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‘A dangerous American mythology’: RISD’s president on hard work, the school’s challenges, and its future

On the Rhode Island Report podcast, Rhode Island School of Design president Crystal Williams said the college “has to be a place that is not a structural impediment, but a structural amplifier.”

President Crystal Williams delivering her inaugural address during RISD's investiture ceremony.Matthew Watson

PROVIDENCE — From her view leading one of the first art and design schools in the country, Rhode Island School of Design president Crystal Williams says she doesn’t ascribe to the idea that “just hard work” can bring success.

 

“I think it’s a pathological and very dangerous American mythology,” said Williams, who was inaugurated as the college’s first Black president in October. “It suggests that no matter how bright you are, that the structures around you are nothing if you just work hard enough. What we know is that that’s not true.

“You can be brilliant. And work hard. And if you aren’t [also] helped, it still may not be possible for you to make your path forward,” said Williams.

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On the Rhode Island Report podcast, Williams spoke about the challenges RISD faces heading into 2023, making higher education more accessible for students, and her vision for the school through a more equitable lens — which including pending structural changes.

“RISD has to be a place that is not a structural impediment, but a structural amplifier,” said Williams on the podcast Thursday. “That’s what we have to be.”

President Williams on inauguration day with the Undertow Brass Band. Jo Sittenfeld

Williams is a poet who previously served as the vice president of community and inclusion at Boston University. Prior to joining the administrative ranks of higher education, Williams was dubbed a “faculty activist” in 2000 when she was hired at Reed College in Oregon. At the time, she was only the third tenure-track African American faculty member and she said the college had not “fully begun to grapple with the question of representational diversity.”

From challenging administrations two decades ago to the president’s office at RISD, she said she’s having to look at both the institution’s future coupled with the future of education. To get there, she said, may take vast leadership changes.

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“We’re almost at 150 years,” she said. “I want us to be here in another 150 years.”

To get the latest episode each week, follow Rhode Island Report podcast on Apple Podcasts and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player above.


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