Eduvation Spotlight: Muhlenberg president John Williams talks diversity, liberal arts' viability
'Speak Out, Listen In' sessions are among ways the Pennsylvania college is tackling racism, misogyny
Editor's Note: This is the first in an ongoing series of "Eduvation Spotlights," interviews spotlighting administrators with innovative approaches across higher ed and K-12. Stay tuned as we roll out several more in the coming months.
Last fall, with only 11 hours notice, around 900 of Muhlenberg College's 2,300 students filled the school's dining commons for a "Speak Out, Listen In" meeting. Lasting until 1 a.m., the Allentown, PA, college's "largest meeting in living memory" was the brainchild of new president John Williams in the wake of recent racial tensions at the University of Missouri, Princeton, and other institutions. It was also a response to racial and misogynistic messages he had seen among the campus community on Yik-Yak.
Williams is part of a recent trend seeing higher education institutions choose presidents from outside of academia. A graduate of Amherst College who earned both a JD and MBA from Harvard, he originally set out to become a corporate lawyer before being recruited for strategy consulting by Bain & Co. The career that followed took him through leadership roles at American Express and his own companies, including the Webby-award winning BizTravel.com (later acquired by a larger travel company).
But education has always been a passion. "I’ve been marked and blessed by transformational education experiences almost my whole life," Williams said, "so it’s important to me to be involved in higher ed and to have a role in helping to shape an institution that is doing an excellent job of what it’s doing — but during a time when things are much less certain for higher education institutions then it has been heretofore."
He's led Eduventures' consulting division and was a partner in the nonprofit Bridgespan Group's higher ed practice, but perhaps most importantly, he's served on Amherst's board of trustees for 31 years.
"I understand shared governance just as well as anyone who’s been a faculty member or a provost or a president of a college because I’ve been exposed to very, very aggressive faculty for many, many years," Williams said. "I worked on a number of different initiatives, different committees. I’ve chaired committees of the board, I’ve served on long-range planning committees at Amherst. I’ve been on a visiting committee for an academic department. If you can do something for a liberal arts college and not get a paycheck for it, I’ve done it."
We recently caught up with Williams to discuss his "Speak Out, Listen In" sessions, achieving diversity, and liberal arts colleges' struggles in the current economy.
EDUCATION DIVE: Spinning out of some of the things that happened at Mizzou and Princeton and other campuses in the past year, in addition to what you saw in Muhlenberg's Yik-Yak community, you launched “Speak Out, Listen In” sessions. Can you tell me about those?
JOHN WILLIAMS: Yeah. Actually, I coined that phrase. I positioned the town hall that we had in that way to encourage our students to have the courage to speak out on what, for many of our students — no matter what their cultural background or skin color or racial cultural experience has been up to now — can be a very difficult topic to speak about and to explain and reason about, and to convey their feelings and thoughts. I wanted to give people permission to speak out, and to feel that our community is a safe one in which to do so. The “listen in” part is to remind everyone that when someone else is speaking, you have the opportunity to listen, and maybe to learn.
The idea is that, with about 2,300 students at Muhlenberg, there are 2,300 individual life experiences. We have lots of dimensions of difference. I call it “having respect for persons” — that’s the principle under which all of us exist. Muhlenberg is a place where we have respect for all people, and until you prove that you don’t deserve to be in our community, you are deserving of respect as a member of the community.
What we want is a culture at Muhlenberg where people who have discriminatory attitudes — whether it’s racism, sexism, homophobia, whatever it is — where someone is thinking derogatorily about someone else for reasons having nothing to do with their content of character or their abilities that they bring to the table, that those people will be feeling uncomfortable. Because those are not attitudes that are reinforced positively in our culture.
We have a diversity strategic plan at Muhlenberg that was adopted a year-and-a-half ago by the board, which meant it was two years in the making before that. This is a conversation that’s been happening on Muhlenberg’s campus well before Mizzou happened and well before the shootings by police officers of unarmed black youth triggered a lot of these recent feelings. But this is something that’s been happening in our society for hundreds of years in various ways, and these are important issues.
We don’t have it all solved at Muhlenberg College, but I think we have an atmosphere in which there’s respectful dialog across the entire community.
How important is it for administrators to be in touch with what’s happening along those lines on Yik-Yak and other platforms?
WILLIAMS: I think social media is where our students live a large portion of their lives. We need to be able to engage with our students — with all members of our community — on the terrain they inhabit. One of the challenges for colleges over the last 20 years has been the evolving micro-generations of technology. So there are older alumni who expect to communicate via email. Then there’s a slightly younger group who expect to communicate on discussion boards. There’s a slightly younger group who expect to interact through Facebook. Then there’s a younger group who want to interact through Instagram and Snapchat and YikYak.
There are multiple technology generations, and they’re amazingly short-lived. Some of them are four years in terms of the generational passing to a different technology. We have to be mindful of that. As we reach out to our alumni, we can’t just send an email because that’s not going to work for everyone.
There’s been pressure on a lot of fronts — especially with STEM gaining prominence — for liberal arts colleges to “prove their worth.” What do you see as the value proposition for a liberal arts college in 2016, especially with pressures coming from the business world?
WILLIAMS: I don’t think the pressures are coming from the business world. I think the pressures are coming from the perception, right or wrong, that the only way to have a job in this economy is to have a STEM degree. And nothing could be further from the truth.
The late Steve Jobs was one of the most successful business leaders of our generation. He built the most valued company on the face of the Earth and went to Reed College — and didn’t complete his degree. But he, while he was there, was engaging in a liberal arts background. One of his key differentiating skills was his aesthetic sense, which was developed and triggered by a calligraphy class he took during his educational span of his career. And if he hadn’t taken that calligraphy course or developed that aesthetic sense, then we would be in a very different place. Apple’s products would not be as elegantly designed as they are. He wouldn’t have been so insistent on every design detail being so beautiful about those products and having them be so user-accessible from a human standpoint.
That’s just one example of how the liberal arts appeals to the multiple intelligences that Howard Gardner has written so effectively about, that really are at the root of a liberal arts education — and the adaptability that one will need over the next 20-30 years as the course of economic development, both here in the United States and around the world, is more interconnected as a result.
For example, today’s first-year students at Muhlenberg College were born before Google was created. They were born into a world that was Google-less. When they’re 35, what will be next? As things accelerate, there will probably be a couple of Google-level impact companies and technologies in that short span of time. What new career paths will be created as a result of that? If you’ve skated to where the puck is by having a STEM major and then things change on you, how well-off are you? If you skate to not only where the puck’s going to be, but provide yourself the ability to twist and turn to where the puck is going to move at various points over your life, then you’re best-equipped.
So I actually think that a liberal arts education is the best education one can get for this day and age — unless you’re particularly focused or particularly skilled in some technical area. If you’re the next Murray Gell-Mann in particle physics, then maybe you should focus on particle physics and go to Cal Tech and do that. I’m not saying liberal arts is for everyone, but what I am saying is that the world is a much more uncertain, variable kind of terrain where adaptability is going to be very important.
Lately there’s been a string of higher ed presidents coming from more of a business or non-academic background. In some cases, like with J. Bruce Harreld at the U of Iowa or Margaret Spellings at UNC, they haven’t necessarily been as well-received by their campus communities. How should people coming from that sort of background approach the job to gain that support?
WILLIAMS: I can tell you how things have worked at Muhlenberg. I’ve come into that community with tremendous respect for all constituencies of the college — particularly our faculty. Our faculty is up there alongside any faculty I’ve ever seen. They’re outstanding in their individual disciplines. And they’re outstanding as colleagues to one another and come together and work together effectively as a whole. I have tremendous respect for the scholarship, for the teaching, for the service that our faculty engage in, and for their leadership in the curriculum. In a shared governance context, our faculty are outstanding leaders from a curriculum standpoint.
If a president — whether they have academic experience or not — doesn’t give respect to faculty, particularly in the curriculum affairs, one does that at one’s peril. I think that’s one of the benefits I have of having three decades of experience on the Amherst College board. I’ve been educated by the Amherst College faculty, and by the administration and the board, about the value of shared governance, the culture of liberal arts, and the culture of academia.
I come to this position as someone who is not of that tradition as a direct participant, but I have engaged in that tradition very extensively over an extended period of time. I think that has helped make my entry into Muhlenberg one where the faculty feels valued. I think my faculty would say to you that they very clearly have heard me communicate my respect for them, both as individuals and as a collective body, and for the great things that we’re capable of working together.
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