By Sophie Hills and L. Kincaid Holmes
John Williams is the new president of Principia College after serving as interim president for eight months. The decision was announced July 20, 2020 in an email to the Principia community from Dennis Marunde, interim chief executive of The Principia.
First order of business remains planning, says Williams in an interview with The Pilot. “The most immediate [priority] is to get us through this COVID-19 crisis, while providing quality instruction.”
College leadership has developed new skill sets as a response to the pandemic, says Williams, including flexibility, adaptability, and “not being stunned by things we can’t comprehend.”
“My mission is to be as transparent as possible, to be responsible and hold others responsible. And above all, we have to have joy,” says Williams. He aims to understand the core of what Principia stands for. “I don’t think we have our identity as a community. We know how to describe ourselves … [and our mission] to serve the cause of Christian Science… but what is that shared identity” of the college and community?
Williams is inspired by a recent speaker in Principia College’s Race and Faith series, Rev. Traci Blackmon, who spoke of the need “to pray for a space for grace” as we communicate with people we may not totally agree with. That’s integral to defining the Principia community, says Williams. To encourage informative discourse from an opposing opinion is key to a strong foundation.
As interim president, Williams was directly involved with Principia’s transition to remote learning in the spring and scenario planning for the fall, and that is a big benefit, says Marunde. “That’s helpful in case there’s the need to pivot to remote learning again.”
His identity as a learner suits Williams to the job of college president, says Marunde in an interview with The Pilot. “He genuinely strives to be learning something new everyday, about himself and the institution … He’s regularly willing to have his own assumptions challenged.”
Williams “is a fair-minded straight shooter whose moral courage, integrity, and transparent communication style will serve him well in leading Principia College,” wrote Marunde in the email announcement. “[Williams] brings a pure motive to the role … and sees many exciting opportunities for Principia to carry forward our core mission and history into a confident and secure future.”
Throughout his 37 years at Principia, Williams has worked as a professor of business administration and economics, mass communication, and political science, serving as chair of the political science department, faculty sponsor of The Pilot, and faculty senate president, among other roles. After graduating from Principia College in 1976 he earned his Juris Doctor from The George Washington University and served in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice for five years.
In the past four years, Principia has had five presidents – appointed, acting, or interim. The faith aspect of executive searches for Principia makes it a more difficult search, said a higher education search consultant who asked not to be named.
After Jolanda Westerhof resigned as president of the college in October 2019, Principia engaged the executive search firm Storbeck Search & Associates. More than 80 nominations for college president were received and reviewed by Storbeck and the College President Search Committee, led by Roz Hibbs, institutional research officer.
Four semifinalists were interviewed by eight stakeholder groups involving over 70 community members, and three finalists were introduced to the broader community in virtual forums on May 21, May 26, and May 28, 2020.
Following the forums, the search committee gathered feedback, which they reviewed and discussed before presenting it to Marunde, along with their recommendation. After speaking with each candidate individually, Marunde made the final decision, which he presented to the board of trustees to be ratified.
There were a number of important criteria when reviewing the finalists, says Marunde, but at the top of his list was understanding “what the feelings of the community were.” The search committee did an effective job collecting and representing them, he says.
“I was interested in knowing the candidates personally,” says Marunde. One thing he considered was the probability for a good working relationship with himself, the board of trustees, and the many others in the administration and faculty that the college president interacts with. A number of his questions to each candidate focused on the roles of character education and Christian Science at Principia.
“Transparent and comforting” were two qualities many people attributed to Williams over his eight months as interim president, says Marunde. That stood out in his own interview with Williams, as well. “He has a huge level of social capital … he likes connecting with people,” says Marunde. And that’s particularly important as Principia navigates the pandemic.
During the forums in May, all three finalists fielded a number of questions on declining enrollment and the pandemic. One initiative that Williams will focus on, according to Marunde’s email, will be “supporting new pathways for student enrollment growth.”
There were 391 students enrolled at Principia for the spring semester. Enrollment is a concern for many institutions of higher education, following sloping numbers over years that have only been exacerbated by the uncertainty of the pandemic.
Other initiatives include strengthening Principia’s culture, “implementing a strategic approach to program assessment and improvement,” presenting innovative teaching methods as Principia adapts to online learning, and “Promoting fresh perspectives on the continuing importance and relevance” of Principia’s stated mission to serve the cause of Christian Science, wrote Marunde.
Featured photo at top courtesy of Principia College.