“I never forget what a privilege it is to work on a college campus — or, in this case, two campuses,” said Christopher Ames, who arrived at The Sage Colleges in July and was installed as its 10th president in October. “While we at Sage, like leaders across industries, may spend much of our days dealing with multiple priorities and limited resources, we also work in a beautiful environment, with more gallery exhibitions, lectures, performances and athletic contests than we can possibly attend, on campus and nearby. And we work with and learn from colleagues and students committed to the life of the mind and to making the world a better place.”
Ames is busy — he’s working with the offices of Admission and Institutional Advancement to meet aggressive enrollment and fundraising goals; with faculty to build programs that respond to student interest and employer demand; and with the wider Sage community to think boldly about the future. “I will be asking a lot of myself and of those who are working alongside me,” he said.
Ames and his wife, Lauren, have also made it their happy task to learn as much as possible about Sage, Troy and Albany from the people who know it best: alumni, students, faculty and staff, and neighbors in downtown Troy and Sage College of Albany’s Helderberg neighborhood.
Read on, to learn more about the career path that led him here, his life at Sage so far and his vision for its future.
Ames’ career started at Agnes Scott College for women in Atlanta, where he began teaching 20th century literature and film after earning his doctorate at Stanford University. While senior leadership roles at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Washington College in Maryland and Shepherd University in West Virginia followed, it was during his 15 years at Agnes Scott that Ames developed his interest in higher education administration and great respect for the value of women’s colleges.
“This was back in the 80s, when faculties were predominately male, but at Agnes Scott, the majority of faculty was female, the deans I worked for were female, the presidents I worked for were female. That was a healthier structure than places that were still dealing with the vestiges of male-dominated administration and it became the norm that I experienced,” Ames said. “My experience at Agnes Scott made me realize how women’s colleges empower women and move feminist perspectives to the forefront.”
The experience also gave him a sense of how women’s colleges are imperiled. “They had an obvious role to play when education was more segregated by gender than it is now, and they’ve adjusted in the last 40 or 50 years in a variety of ways. That to me is really intriguing,” he said. “Part of my fascination with Sage is the strategies that we have used to stay vital as the dynamics for small colleges and women’s colleges have changed. At Sage, that has meant developing the graduate programs, developing the coeducational Albany campus and putting that together in a way that still preserves the integrity of Russell Sage as a women’s college. That’s a very creative approach, and one with a whole set of challenges, but I find those challenges appealing and energizing. That my career began at a women’s college and is now again at a women’s college makes a lot of sense.”
As Ames’ career at Agnes Scott progressed, he became more involved in administration, serving as department chair, as head of the faculty executive committee and as head of the curriculum committee during a major curriculum revision. “I got a lot of satisfaction as a teacher but I also felt I could be a very effective administrator,” he said.
His first administrative post was as provost and senior vice president at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, where in addition to serving as chief academic officer and dean of faculty he was involved in campus arts initiatives and campus-community arts collaborations. As provost and dean at Washington College in Maryland, he contributed to significant growth in enrollment and fundraising. Most recently, as provost at Shepherd University in West Virginia, he directed academic affairs; oversaw the Division II athletics program; spearheaded a satellite campus for working adults; and collaborated with faculty on new programs, including a Doctor of Nursing Practice, a Master of Science in Data Analytics and Information Sciences, and undergraduate degrees in Music Performance, Early Education, Engineering Science, and Health Promotion and Exercise Science.
As spring 2018 proceeds, Ames is focused on developing a strategic plan built around fiscal responsibility, enrollment and Sage’s identity.
The strategic plan steering committee includes representatives from all areas of the college, including alumnae from Russell Sage College and alumni from Sage College of Albany and the graduate programs. After “big idea” discussions this spring, subgroups will be charged with researching and recommending strategies in critical areas. A first draft of strategic priorities will be available in September and The Sage Colleges Board of Trustees will vote on the full plan in March 2019.
“This spring, I’ll be visiting alumni in Boston, Florida, Arizona and California as well as local alumni, and sharing the big ideas about the strategic plan,” Ames said. “Hearing what they value about Sage and their hopes for Sage is a key part of that process.”
The priority is to grow enrollment, and to do that effectively, Ames is adamant that Sage must clarify its identity. “One of our strengths has been responsiveness to shifting markets and student needs,” he said, “but it has also clouded our name recognition and public identity. There are those who know us as a women’s college, others who know us as a junior college, still others who know us for our programs for working adults.”
“We are in a time that is very tough for small colleges, and having a powerful message about what Sage is and what we excel at is a key part of how we will be successful in attracting new generations of students,” he continued. “I see this as the broad goal of the strategic plan. Underneath that is how we operationalize and implement it.”
Ames respects that the character of the two campuses, from the student mix to the physical layout, are “very appealing and very different from one another.” The strategic planning process, he said, is an opportunity for a “fresh rethinking of how our two campuses complement and enhance one another, how our growing graduate programs serve the region’s economic needs and enrich our campus culture, how our women’s college can thrive alongside a diverse and co-educational undergraduate campus.”
Ames also wants Sage to capitalize on its Troy and Albany locations, which offer advantages beyond the often-touted “just three hours from New York City.” The area’s rich arts and cultural resources and natural resources extend the Sage campuses and multiply opportunities for learning and leisure.
“The Hudson River Valley is extremely appealing for its natural beauty and its importance in history, literature and art,” he said. “Troy has this vibrant, hip downtown with beautiful renovated historic buildings and a lot going on to further that kind of renovation and rehabilitation, and Albany is a nice scale for a capital city.” He sees the moniker “Smallbany” as an asset, not a diminutive. “I think it is a real virtue that you can have the capital of a three trillion dollar economy and it takes about 20 minutes to get across town.”
An emphasis on communication of all kinds is one of Ames’ personal goals for his presidency. He is committed to listening to everyone who cares about Sage, being open about decision-making and speaking frankly at meetings with alumni, students, faculty and staff, and to tapping multiple channels of communication — including tweeting from @SagePrez and blogging at sage.edu/president.
“I’ve had a Facebook account for years, but I never had a Twitter account before,” he said. “I had some colleagues who used Twitter as part of their presidencies and I thought it would be interesting.” His intention was to use it to connect with students, but he’s pleased that alumni and community leaders are following him, too.
He shares snapshots from his personal life (including photos from Troy’s Rockin on the River summer concert series and his cats, Pushkin and Scottie), reaction to current events and cultural criticism (especially relating to books and films), and of course, he frequently brags about highlights from both campuses.
“I can be plugged in,” he said. “I follow government representatives and the cities of Troy and Albany. I can react and learn from that and retweet information that is important to how we connect with officials and our communities, and a lot of them follow Sage.”
He keeps a blog at sage.edu/president, where he writes more reflectively on his experiences at Sage and comments on public affairs that affect higher education. “When I was a professor, I wrote a weekly film column for the Agnes Scott newsletter. I like the discipline of having to write something short and of presumably broad interest on a regular basis.”
He’s also enjoyed visiting classes across disciplines as a guest lecturer. During the fall 2017 semester, he shared his ongoing research into jazz and race in American literature of the 1920s with Russell Sage College’s WORLD students; he spoke to doctoral students in the nursing program about writing a dissertation; and he led a discussion on the relationship between education and happiness for Sage College of Albany’s Literacies of Connection students. (WORLD and Literacies of Connection are the general education programs of Russell Sage College and Sage College of Albany.)
Ames divides his time between Russell Sage College and Sage College of Albany. He is on the Albany campus a few days a week, and holds most cabinet meetings there. He is also intentional about getting out of his offices, so that faculty, staff — and especially students — can interact with him in contexts other than in a meeting or on a formal occasion. He attends Opalka Gallery events, Theatre Institute at Sage productions and athletics games and eats with students in Kahl Campus Center and McKinstry Hall whenever his schedule allows.
“One other thing, Vail House is a great home for entertaining, and that’s something Lauren and I really enjoy, and look forward to doing even more of,” he said. They hosted Sage’s facilities team shortly after moving in and welcomed alumni, trustees and student carolers during the winter holiday season.
Ames gets out in Sage’s neighborhoods, too. He and Lauren are regulars at The Spectrum independent movie theater near Sage College of Albany and at the Troy Waterfront Farmers Market. They caught Boz Scaggs at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, and they enjoy the mix of restaurants within walking distance of both campuses.
Ames, the author of two books, including The Life of the Party: Festive Vision in Modern Literature, once told a reporter that he believes part of what makes a community a community is how people come together to celebrate things. There’s hard work ahead to be sure, but there will also be ample opportunity to celebrate Sage, its roots in Troy and Albany, and all that make it such a remarkable and distinctive place.