Running Toward the Future
New DSU president Harry Lee Williams has never stopped moving forward.
Every morning—snowmageddon days included—Harry Lee Williams rises at 6:15, dons cherry-and-Columbia-blue running gear bearing the Delaware State University logo, then sets off on a four- to five-mile run. He does a loop around the DSU campus, then follows College Road to U.S. 13, where he turns left and circles back to the president’s house.
Williams never times himself, but if pressed, he will reluctantly estimate that he averages 7 ½-minute miles, which is a highly respectable time for a 45-year-old man. But he can’t help comparing it to the days—more than two decades ago—when he clipped off each mile in about five minutes.
Harry Williams runs for several reasons. It’s good exercise, of course, both physically and psychically, helping to clear his mind and prepare him for the day. But more than that, it’s a habit, almost an obsession, ingrained in him since junior high school.
And maybe, just a little, his morning jaunts are some sort of visceral, subconscious homage to what led the DSU president to where he is today. Running was his ticket out of Greenville, North Carolina.
Running won Harry Lee Williams a scholarship, making him the only child in a family of eight—seven boys and a girl—to receive a college diploma. Speed and endurance weren’t his only assets. Williams was whip-smart, affable, outgoing and unafraid of hard labor, whether in the tobacco and cucumber fields around Greenville or in the stands at East Carolina University football games, where he sold soda and popcorn.
Williams’ early years centered on school and the Sylvia Free Will Baptist Church a half block from his home. Every Sunday, Williams, his mother, his brothers and his sister, along with numerous aunts, uncles and cousins, would walk to church—“We walked everywhere,” he says. “We didn’t have a car”—arriving at 9 in the morning and staying until 2 in the afternoon. In those marathon worship sessions, he would read the Bible aloud and participate in church plays and pageants, developing his nascent public speaking skills. Through Sylvia Free Will and his large and caring extended family in Greenville, the youngster acquired a rock-solid moral grounding that led him to believe there are three keys to a meaningful life: faith, family and passion for your work. He has followed that creed ever since.
In eighth grade, Williams was recruited for the Junius H. Rose High School track team by coach Ron Hochmuth, who saw potential in the 14-year-old despite his diminutive size. Williams’ wife, Robin, who has seen pictures of her husband in high school, says she wouldn’t have dated him then. “Too skinny,” she says. Hochmuth estimates that the 5-foot-7 Williams weighed “all of 105 pounds.”
“He didn’t have a lot of physical strength or a classic stride,” says Hochmuth, “but he had a lot of guts, and he was relentless. He wouldn’t give up.”
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At his coach’s urging, Williams began the routine he continues today, rising early to run. He quickly began setting school and state records in the mile and two-mile. And it wasn’t long before he and Hochmuth became more than just athlete and coach.
Williams’ parents, Nancy Williams and Harry Patterson, never married, and Patterson, who died in 1986, didn’t live with the family. Yet Williams had a strong relationship with his father, who worked as a janitor and later for the parks and recreation department. Patterson didn’t participate in his son’s school and church activities, however, so Hochmuth helped fill that void, hiring Williams as a babysitter for his children and lending him his car when Williams took his driver’s test. Hochmuth is white, but it wasn’t long before his teammates started calling Williams “Harry Hochmuth.” “It was a term of endearment,” he says.
As Williams approached graduation in 1982, Hochmuth began touting his star runner to various colleges. His efforts attracted a scholarship from Appalachian State University, in Boone, North Carolina. Williams would spend most of the next two decades in that town of about 14,000, nestled high on the Blue Ridge. He met his wife there, started a family there, and that’s where he earned a bachelor’s degree in communication broadcasting and a master of arts in educational media. In 2002 he received a doctorate in educational leadership and policy analysis from East Tennessee State University, which this year honored him with its Distinguished Alumni Award.
At Appalachian State, Williams progressed from an associate director to associate vice chancellor in the areas of academic affairs, enrollment and diversity. He served in that post from 1988 to 2000, then again from 2004 to 2007. From 2000 to 2004, he was interim director of admissions for North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Williams moved to DSU in July 2008 as provost and vice president of academic affairs. A month later, the controversial five-year presidency of Dr. Allen L. Sessoms ended when he resigned to become president of the University of the District of Columbia. Claibourne D. Smith, chairman of the DSU Board of Trustees, assumed an interim presidency as a national 17-month search for a new president was conducted. The search proved challenging.
According to John Land, who stepped in for Smith as board chair, the first posting attracted 60 responses, which were culled to 20, then to three. “They didn’t meet our needs,” Land says.
A second search began. Among the 48 candidates was the name of Harry Lee Williams, the only DSU employee to apply for the job. “The first time the timing wasn’t right because I was just completing my first year as the provost,” says Williams. When the job was posted again, he says, “Faculty, staff and students all encouraged me to apply. I also had a great deal of support from my wife and family.”
Williams was chosen during an executive session of the board on November 20. Among his biggest boosters was Land, who views Williams as a unifying force for a university that, he says, suffered from a previous administration that divided the alumni, faculty and student body. Land believes Williams demonstrated an ability to bridge those gaps during his brief time as provost. “Harry has earned the respect of the faculty, which is a challenge in itself at most universities,” Land says. “And his youth and background will bring new thoughts and new energy and help him relate to the students.”
Williams also seems committed to reaffirming DSU’s status among Historically Black Colleges and Universities, something that alumni in particular accused Sessoms of neglecting.
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Students, especially, seem optimistic. “We were all excited about Dr. Williams becoming president,” says Kathleen Charlot, president of the Student Government Association. “Him being younger, we felt he brought a fresh perspective to the office.”
In contrast to Sessoms, who, Charlot says, “was not involved too much in student activities,” Williams maintains a presence around campus. “He’s interested in student government, he goes to all the basketball games, and he even eats in the cafeteria,” she says. “He’s not standoffish at all. He has an open-door policy.”
Dr. Samuel Hoff, George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science at DSU, calls the blizzards that hit the East Coast in January and February an apt metaphor for Williams’ first days in office. Like every college administrator, Williams faced major budget difficulties. Looking for places to cut expenditures, the former jock turned to the school’s somewhat bloated athletics budget. He eliminated the women’s equestrian team and men’s tennis team, beginning next season. That decision created a storm of its own.
Cutting the equestrian team resulted in a campus protest and a lawsuit by team members. (DSU will honor their scholarships, though it is not required to do so.) A second suit, filed by a Canadian teenager who had signed a letter of intent with DSU, claimed Title IX discrimination against female athletes. Seeking class-action status for her suit, she alleged that after being promised an equestrian scholarship, she learned through a Facebook posting that her sport had been scrapped. Because of the late notice, she claimed she couldn’t obtain a full scholarship at another Division I school. Williams has since reinstated the team for another year.
Equestrian represents about $500,000 and men’s tennis accounts for nearly $200,000 of the athletics budget, which for 2009-10 was about $12 million—about $4 million above the average among Mid-Eastern Athletic Association schools.
“Our goal is to bring that down and take those resources and put them into academic areas,” says Williams. “My commitment to the faculty is that I will do everything in my power to protect the academic core. That’s what we’re all about. Everything else supports academics.”
Hoff, who chaired an NCAA committee that studied gender equality in athletics, strongly disagrees with the decision to eliminate the equestrian team. “I don’t think the president had complete information to make what would have been a wise decision,” he says.
Cutting women’s equestrian and men’s tennis “is not a wash,” Hoff says. “One, there’s a lot more women on the women’s team [than men on men’s tennis]. Secondly, the sport itself was created to deal with deficiencies in the gender equity area. And thirdly, the vast majority of the equestrian team are Caucasian, so the team helped to emphasize the diversity of the campus.” The predominantly white makeup of the team, Hoff says, also raises the specter of reverse racism on a campus that is 78 percent African-American.
The equestrian team, added five years ago, was one of only 23 in the country. With its demise, Hoff says, “We’re back to square one on a really important part of accreditation and athletics.” He also notes that among the school’s 15 sports, only equestrian and women’s bowling are “on the precipice of competing for a national championship, with all the positives that accrue from the publicity and visibility” of that achievement.
Though termination of the equestrian team is a sticking point with him, Hoff says, “It’s early in [Williams’] tenure, and I try to give folks the benefit of the doubt.”
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That attitude is echoed by faculty union president Steve Newton, a professor of history and political science. “To be perfectly honest, we have a group of folks on the faculty for whom the jury is still out,” says Newton. “From the faculty’s perspective, the previous experience with Dr. Sessoms was fairly volatile, and they’ve heard people make promises before and tell us about the bright new future, so they’re going to go with [Williams] step by step. But they’re going to be kind of like Ronald Reagan: trust and verify.”
Overall, says Newton, “I’m impressed with the man. He has the moral backbone that if he’s going to tell you no about something, he doesn’t delegate that. He’ll tell you to your face. I think he’s a breath of fresh air both in terms of imagination and integrity that we haven’t had in that position in a long time.”
Newton acknowledges the high value Williams places on academics, but he also says the new president understands the politics. “He realizes that you can’t just show up at the Joint Finance Committee hearings and ask for money without engaging in the political process all year long.”
In February, Williams appeared before the JFC to defend DSU’s proposed zero-growth 2011 operating budget of about $100 million and to request about $37 million from the state. Governor Jack Markell proposed allocating $33.7 million to the school.
Newton says “there is a feeling on campus” that the General Assembly does not view DSU as essential to the state as the University of Delaware and Delaware Technical and Community College, and Williams seems committed to changing that attitude.
The new president has an ally in one new legislator, Senator Brian Bushweller. The Dover Democrat perceives discrimination against DSU compared to UD and DelTech in at least one area: the SEED scholarship program (Student Excellence Equals Degree), which provides tuition for full-time students from Delaware who maintain a 2.5 grade point average while enrolled in an associate’s degree program at DelTech or the associate of arts program at UD. DSU—the state’s only true state university—is conspicuously excluded from this largesse. Some observers think this is because UD and DelTech—both of which have a statewide presence—are based in New Castle County, where the bulk of the population and political power resides.
Bushweller says the SEED legislation, enacted five years ago, has contributed to the decline in the number of in-state students at DSU, which results in a big financial hit for the university. He hopes to get the Dover-based school included in the SEED program by next year. He says he and other newly elected members of the General Assembly from Kent County will be advocates for DSU.
Bushweller calls Williams “a consensus builder.” Perhaps the prime example of this trait is the Blue Ribbon Commission Williams appointed less than a month after taking office. With 14 members who bring diverse experience from the academic, political, scientific and economic worlds, the commission demonstrates Williams’ understanding that he must reach out to many areas of influence to help achieve his goals for DSU.
The commission is charged with creating a new vision statement for the 119-year-old institution. In a press release announcing the commission, Williams said the vision statement should be accompanied by “a recommended set of values as well as recommended ways to integrate the vision with both internal and external constituents.”
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Williams has been networking with movers and shakers across the state, especially his peers and predecessors. He initiated meetings with UD president Patrick Harker and DelTech president Orlando George on their campuses to discuss ways in which they can cooperate. To connect with the history of DSU, Williams and his wife, Dr. Robin S. Williams, invited former president William DeLauder and his wife to dinner at the president’s residence. He has spoken with Sessoms twice and has invited him back to the campus. He has met Mayor Carleton Carey, and he has been out and about in the community, dining, by a perhaps somewhat exaggerated estimate, “at almost every restaurant in town.”
Williams’ already prominent local presence ratcheted up markedly in May, when Mrs. Williams and their 9- and 14-year-old sons moved to the Dover campus. Since becoming provost at DSU, Williams had seen them only on weekends while his wife served as associate dean at North Carolina Central in Durham.
Williams made at least one other trip to North Carolina last year. In May, he went home, back to Sylvia Free Will Baptist Church, where he was the featured speaker for the Men’s Day program. With his mother in the audience, he delivered a moving speech. His theme, as anyone who knows Harry Lee Williams might have predicted, was threefold: faith, family and passion for your work. When he finished, the man who would become the 10th president in the history of Delaware State University got a standing ovation.