Bringing a business background to a college presidency

John Williams broke new ground in the corporate world before taking over higher ed at Muhlenberg College

He holds a law degree and an MBA. He has a background as a dot-com pioneer, corporate chief, consultant, and world traveler. He’s an experienced pilot and also sang in an award-winning male chorus.

John Williams, president of Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, might well be a contender for Dos Equis’ next World’s Most Interesting Man.

The first person of color ever hired by the strategy consulting firm Bain and Company, Williams built a reputation as a consultant for several Fortune 100 companies in a variety of industries before going on to launch a number of successful entrepreneurial ventures.

Williams says his combination of academic sensibilities and business skills have helped him deliver new and different approaches to running a college—from advancing new technologies to promoting diversity among students and faculty.

Williams will be a keynote presenter during UBTech 2017 at The Omni ChampionsGate Resort in Orlando, June 12-14.

How did someone with your varied background end up leading a liberal arts college?

It has been a long and winding road, but education throughout the journey has been transformational for me. It began on the recommendation of my middle school principal. I went away to the Kent School in Connecticut, for four years, which were four marvelous years for me. It was the beginning of an intellectual experience that continued through four years at Amherst College, and then Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School.

I’ve been blessed with an outstanding education at some of the finest institutions in the world, and I’ve seen the impact on the way I look at the world and how I’ve been able to traverse a wide-ranging career.

Then 32 years ago, I had the good fortune to be elected by the alumni of Amherst College to become a trustee there. I’ve served on that board continuously for over three decades. In that time, I’ve done everything one can do at a liberal arts college without collecting a paycheck. I’ve chaired a number of board committees. I’ve also participated in a number of board-faculty-student-staff committees.

Over the years, I’ve become thoroughly familiar with the academic culture and the principles that govern that culture, particularly the principle of shared governance at a liberal arts college. So when the call went out for a new president of Muhlenberg, I jumped at the opportunity.

You mentioned transformational learning. What does that mean to you?

It means different things to every student. Every student’s life journey and pathway is unique to that student. We want students to achieve more powerful outcomes than they would have achieved had they not gone to college at all or gone to a different college.

To me, transformational means the opportunity to bend the arch of one’s life trajectory in a way that’s bolder and deeper in the direction that you want to go—but also surpasses even your expectations for that. That’s what we mean by transformational.

How can higher ed use technology to promote student and faculty success?

Colleges are in the business of teaching and learning. Certainly there are a wealth of technology tools that continue to emerge that are helpful in that process. I’ve always been someone with a great affinity for technology, perhaps more than most of my contemporaries.

In my case, it began when I was 13, and the Kent School had a time-sharing terminal with Dartmouth College’s mainframe. I learned how to program in a basic way back then.

Here at Muhlenberg, I’m working very closely with my CIO to lead our technology efforts. But choosing and installing technologies is only the first step.

The key is training and developing our faculty and staff to help them make the transition effectively and achieve mastery. That’s where we’re really going to make things hum here, by investing in the human dimension, of actually making the most of the technology that we invest in.

Faculty can sometimes be resistant to these changes. Was that a problem at Muhlenberg?

We do our best to invest in the human dimension, and to help them understand our goals and purposes. It’s about engaging faculty to help them develop the skills and the comfort level to have mastery of, say, a new LMS.

We’re using a new LMS at Muhlenberg. Just about every member of our faculty had to go through a transition from the old LMS. We supported that. We didn’t just dump it on them and expect them to sink or swim. We recognized that this is absolutely essential to the way that they interact with their students and the way teaching and learning is done.

We offered many sessions—for individuals as well as groups—to help our faculty make that transition effectively. It has worked extremely well.

It’s that human-to-technology interface that I have found to be the absolutely critical dimension in making the technology work most effectively. That’s one reason we emphasize it so strongly here at Muhlenberg.

Have we reached the tipping point where faculty are more accepting of new technology?

As with anything new, there are generational shifts, there are generational changes. But I think even those of us in the baby-boom generation recognize that technology is an essential element of what we do. Some are doing it more aggressively and expansively, but just about everybody has adopted it.

It wasn’t that long ago when there were some faculty who refused to use even email, who didn’t have email addresses and were just in denial of the technology. That’s not the case anymore. We have reached the tipping point of adoption of at least the basic elements of the technology.

Are there different levels of adoptions and aggressive embracing of the technology across the faculty? Absolutely, and we’ll continue to see that over time, probably for another five or 10 years. But we can see the light. We’re rapidly approaching the day when advanced technology is just accepted as a natural way of doing business.

Is technology still as big part of your life as in the early days or do you have less time to learn and explore?

I’m not a hacker. I’m not doing coding. But I use technology constantly throughout my day. I’m preparing presentations. I’m doing email. I’m using my iPad. I’m using my smartphone. I’m using digital techniques. I’m using apps.

We have an app that connects to different dimensions of our campus supports services. I’m also a pilot and there’s a lot of technology involved in that, as well. So, yeah, I think I’m probably a heavy user of today’s technology.

That’s not always the case at the presidential level.

No, it isn’t. In fact, my predecessor in this job was, I think, a little bit more paper based than I am. So it’s been a little bit of an adjustment for my staff that I’m so digitally based.

There have been several instances of non-traditional presidents who didn’t understand the cultural differences between their former role and their new role. How have you navigated that minefield?

Very carefully. There are a number of ways in which colleges are in fact businesses and a number of ways in which they aren’t. On the business side, I would say that I’m relatively adept at understanding financial models, organizational cultures and leadership, and facilities management.

I also know how to motivate the management team, and reward and recognize excellent performance by employees. These are some of the things that are done as a routine matter of good management in a business.

On the nonbusiness side, I understand what faculty and students care about, and I recognize and honor the need to prioritize those things to the extent we can. Faculty needs support for their teaching and their scholarship, and they need to be respected, particularly in the area of curricular governance.

Students want to have a clear path to powerful outcomes and they want to be able to have a say in making their college better, as well.

Those are things that a typical business leader doesn’t necessarily take into account.

What I’ve done so far is to be very respectful of those different roles—to apply my experience on the business side to the best of my ability, but also to work in close partnership with the faculty and with the students, and with our alumni and staff, to move the college forward in a way that works for all our constituencies.

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