As a Wall Street banker turned historian, R. Owen Williams has taken an unusual path to his new post as Transylvania University's 25th president.
Williams accepted the offer late Tuesday after Transy's board of trustees approved the hiring, said William T. Young Jr., the board's chairman and head of the search committee. The 14-member committee was unanimous in its choice, he said.
"He really appeared to endorse exactly what we're looking for, which is to take Transylvania to a national level as a liberal arts college, continue bringing in better students and a more diverse group of students, geographically, racially and in every way," Young said Wednesday.
Williams, in a phone interview, said the appointment represents "my life-long ambition being realized in a way that's much better than I ever could have hoped for," given his unconventional background for a university leader.
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"I really am very grateful to the Transylvania board of directors for their willingness to see through the more typical paradigm and take a little bit of risk in selecting me as the next president," he said. "I am not a proven college administrator, but they don't seem to be terribly bothered by that."
Williams is scheduled to start Aug. 1 and said he plans to visit the campus again before the end of April. He replaces Charles L. Shearer, who is retiring after 27 years as head of the school.
Williams' salary at the private school is "confidential but is competitive," Young said.
Williams said he will resign from the 2010-12 post-doctoral fellowship he recently was awarded at Yale University that's named after 19th-century emancipationist and Kentucky native Cassius Marcellus Clay.
It's the latest in a string of prestigious fellowships Williams has won during the last five years at institutions such as Harvard, Yale and New York University Law School. All this came after he left Wall Street to go back to school in 1999.
A Baltimore native, Williams, 58, spent 24 years in investment banking. He started with Salomon Brothers Inc. in New York in 1977 after earning a master's degree in intellectual history at Cambridge University in England.
He spent four years in Tokyo and Hong Kong while working for Goldman Sachs and Bear Stearns. He completed that phase of his professional life with First Union Capitol Markets, which later became Wachovia Securities, in Charlotte, N.C.
In 1999, Williams' bosses asked him to lay off employees in the fixed-income division as part of companywide cutbacks, Williams said.
"I was unwilling to do that, simply because most of them were really quite professional, quite competent and quite productive," he said. "The only thing I was prepared to do at that point was to join them in leaving the company."
But he said the time was right anyway. He and his wife, Jennifer, had been talking about his leaving the banking business to pursue a doctorate.
He earned a law degree in 2007 and a doctorate in history in 2009, both from Yale, according to his résumé.
Williams specialized in 19th-century America, with focuses on American legal history and 17th-century British history. He called his dissertation for his doctorate Unequal Justice Under Law: The Supreme Court and America's First Civil Rights Movement, 1857-1883.
During his time at Yale, he spent a semester teaching a course he conceived that compared the American and English civil wars, said David Blight, professor of American history at Yale and Williams' adviser.
"He loves education, and he is really effective on his feet at communicating," Blight said. "When Owen's in a room, whether it's a seminar with 10 people in it or a lecture hall, people listen."
It's that charisma and curiosity that sold Transy's search committee on Williams, Young said. And he won over faculty members last week when he was one of two finalists invited to campus, Young said.
"The thing that struck me was how frank he was," said Grant Buckles, a junior and the lone student on the search committee. "It wasn't that he was trying to impress us. He seemed genuinely interested in the university."
Buckles said he was impressed with Williams' background in banking and fund-raising, as well as his academic credentials at some of the world's best universities.
Williams will take over from Shearer, 67, who announced in October his plans to retire this summer. Shearer helped the 230-year-old liberal arts institution nearly triple its endowment and double its enrollment with an all-time high of 1,153 last year.
Williams — who has a son, Tucker, 19, and a daughter, Penelope, 15 — said he already is quite taken with the campus and Lexington.
"I'm really quite confident that Transylvania is just the perfect place for me," he said. "I just can't wait."