New Man on Campus: John Williams, President of Muhlenberg College

Lehigh Valley school seeks to increase diversity, develop mentoring network


John Williams, president, Muhlenberg College (Source:

Several weeks ago, when a University of Missouri graduate student on a hunger strike was making headlines, and students at Yale protested an instructor’s e-mail about offensive Halloween costumes, a ripple of dissension began to make itself felt at Muhlenberg College. The school’s brand-new president, John Williams, checking Yik Yak (an app that allows users—mostly college students—to make comments anonymously) noticed remarks from Muhlenberg that were racially hostile and misogynistic. The next day, he called for a kind of Speak Out Listen In forum that drew 900 students and lasted until nearly 1 a.m. At microphones set up around the auditorium, “students were lined up 14 deep,” he says. “It was a kind of crisis management situation. I didn’t want it to be a venting session, and I didn’t want the black students to just accuse the white students of being racist, and the white students to get defensive. That kind of confrontation wouldn’t solve anything.” Instead, he wanted the meeting to encourage deep respect across the campus community.

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A small, liberal arts college in Pennsylvania that started out as a Lutheran seminary, Muhlenberg is finding its way as a racially, socio-economically, and religiously diverse 21st-century American college. But with Williams at the helm, you get the feeling that the school will make long strides toward living up to its ideals.

One of the few college presidents who have not come up through the ranks of academia, Williams possesses a unique insight into what companies are looking for when they hire recent graduates. A graduate of Amherst College who possesses both a J.D. and M.B.A. from Harvard, Williams was recruited by Mitt Romney to join Bain & Co. He’s held leadership positions at American Express, including vice president of strategic planning—but he also has an entrepreneurial side: He launched Softbridge Microsystems in 1983 and in 2010 became an Expert-in-Residence at Harvard’s Innovation Lab.

One of only 13 black presidents leading the nation’s top 200 schools, Williams says, “Muhlenberg isn’t a good school, it’s an excellent school.” Its theater and dance program is No. 6 in the nation. And, what’s unusual for a liberal arts college, it offers several reputable pre-professional programs, such as neuroscience (which only two other schools in the nation offer), pre-med, media and communications, and business. Despite being a college of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America with its own chaplain, Muhlenberg is religiously diverse—33% Jewish, 30% Roman Catholic, and 19% Protestant. And it is racially diverse: The class of 2019 is 23% multicultural, 18% of whom hail from the U.S. Just 10 years ago students of color at the school numbered in the single digits. However, the African American graduation rate is described as “variable”: 100% in five years for the class of 2009, but 72.2% in 2010.

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  • Paige Harrington

    Hello, I am currently a sophomore at Muhlenberg College, and I would like to voice a few concerns I have with this article. I would rather be doing this is a personal email to you, but sadly we could not find any contact info for you, we being myself and a couple of my fellow students. First off, President Williams did not stumble upon the Yaks himself, nor were the Yaks random. The students of color at Muhlenberg were sharing experiences being Black on campus under the hashtag #blackoncampus. The responses to the Yaks were incredibly racist, but the school did nothing to address the Yaks or their posters personally. It is true President Williams called a Speak Out Listen In session, but it was poorly facilitated; he was asked several questions right off the bat and did not answer them until he was directly addressed by name, and then only answered that question, not any of the ones preceding it. During student presentations, where he could have been responding to racially insensitive statements or unnecessary stories–as the session quickly turned away from the problems being faced by the students of color to white students either talking about their experiences witnessing racism, asking “how can I help?”, apologizing for being white, and talking about how they had or had not noticed their privilege–he instead sat quietly, and even checked his phone a couple of times. A great number of people left the session early, and most of the students of color had left by the time the session ended. The voices that needed to be heard were once again drowned out by the voices that have always been heard.

    As for Muhlenberg’s excellence, it’s true; our Theatre & Dance program is phenomenal, our newest department is Neuroscience, we have pre-professional programs like nobody’s business, yes. All of this is true. However, we have a lot of problems academically. We offer minors in Africana Studies, Asian Studies, and Women & Gender Studies where we could easily offer them as majors. There are 3 people that I know of in the class of 2018 (my year) that are *designing* Social Justice majors because, although our school offers a slew of courses that would support that major, it is not an official major, and I know two people who are designing Women’s & Gender Studies Majors, where we already have enough classes to upgrade the minor to a major, but no one’s taken the initiative to do so! And when it comes to the accessibility of the campus itself, it’s atrocious. If you are in a wheelchair and you come to Muhlenberg, you need to add *at least* 30 minutes buffer time between every one of your classes because this place is not easy to navigate. There are buildings on campus that you can only access by going off campus if you’re in a wheelchair, buildings with badly placed door opener buttons or none at all, and it takes days for walkways and sidewalks to be cleared after it snows, trapping students in wheelchairs in their residence halls for days at a time.

    It’s great that President Williams called that meeting, yes. It’s great that he acknowledges that there needs to be more respect and awareness on this campus, but he has not been living up to his potential for good here or the expectations of the students at all.

  • K.D. W.

    I couldn’t help noticing that the lede of the entry describes the school’s November Yik Yak incident in a way that glances over the certain important details of the events. We live in an important moment right now, where the conversation about higher education and how these institutions deal with race and other issues related to marginalized identities. Muhlenberg College Student activists, including myself, got on Yik Yak, decidedly, in solidarity with the student activists at Mizzou and Yale, for hashtag activism. We called out stereotypes and microaggressions that students of color have had to face on our campus via Yik Yak. We knew that the anonymity of Yik Yak would allow us to be seen and heard. Consequently, as was expected, we were faced with racist backlash. This incident prompted Williams to set up the Town Hall meeting.

    Now, in keeping with the very exigent conversation about higher education and race, the lot of us student activists are still figuring out ways we can help move our çampus forward in this struggle for change, and raise awareness on campus. The Yik Yak incident and the Town Hall were important teaching moments. Williams is a very new President, and he has spoken to us about ways he wants to further those efforts.

    We think, however, that it is very inaccurate to describe Muhlenberg College as racially diverse. The most diverse class is the class of 2019: 23% of about 600 first year students. This is still a very predominantly White institution. While acknowledging such a milestone for this school, it is misleading to use such numbers as an overall description of the school population. We must have integrity about things we aim to fix if we are to improve.

    Muhlenberg College wants to become better known. It’s a good school that it is often not known about. Student activists believe making efforts to create a diverse and equitable institution, civically engaged, aware of and involved in solving issues, will create a more dynamic educational experience that creates the kind of future kinds of skills and knowledge Williams says he wants for us, and other skills that make for impactual leaders. That requires structural and campus cultural changes, changes that allow students to be equipped with knowledge about other backgrounds, and the negative impact of society’s systems, historically, and in the present, on their lives. How else will the nation’s future leaders have ways of making a more just democracy, if they are not experienced in that area becsusenof the kind of education they recieved? As Muhlenberg slowly begins to make more efforts to move in a more just direction, inaccuracies and exaggerations give a false impression about the school.

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