He also took leadership roles off campus. The African Studies Association, the major association that promotes the scholarly study of Africa across disciplines, elected him as president in 2010. Through the years, he also earned a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship, a Mellon Faculty Fellowship at Harvard University, two National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships, and was a visiting scholar at Oxford University.
John Wiebe, Ph.D., provost and vice president for academic affairs, praised his former colleague of 24 years for his scholarly work and his willingness to accept various management posts on campus.
“(Ambler) approached administrative work in a pragmatic, direct and genuine way, always ready to seize an opportunity for progress and use innovative strategies to solve tough problems,” Provost Wiebe said. “We have all benefited from his rich experience and institutional knowledge, and enjoyed his dry sense of humor. Dr. Ambler has held many titles over the years, but he has always been a leader, regardless of whether he had a formal title or not.”
Several former colleagues noted that Ambler probably was the first UTEP professor to earn formal recognition by Congress and the Hoppy Monk pub on Mesa Street, where his consumption of more than 200 craft beers earned him a plaque.
“It’s a dubious honor,” Ambler said good naturedly, but others noted that he put his pub time to good use.
Stephen Crites, Ph.D., dean of UTEP’s Graduate School, recalled many “productive” meetings the two had at that bar.
“He was incredibly insightful about the history and personalities involved in issues,” said Crites, who worked with Ambler since 2006. “Knowing this often was critical to understanding how we arrived in a given situation and helped us figure what steps we needed to take to change or improve any situation.”
Jeff Shepherd, Ph.D., chair and associate professor of history, praised Ambler for his role in the creation of the Ph.D. in borderlands history, which has generated 50 graduates since its inception in 1998, and for his critical participation in the establishment of fellowships to help UTEP doctoral students. As for scholarship, he said Ambler’s research in African history and imperialism helped chart new paths in the social and cultural history of the continent, including studies of drug use and entertainment. His interest in the impact of Hollywood film in colonial Africa is what led to the workshop that was held to mark his retirement.
“Chuck always had an eye on big-picture goals and ideas, even while he understood granular level policies and intricacies,” said Shepherd, who has worked with Ambler for 20 years on projects that benefited graduate and undergraduate students. “I always respected him for his ability to translate complex ideas into clear and simple language, and explain nuances to multiple groups of people from extremely different backgrounds. He always seemed to be a few steps ahead of everyone, thinking about long-term objectives and the most efficient avenue to achieve those goals.”
Aurelio Saldana, a doctoral student in the borderlands history program, has known Ambler since 2012 and summed him up as “an all-around quality human being.” The El Paso native, who grew up on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border near Fort Hancock, Texas, said Ambler made him, a first-generation graduate student, feel at ease with highly intellectual students from across the country.
Saldana, who earned multiple bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UTEP, said he appreciated Ambler’s lessons – academic and otherwise – that helped him feel as if he belonged.
“At every step, Dr. Ambler helped me believe that I should not short-change myself or have doubts on my way to achieving a doctoral level education,” Saldana said.
Ambler said he decided to retire in early 2020 and announced his decision in June after he completed his last assignment as “Dean-in-Residence” for the Council on Graduate Schools in Washington, D.C., where he helped the council build strategic relationships with graduate education leaders in sub-Saharan Africa. Since the pandemic, he has been living in the nation’s capital, where he and his wife, Gloria, a former El Paso Independent School District teacher and counselor, have helped care for two of their grandchildren. The couple plan to return to El Paso in April 2021.
He said his initial retirement plans are to focus on two book projects and a series of articles that are in various stages of completion. He also plans to become more involved in social justice issues, which he considers a continuation of his work at UTEP.
Ambler also hopes to master the espresso machine that his children gave him as a retirement gift. He said he intends to perfect his espressos, cappuccinos, Americanos and other such drinks. Once the coronavirus crisis is over, he and his wife hope to travel and spend time with their two children and their families, who live on both coasts.
Author: Daniel Perez – UTEP Communications