PROVIDENCE — After a yearlong, international search effort, the Rhode Island School of Design named Crystal Williams as its 18th president on Thursday.
Williams succeeds Rosanne Somerson, who now serves as the institution’s first president emerita. Somerson announced her retirement in January 2021 after she served five years in office, but prior to that, had been an undergraduate student in the 1970s and had taken a number of roles at the school since her return in 1985.
Williams brings more than two decades of higher education experience to the school, and is currently Boston University’s vice president and associate provost for community and inclusion. Throughout her career, she has been “an institutional catalyst, helping to envision, define, and achieve greater outcomes” for students, faculty and staff.
She began her career teaching at Reed College in 2000 where she became a faculty activist and collaborated with colleagues to envision and catalyze a more inclusive institution. She was later appointed the college’s inaugural dean of institutional diversity in 2011. She moved onto similar roles at Bates College in 2013 as the vice president for strategic initiatives, while also teaching English. She then became Boston University’s vice president and associate provost in October 2017.
Williams is also an award-winning poet and essayist. She has published four collections of poems and her work is part of Museum of Modern Art’s Poetry Project, which is a tour of poems responding to pieces in the museum’s permanent collection.
“I entered this search because I believe in the value of art and design to elevate and amplify the human experience, and to narrate who we have been and who we can become,” said Williams in a statement Thursday. “Art, education, and equity and justice are the three foundational focuses of my life and everything about me—who I am as a teacher, a writer, a leader, friend, daughter and human—are in accord with RISD’s mission, areas of focus and social equity and inclusion goals.”
She added, “Having the opportunity to serve as RISD’s president, to sustain and build on RISD’s core strengths and work on behalf of its extraordinary students, faculty, staff and alumni is a profound honor.”
Williams, the daughter of an educator and a musician, was raised in Detroit and Madrid, Spain. She holds a bachelor’s degree from New York University and a Master of Fine Arts from Cornell University.
After Somerson announced her retirement, which began in June 2021, RISD’s senior vice president of finance and administration Dave Proulx began serving as interim president. Williams will take over in April.
RISD Board of Trustees Chair Michael Spalter, who was also head of the presidential search, said Williams shares the university’s conviction in the critical role that art and design can play in shaping the world. He said she has the expertise and qualities of leadership that’s needed to “meet the urgency of this moment and take RISD into the future.”
“When we began the search for RISD’s 18th president, we sought candidates with not just the experience, education and wisdom that the job requires, but also receptivity, an aesthetic sensibility, the skill to communicate in a community that trades in images and materials, and something even more intangible: a deep, abiding empathy that can bind us all together,” said Spalter. “We found all of that and more in Crystal Williams.
Spalter said the Board convened a 15-member search committee that included RISD faculty, staff, alumni, parents and trustees, and an 11-member student advisory council. The search began last winter, which started with a listening tour to solicit ideas and input from across RISD’s campus.
Isaacson Miller, a search firm, supported the process as the committee considered more than 100 candidates from across the globe.
“When you first meet Crystal, you are immediately struck by her warmth. She is present, receptive and kind. She has an aesthetic sensibility and a keen power of observation and she listens, deeply,” said the search committee co-chairs in their recommendation to the Board. ““It is no great revelation to say issues of equity and inclusion are critical at this moment at RISD and throughout the world. But those terms can also be tossed about in ways that can shake the meaning out of them.”
They added, “Crystal has done the real work behind the words—the hard, relentless, unglamorous, often under-recognized work. She has a deep commitment to leading change.”