By Sophie Hills
Several clocks tick in the background, contrasting with the occasional sound of rain hitting the window. John Williams, president of Principia College, sits behind his desk in front of figurines, tapestries, and jewelry displayed on the walls and sideboard. Some are from Tibet, he recalls, and others from China. The artifacts are a sneak peak into President Williams’ own museum, to which he frequently invited students from his classes when he was a professor. Inside a reclaimed chapel a block from his own home in Jerseyville, and filled with hundreds of items from Sikh bridal outfits to books and small ceremonial objects, the museum is a clear demonstration of Williams’ love of cultures, learning, and being exposed to new perspectives – even decades into his career.
Named president in the midst of nationwide turmoil over racial injustice, and debates within the Principia community over the essence and future of the institution, Williams was presented opportunities to learn about others’ realities from day one on the job.
First and foremost, Williams’ expectations of his new role were most altered by the coronavirus. “My expectation was every conversation I would have in person without a mask. My expectation is that I would be able to walk around this campus freely at any time without restriction. I mean, as president I could do that, but not as someone who cares for the health and safety of people.”
Because of the limitations brought by COVID, people are capitalizing on technology and expanding its capabilities. We can listen to virtual concerts all over the world, when before the pandemic, they may have only been available to in-person audiences. We’re seeing new types of community develop, says Williams, and “that is so darn cool.”
But still, “the essence of me and the human character, human being is personal contact.”
Even though he didn’t expect much time would be devoted to making people safe, the job is fulfilling. “It is so much fun to solve small problems,” says Williams, smiling.
Beyond COVID, and even after teaching at Principia, there was something else Williams was surprised by when he began work as president. “I call it deferred maintenance of all of our systems,” he says, referring to the concept of deferred maintenance employed by landlords who save money by not spending time on maintenance of properties.
It’s not the physical systems and buildings that have been neglected at Principia, he says, but rather, “all of our other systems: Our policies, our procedures, our organizational structures.”
What exactly does fixing that entail? Reconstruction of procedures and, most of all, documentation. “If it’s not written down, it’s not a policy. And if it’s written down and I can’t find it, it’s not a policy.”
In Williams’ view, procedures and policies should be treated similarly to the law in that, “you should not be enforcing laws that are not written down, and you should not be enforcing laws that are hidden from people. That’s just not right.”
So, he has launched a team, which is still fairly small, tasked with collecting all of Principia College’s existing policies, structuring them, and making them available online. Once the existing policies are compiled digitally in a searchable format, it will be easier to find the gaps that exist, says Williams. “This is a starting point.”
And if someone comes across a policy that seems inadequate or, better yet, a non-existent policy, Williams encourages them to submit a draft policy.
Besides his time at the college as a student, Williams taught here for 37 years before being named president. Over those decades, he’s come to understand what he refers to as his version of the history of Principia.
“Principia is like any organization, like a business. And if you do in business terms, it starts off with an entrepreneur, a person who has an idea. And most businesses like that are family businesses, [like] the Morgans. And at a certain point, you have to professionalize.”
When Principia outgrew itself as a family entrepreneurial organization, says Williams, it was time to make the shift to a professional managerial organization. The latter requires a hierarchy and specialization. In some ways, and particularly under President Jonathan Palmer’s leadership, Principia has taken key steps towards becoming a more traditionally professional institution, in terms of management structure. But, it still isn’t quite there.
What makes Principia stand out from other institutions, says Williams, is the character education. “I love the vision that Mrs. Morgan has,” says Williams, but the way in which the systems run needs to be refined.
Principia is well poised to do so, with people like Dean of Academics Meggan Madden – who’s trained in higher education – among those on the college cabinet.
As he considers Principia’s future, says Williams, he sees the shift to professional managerial and the emphasis on character education as two separate issues. The second – character development – that’s part of the college’s essence, he says.
The Pilot Admissions Plan has long been approved, but implementation is still underway – and naming the essence of Principia is key. Since affiliation with Christian Science will no longer be requisite for all students’ admissions, getting at character is another way of finding students who would find the college to be a good fit.
The next step is making contact with students who have been identified through standardized tests lists. The question, Williams says, is how to word the initial invitation to consider Principia.
“I’m not going to go out and sell a product I don’t have,” says Williams, meaning, he wants to first be clear of the admissions criteria for a new group of students. “We’ve got rough drafts … and we’re already trying it on students who know of us as a Christian Science institution, who would like to come to Principia, who know something about Christian Science.”
Whether they have attended six months of Sunday School, or have two metaphysical references – part of Principia’s admissions criteria for years – no longer matters. “What does six months tell you about someone? …It doesn’t tell you the quality of anything.”
What Principia needs to focus on instead is, “what are we looking for,” says Williams.
“The value proposition of this college, which makes us so attractive to people, is … founded upon the practice of Christian Science.”
From there, it’s about expanding the concept of who to embrace in the community, while being clear on what makes the community unique. In other words, How do we grow Prin and “maneuver through the changing world of Christian Science,” while maintaining Christian Science and character education at Principia?
“How do we get our arms around embracing folks into the community that we love, based on the religion we love, based on the growing diversity of the people we want to embrace,” Williams asks.
The Pilot Program is an experiment he says, and any change resulting from it will depend on the presence or absence of Christian Science as the core.
While determining admissions criteria and implementation guidelines for the Pilot Plan, college administrators had another pressing demand: The ever-changing situations caused by the coronavirus.
No one, seasoned college administrators or not, could have anticipated the effects of a global pandemic on higher education. “I don’t know what we were expecting, but I think that we’ve made all the right decisions,” says Williams.
Now with most of the semester in the rearview, offering a combination of in-person and remote classes and sending students home for the rest of the semester at Thanksgiving break seem to be “ the right calls – having no clue what we were doing,” says Williams.
Williams pointed out that knowledge of the coronavirus grows and changes weekly, and the college cabinet is constantly trying to stay abreast of new information.
Sure, not everyone agrees with all the decisions. But, he says, “that’s just the nature of [the situation].”
Williams’ approach is “prayer and protocols.” And by investing in and adhering to both, “I’m very grateful that we’ve been so protected.”
Everyone, says Williams, from those who’ve stepped up and reported cases to those who’ve enforced and adhered to protocols, to those who’ve provided metaphysical support, have participated in keeping the campus safe.
The moral of the story at Principia, and really organizations everywhere? It takes a village. Williams illustrated this with a simple analogy:
After writing up Watercooler announcements and other formal correspondence, he sends them out to coworkers to read over first.
“Thank goodness I no longer have an ego,” he says, laughing, commenting on the many corrections and suggestions he receives back.
But in the end, the documents are always much-improved.
Featured photo courtesy of Carly Hendrickson.
This article was first published in the November 2020 print issue of The Pilot.