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RI EDUCATION

From faculty activist to college president: Crystal Williams on leading the Rhode Island School of Design

Williams, a poet and current vice president of community and inclusion at Boston University, will take on her new post in Providence in April.

Crystal Williams was named the 18th president of the Rhode Island School of Design in December 2021. She will begin at RISD in April.JO SITTENFELD

PROVIDENCE — Earlier this month, the Rhode Island School of Design named Crystal Williams as its 18th president. Williams, a poet, is currently Boston University’s vice president for community and inclusion, and will be the school’s first Black president in its 145-year history.

Williams signed a five-year contract and will begin her post in April. She said she wants to continue her career as an “institutional catalyst, helping to envision, define, and achieve greater outcomes” for students, faculty and staff.

Q: Why did you want to apply for the role as president of RISD?

Williams: RISD is the preeminent art and design school in the nation, and one of the preeminent institutions around the Globe. I then think of my long commitment to arts advocacy, elevating the creative, to training artists — or poets, in my case — has really served a special place.

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When the position was announced and I saw not only was the institution focused on the elevation and amplification of creatives, artists, designers and scholars, but also on integrating as a matter of fundamental principle values around social equity, justice, environmental sustainability, etc., it seemed to me that this was exactly the right time, and that I might actually have the requisite skills to help move the institution into the future.

Q: You were considered a “faculty activist” while you were at Reed College in Oregon. How did you garner that title?

Williams: When I got to Reed College in 2000, I think I was the third tenure-track African American faculty member. It is and was an incredible institution, but it had not fully begun to grapple with the question of representational diversity, it had not begun to think and talk about inclusive environments, and certainly was not thinking about equity. When I landed on the ground, I looked around and thought, ‘Well, this won’t do.’ This was an incredible place, but as a matter of access, we didn’t have it.

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I started talking with faculty colleagues who had similar views. We began to meet under the radar and talked about what needed to get done and by what year. We became activists because we believed so strongly in the extraordinary nature of that education. We believed that having a more diverse student body, a more diverse faculty and staff pool, and a more inclusive culture would do nothing but strengthen the institution. But change is iterative and takes a long time. It took almost a decade of faculty activism and collective action for us to really begin to see some significant, structural changes.

Crystal Williams was named the 18th president of the Rhode Island School of Design in December 2021. She will take over the post in April 2022.Jo Sittenfeld

Q: University presidents typically face a grab bag of hurdles. What challenges does RISD face in the next phase of the pandemic?

Williams: RISD’s education is a really special thing. We have a very low student-to-faculty ratio. Our pedagogical models are high touch. We have specialized facilities and workshops so students are gaining real technical skills in addition to their critical thinking and innovative skills.

But the pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated some of the social and cultural challenges that our students face — both as citizens of the world, but also as young people who are developing. We are keenly focused on our students, their health and wellness. That will be one of my priorities.

Q: How could RISD play a larger role in Providence’s creative economy?

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Williams: I think there are a series of broader, central questions that we are eager to take on. I’ve written that art and design and creatives enter into the world with courage and love for the human endeavor. We sometimes narrate the world as it was or as it is. But as artists, we often are looking to a world that can be. The value of art and the creative economy is fundamental to the health of our communities. Culturally, in this country, there’s been a disturbing move away from the value and essential importance of creativity and artistic endeavors, and I think we — at RISD — have an opportunity to really engage with and counter that.

One of the things I’m most excited about is the amount of expertise on the ground. I’m not even in Providence yet [Williams said she will soon move to the president’s home on College Hill ahead of taking on her post], but based on the research and listening I’ve done, is that it’s an incredible city that has really doubled down on its commitment to the creative economy. But I want to pull in more people to really have this conversation because I think from a collective standpoint, we could emerge with a possible way forward that could be quite dynamic and exciting.

‘Behind me, there are series of people who look like me that have a new narrative affirmed: ‘I can be there too. I can make a difference, too.’’

Q: This new appointment is also historic. What does being the first African American woman to lead RISD mean to you?

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Williams: To me, it feels like a homecoming. I’m reentering into a community of people who are fundamentally driven by the goal of amplifying our common endeavor, which is to be human. We quip a lot about the value of diversity and who is at the table matters. It does. But there is a power in multiplicity and that diversity of experience and perspective really does catalyze deeper and richer conversations; and therefore, stronger, more creative and innovative decisions and outcomes.

The fact that I’m a Black woman now leading this institution matters because I bring a series of experiences and points of view to the table that are new to the institution — at least in relation to the president’s role. But also because, behind me, there are series of people who look like me that have a new narrative affirmed: “I can be there, too. I can make a difference, too.”

But also as important, there are a series of people who don’t look like me who have a new narrative, which is that people who look like me can be here and should be here. That’s how change fundamentally happens.

"Daybreak," a sculpture by late alum Gil Franklin (Class of 1941) on the Rhode Island School of Design's Beach.Jo Sittenfeld

Q: What challenges do universities, including RISD, face when it comes to hiring practices, micro-aggressions, and expanding access and programs?

Williams: Our efforts to diversify the faculty, staff and students must be coupled to substantive commitments that are tied to metrics, to outcomes, and for people to be held accountable in relation to an inclusive climate. And at some point, the institution must have a conversation about justice. Most of this work is developmental. So it’s difficult to get to justice if you actually haven’t done fundamental work around inclusion and equity.

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What that means to me, as the president, is that I have a platform and that I can use it to hold ourselves accountable to what we have said we want to accomplish. What we have said we want to accomplish is to be a place where every person who comes to the institution is able to thrive and does so fully and joyfully. There’s no doubt about it: there’s a lot of work to do.

Q: Why is access to higher education for those who want it so important to you personally?

Williams: I was given up for adoption by a birth family that did not have the means to raise me. I was adopted by my parents who did have the means to raise me and they gave me a life of comfort, and in some cases, privilege.

I am assured that who I am today — a poet, a professor, a university president — would be highly unlikely had I not have had the kind of middle class access to travel, have a good education, visit museums and go to libraries. I am not in any way deluded into thinking that my trajectory would be the same. It’s possible that I might have made my way into higher ed and into art, but it’s also equally possibly — and maybe even more probable — that I wouldn’t have.

I see students who are from very low-income backgrounds, who are first-generation college students, and who are making pathways for their families. I see in that population of people brilliance that is sitting on the sidelines that do not have a way in.

When I go home to Detroit, and I drive through certain neighborhoods, I see who and what I could have been. And it makes me angry to see so much talent, so much brilliance, and innovation sitting on the sidelines, not amplified, not catalyzed, and not seen. This cannot be — not in a healthy society. And I feel very committed to ensuring that this is not the case at RISD.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.