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

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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