New president wants Transy among nation's top colleges

Richer diversity, curriculum changes called keys to putting school on international map

ctruman@herald-leader.comNovember 1, 2010 

  • Snapshot of R. Owen Williams

    Education and career: Williams spent 24 years in investment banking. He started with Salomon Brothers in New York in 1977 after earning a master's degree in intellectual history at Cambridge University in England. He worked in Tokyo and Hong Kong for four years with Goldman Sachs and Bear Stearns. He then went to First Union Capitol Markets, which later became Wachovia Securities, in Charlotte, N.C.

    He earned a law degree in 2007 and a doctorate in history in 2009, both from Yale. Williams specialized in 19th-century America, with focuses on American legal history and 17th-century British history.

    Family: Wife, Jennifer, also a former banker; children, Tucker, 19, a student at Colgate University, and Penelope, 16, a Lexington high school student, who wants a horse.

    On returning to school in midlife: "I went back to school the second half of my life, and one of the joys of that was getting to hobnob with students young enough to be my children. ... I hope to have that same kind of engagement with the students here."

    What has been the biggest adjustment in becoming a first-time college president?: "Expecting the students to think I'm cool, only to find that they don't always."

    Who has had the most influence on his life?: "No one has influenced my thinking and values more than my wife."

R. Owen Williams, Transylvania University's new president, is a man in a hurry. The former Wall Street banker turned historian wants to move Transylvania up in the U.S. News & World Report rankings to be one of the top 50 liberal arts colleges in the nation.

Those national rankings serve as neon-lit advertisements of a college's virtues and mission. Transylvania currently ranks No. 88, compared with Williams College in Massachusetts (No. 1), Davidson College in North Carolina (No. 9) and Oberlin College in Ohio (No. 23).

To move up, the university needs to draw a more diverse pool of high-achieving students, Williams said. Eighty-eight percent of the school's 1,100 students are from Kentucky. Transylvania has faculty from 10 countries, among them Iran, Italy, Hungary, China and Kenya; Williams thinks it also should have a student body with a rich diversity.

It will have to change its curriculum, include greater variety and an international emphasis in its classes, and expand its travel and internship opportunities, Williams said.

He has appointed a curriculum committee and instructed them, half in jest, "to lock themselves up and not come out until they have a new curriculum, a curriculum that will distinguish us."

By Thanksgiving he expects to have "a skeleton" of that new curriculum; by next fall, he expects it to be implemented. The chair of that committee is William Pollard, vice president and dean of the college; the facilitator is John Carroll, a Transylvania trustee and former editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader and the Los Angeles Times. The committee has 14 faculty members.

Williams, who began his tenure at Transylvania in August, is aiming for a seven-year turnaround on his vision for the school.

David Blight, a professor of American history at Yale University who was Williams' adviser for his dissertation, said he always knew Williams should become a historian: "But I also knew that Owen should be running something. If he helps to make Transylvania into a newer 21st-century version of itself, it will not surprise me."

Akhil Amar, the Sterling Professor of Law at Yale who knew Williams as a Yale scholar, described the promise he sees in Williams: "Some great university administrators come from a business background. Some are academics deep in their bones. He's both."

Amar said that as a scholar of the Civil War era, Williams had long known about Transylvania, having closely studied a time when as many of the nation's leaders came from that school as from Harvard.

Outside of scholarship, Amar described Williams as a dinner party host in an immaculately trimmed ("you could see even there that he was a perfectionist") home with "good food, good wine, good conversation."

"He is able to bring a lot of people into a space and have them relax with each other," Amar said. "That's a part of a skill set too, to be a good host."

From business to books

Williams, 58, who spent the last decade at Yale getting a law degree and a doctorate in history, publishing and teaching, might have come to academia later than some, but he loves his books. He loves not just their content but their pure physical presence. He puts notes in them, catalogues them, consults them and dislikes having other people move them.

"Every single one of them is like a treasure to him," said Jennifer Williams, his wife of 22 years. "They are living things to him."

He had to get rid of a few thousand recently when packing for the move to Lexington, leaving him with several thousand more waiting to be transported from Connecticut.

The president's house at Transylvania is getting additional bookshelves for what Williams said he hopes will be a long tenure, perhaps even 20 years; his predecessor, Charles Shearer, was president 27 years.

He heard about the Transylvania presidential opening from a search consultant who asked Williams if he had ever heard of the university.

"I told her that I not only knew of Transy, but that I felt a special connection to it," Williams said.

He based that on two factors: the number of 19th-century Transy grads he encountered in his research, and the coincidence that the person for whom his fellowship at Yale was named — Cassius Marcellus Clay, the Madison County abolitionist — also attended Transylvania.

Said Williams: "We were then off to the races."

A branding goal

Like many schools that want to make a name for themselves and move up the ladder nationally, Williams wants to take those changes and brand Transylvania in a way that people can identify immediately what it teaches and the values it embraces.

Think of Coke, Microsoft and McDonald's, among the 10 most recognizable brands in the world, according to a Business Week survey. Williams wants Transylvania to have a brand like that.

He also wants a Web site that promotes Transylvania's vision. "We have to have a front door that makes you want to knock," he said. "Our brand is going to be front and center on the Web site — once we know what it is."

Many university presidents decry the rankings and the emphasis on college salesmanship, saying they do not accurately represent the quality of a specific campus.

But John Roush, president of Centre College, said they do matter. At the same time, he said he doesn't chase the rankings. He chases the distinctions: Centre guarantees students they will graduate in four years, will study abroad at least once and will have an internship.

Centre graduates 85 percent of students in four years and touts its success in moving students toward prestigious postgraduate awards, top-tier graduate schools and first jobs. That, in turn, translates into alumni giving, or, as Roush said, "how satisfied our 'customers' are with our product."

Williams said Transylvania deserves the kind of rankings Centre gets. "We're at least as good as they are," he told a recent alumni lunch group.

Roush's response: "Competition is good. I like Centre's position."

Centre College was 47th in the latest rankings.

Building reputation

Shearer, Williams' predecessor, was known as an affable, methodical executive who became president during a crisis when his predecessor resigned after just 10 months on the job. He brought the ship around and navigated it for 27 years.

Transylvania went on a $53.5 million red-brick building spree (red brick being Transylvania's signature building material) in those years, including adding a new library, soccer field, theater, additional dormitory space, Clive M. Beck athletic center and softball field.

Shearer was never less than fully executive in demeanor. Even on his fitness jaunts around the track at the Beck athletics center, he wore a business shirt and tie.

Williams is more direct, but less formal. He has instituted "casual Fridays" at the school's Old Morrison administration building and is meeting with each faculty member individually. However, he seems constantly ready to bolt out of his office and onto the campus.

"I'm rarely in my office," Williams said. "Right now, this is the last place I want to be."

Williams' plan to move up in the national rankings will require additional money. "We are going to have to engage in a serious capital campaign," he said. "We are going to have to have a lot more money to do the things I want to do and the things I think people on campus want to do. We're not going to be shy about asking for it."

Transylvania would not release Williams' salary. However, 2009 IRS documents show Shearer's salary was $265,581; Roush's was $255,966.

Williams hopes to add a sheen to a Transylvania degree that lures some students from other liberal arts schools. "We happily compete for students and we will happily be held accountable for that education," he said.

He doesn't think of Transylvania as land-locked in its locations in and around North Broadway, and said the college has room to grow.

Where?

He points a finger: "Up."

Still, "We want to grow reputationally, and that's more important than growing spatially," Williams said.

Achieving buy-in

The idea, said William T. Young Jr., head of the university's board of trustees, is Transylvania, the first college west of the Alleghenies, will propel its reputation among elite colleges back to where it started, when it was known as the "Harvard of the West."

"It's something we need to do .... to make Transylvania better known, so we can recruit from a broader base of potential students," Young said. "Transylvania has been a hidden star for a long time. We just need to become better known to a larger group of potential applicants."

Transy senior Grant Buckles of Leitchfield, who serves on the new president's advisory council, said Williams has brought a renewed energy to campus. "There's a sense of urgency that I haven't felt at the university since I've been here as a student," he said.

"I think he's going to get the word out," said Veronica Dean-Thacker, a professor of Spanish who has taught at Transylvania for 24 years. "I can say with confidence that people here definitely want to grow and become part of that top 50 liberal arts colleges in the United States. Transylvania has a very serious, engaged faculty. People are at the top of their game."

Buckles said he expects Williams to attain his goal of making Transylvania a name synonymous with the finest of liberal arts education: "If we're not at that level in 10 years, I think we'll be on our way. I think we have all the components."

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