Transy's next leader making plans

President-to-be's Wall St. years showed him what not to do

Herald-Leader Staff WriterApril 19, 2010 

R. Owen Williams, who was chosen last week as the next president of Transylvania University, left his first job on Wall Street two decades ago after a colleague tried to force him to submit false numbers to regulators.

Williams was a director in Salomon Brothers' government bond department when he had a series of quarrels on the trading floor in late 1989 with Paul W. Mozer, a slightly more senior manager in that division.

"He was very interested in trading revenues and profits above all else, partly because he was going to be compensated based on those revenues and profits," Williams said.

The final shouting match between the men came when Mozer asked Williams to "basically alter the story as to the numbers that we were submitting" to the Federal Reserve.

Within 18 months, Mozer was fired amid scandal and later convicted of lying to federal regulators about illegal bids. A judge sentenced him to four months in prison.

For Williams, the experience showed him up close the Gordon Gekko-esque forces within the investment banking industry that continue to plague Wall Street. It also set him on a path that would take him from the depths of New York's trading floor to the height of one of Lexington's ivory towers.

Williams, 58, has spent the past 10 years in academia. He earned a law degree and a doctorate in history at Yale. He also won prestigious fellowships and researched 19th-century history, his speciality.

After watching Williams publish numerous papers and teach classes, several faculty members in Yale's history department recommended him for something more.

"A couple of us floated his name out there with a head hunter and said we think he'll make a great university leader," said David Blight, professor of history at Yale and Williams' doctorate advisor.

Transylvania's presidential search committee agreed and offered Williams the job last Tuesday.

Charles L. Shearer, who is retiring after 27 years as president of the liberal arts college, officially will hand Williams the reins in August.

Williams said he's already setting into motion ways to build on Shearer's work to expand the school's endowment and to increase the size and diversity of the student population.

First up will be to broaden Transylvania's reach to prospective students by marketing and recruiting outside Kentucky, he said.

And he said he is plotting ways to raise money to fund new academic programs, such as a Middle Eastern studies department and more study abroad opportunities for students in Asia.

Williams has connections in Tokyo and Hong Kong, where he worked in the 1990s for firms Goldman Sachs and Bear Stearns & Co.

"I imagine Transylvania offering classes in Asian and Middle Eastern philosophy, culture, society, law — a wide array of topics that expose Transylvania students to cultures all around the world," he said.

Williams also said he wants to emulate Shearer when it comes to connecting with students. Shearer served as an adviser to about a dozen freshmen each year.

"I hope that I am able to do half as well as he has," Williams said of Shearer. "I want to be an adviser. I want to teach. I want to give lectures."

Williams will have much to talk about, given his diverse and colorful career.

The incident with Mozer wasn't the last conflict he had with a boss during his investment banking career. In April 1995, Jimmy Cayne, president of Bear Stearns, announced he had hired Williams to lead the firm's investment banking team in Asia.

"Owen shares our enthusiasm for the tremendous growth potential in Asia," Cayne said in a statement at the time.

But the working relationship between the two men soon soured, Williams said.

"I think he was very unethical. I really did not respect him at all," he said of Cayne.

Williams lasted a year there before taking a job at First Union Capital Markets, which became Wachovia.

Cayne, meanwhile, drew blame for the 2008 collapse of Bear Stearns, whose meltdown compounded the global financial crisis and was chronicled in the book House of Cards by William D. Cohen.

Transylvania students can learn from the unchecked appetites for swelling profits at all costs exhibited by Mozer and Cayne, Williams said.

Liberal arts colleges, such as Transy, need to ensure that students are trained to ask the right questions of themselves and the world around them, such as "What is honorable behavior?" said Williams, who hopes to inspire philosophical and ethical debates.

"If Paul Mozer could have learned that when he was an undergraduate," Williams said, "think of how much happier all of the employees of Salomon Brothers would be today ... for not having been associated with someone who too easily compromised his values."

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