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By Dana Cadey
Interim President John Williams, the third finalist for president of Principia College, fielded questions from the community in two virtual open forums attended by approximately 250 people yesterday, May 28.
Williams has taught at Principia for over 30 years. In addition to serving as Chair of the Political Science department, his areas of expertise include American government and politics, political communications, comparative politics, and law.
Williams graduated from Principia and then received his Juris Doctor from The George Washington University. He attended further graduate studies from the School of Public and International Affairs at The George Washington University and the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, and did post-graduate work in India with University of California, Santa Barbara, according to his faculty profile.
According to Williams, one reason he’s running for the presidency now – something that he has been reluctant to do during his long history with Principia – is to offer a sense of “continuity,” after serving as interim president for five months.
So far, two other candidates have presented to the community. An open forum was held for Principia professor Carol Burbee on Thursday, May 21, and David Gutelius – co-founder and CEO of Motiva AI – spoke on Tuesday, May 26.
To begin, the search committee asked Williams to speak on Principia’s strategic plan and what he believes is the best way forward for the institution. Williams related the bulk of his answer to Christian Science, explaining how he applies its principles to the institution as a whole.
“Principia was founded on…Christian Science,” said Williams. “I believe that our community should be based on ‘lived’ Christian Science. We should be openly guided by our faith. It’s what makes us unique.”
Williams expanded on this point, highlighting Principia’s individuality as an institution based in Christian Science. He posited that the institution should “strengthen” its relationship to the religion and make it ‘more public and obvious.’ ”
He’s not interested in pinning down exactly what it means to “serve the cause of Christian Science,” said Williams. For this reason, he is willing to be flexible in interpreting Principia’s mission, even suggesting that the administration might need to reexamine its views of Christian Science.
“Perhaps the answer [to Principia’s relationship with Christian Science] is contextual…dependent on the time, location, and the circumstances,” he said. “Perhaps it changes based on the world need.”
Williams is “open to the possibilities” of changing some traditional practices, he said in response to a question about enrollment and housing.
“I’m willing to take human steps to help human improvement,” he said.
Williams still expressed some reservations about straying too far from what the college is “good at” – Christian Science.
“We shouldn’t try to be other schools – we should be ourselves,” he said. “I don’t think that we should be everything to everybody. That’s not how you build…a defined institution.”
Williams said that, while he is aware of the need to attract more students to Principia, he has no specific plans in mind for increasing enrollment. The institution should prepare for a 15 percent decrease in enrollment this fall, he said, as prospective students react to the uncertainty of COVID-19.
If he were made president, Hutchinson House – the traditional home of the president on campus – would be a resource for the entire campus rather than his new living space. He’s rather rooted in the Jerseyville community outside of the Principia “bubble,” said Williams.
Williams stressed growth in many of his answers, stating that he would “turn to others for guidance” often.
The final question asked what specific steps Williams would take to address concerns about sexual assault on campus if he were to assume the presidency.
“We have made some important strides in the past two months,” Williams said. “…We haven’t found another college or university that doesn’t have locks on dormitory doors. That now allows us to have a conversation about human behavior…we all need to be mature.”
“[Williams] was honest and sincere,” said 2020 Principia graduate Hannah Hathaway. “He handled each question with care, and maintained the same mannerisms that we’ve seen ever since he entered as interim president.”
Featured photo is a screenshot of the open forum on May 28, 2020.