Dr. H. James Williams assumed his position at the helm of the esteemed historically black university in Nashville, Tenn. on Feb. 2. Williams, an East Forsyth alumnus and the third of six children, was born in East Winston and reared in the Twin City. His parents, the Revs. Hubert and Lula Williams, still live in the area.
“It feels wonderful. I really do feel like this is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Williams said of his appointment. “I feel like I’m in a position now that I can really make a difference … to an institution that has this type of longevity. I feel very blessed.”
Officials at Fisk announced his appointment in December, ending a nearly yearlong search for President Hazel O’Leary’s replacement. O’Leary, who is best known for serving as President Clinton’s energy secretary from 1993-1997, retired after serving as Fisk’s president since 2004.
“Dr. Williams is the right person for the job,” O’Leary stated. “He exhibits high energy, intellect and a proven abilityfor fundraising. He is committed to Fisk and is well positioned to work successfully with the business and academic communities in Nashville and the nation.”
Williams, who holds a collection of degrees in higher education, including a juris doctorate, an MBA and a Ph.D., comes to Fisk following a more than eight-year stint as dean of the Seidman College of Business at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich.
“Our task was to identify the next leader of Fisk who embodies the values, skills, intellect, and proven business and academic leadership needed to accelerate the progress made over the last eight years,” said Robert Norton, chairman of Fisk’s Board of Trustees. “I am delighted that in Dr. H. James Williams we have found such a leader. His breadth and depth of experience, multi-disciplined approach to teaching and research and unwavering commitment to the intellectual growth of students, as well as, community outreach, positions Dr. Williams to lead Fisk at this critical time in its history.”
Williams, a father of two, also served as a dean at North Carolina Central University. He said he and his longtime wife Carole are excited about relocating back to the South and becoming a part of the Fisk family.
Fisk is home to just 650 students. The university, whose alumni include Nikki Giovanni, O’Leary, W.E.B. DuBois, Dr. John Hope Franklin and Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, is continuously ranked among the nation’s top colleges. For the 20th consecutive year, the Princeton Review included Fisk on its 2012 list of “The Best 373 Colleges” in the nation and on its list of “The Best Southeastern Colleges” and Forbes magazine ranked Fisk among the top 25 percent of 650 higher education institutions in 2011. Williams said the school’s rich history and commitment to educational excellence are what inspired him to make the move to Fisk.
“It’s really the grandfather of all HBCUs. Fisk is it. It was founded in 1865, right after the passing of the 13th Amendment,” he declared. “The school was founded to educate freed slaves, and it’s been graduating African Americans ever since, and it’s doing a wonderful job. It has an absolutely pristine academic reputation. That’s what attracted me, because I think that history portends what we can do in the future.”
Despite its strong academic reputation, the university has struggled financially in recent years, prompting the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) to place the institution on accreditation probation. Williams said Tuesday that getting the university’s finances back in good standing is among his chief priorities. In order to have the probationary status lifted, the school must balance its operational budget for fiscal year 2013 – which Williams says will require at least $5 million in unrestricted gifts – and have an audit without any findings. The former New Bethel Baptist Church member said this week he was confident the university and its supporters would rise to the challenge.
“It’s going to be important for us to continue to gain philanthropic support that we’ve had over the years and we need to increase that, so that’s another challenge for us,” Williams said. “It’s going to take a lot of work, but that’s certainly an achievable goal. Folks around here understand what the challenges are and they’re ready to attack them, so I think we’ll be successful.”
Fisk’s student body is a fraction of the 3,500 students he governed at Grand Valley, affording Williams a much more intimate setting, and he has wasted no time in getting to know the students. Since arriving on campus Saturday, he’s enjoyed breakfast in the school dining hall alongside his students. He was slated to address the greater student body Tuesday during a town hall assembly and subsequent reception.
“I’m getting to know the students,” he reported. “That was a priority for me because that’s what this is all about – the students.”
Though his ever-advancing career has taken him all over the nation, Williams said the city he hails from still holds a special place in his heart. He credits the Winston-Salem community with helping to give him the foundation upon which he’s built his remarkable career.
“They talk about it taking a community to rise a child, and one of the things I’m really proud of is that my experiences in Winston-Salem as a child were affirming. Folks there were very supportive,” he commented. “… I love Winston-Salem and I’m proud of the fact that it’s been able to sustain itself over the years and adapt to the changes in the economy. I hope that Winston-Salem will continue to be a place where students and children in particular can feel supported and inspired and encouraged to achieve as much as they can achieve.”
For more information about Fisk University, visit www.fisk.edu.