John I. Williams, Jr., an innovative and visionary leader with extensive experience in higher education, has been selected to be the twelfth president of Muhlenberg College. He will begin his tenure at the College on July 1, 2015.
The Muhlenberg College Board of Trustees, advised by a search committee that included all segments of the College community, voted unanimously to appoint Williams at the conclusion of a national search that began this past February, shortly after Randy Helm announced he would conclude his presidency on June 30, 2015 after serving as Muhlenberg’s president for 12 years.
Trustee Eric L. Berg ’78, the chair of the Presidential Search Committee, said that Williams’ formidable intellect and leadership experience, gained in his wide-ranging business, consulting and entrepreneurial career, and his extensive record of engagement within higher education, made him the top choice in an extremely rich pool of candidates.
He added: “John Williams is an inspiring and innovative leader with a deep and thorough understanding of the range of issues facing selective liberal arts colleges, ranging from attracting and supporting an extraordinary faculty committed to teaching excellence, investing in a talented and increasingly diverse student body, managing shared institutional governance and sustainability, engaging alumni and parents in the life and work of the College, increasing the endowment and otherwise strengthening the institution’s operating model. Members of our committee were uniformly impressed by and enthusiastic about the depth and breadth of his talents and abilities to lead our institution forward.”
“I am drawn to the opportunity to lead Muhlenberg first by my deep passion for the liberal arts, the performing arts, pre-professional programs and the power of transformational learning more broadly,” Williams wrote in his statement to the search committee. “Alumni of liberal arts colleges number disproportionately among the nation’s and the world’s leaders. The quality of mind nurtured at Muhlenberg and other fine, liberal arts colleges – promoting close collaboration between students and faculty in a residential setting – is more likely to confront future challenges in a nuanced and conceptually-integrated manner that will lead to wiser decisions. Our nation and our world have never needed graduates of liberal arts colleges more than now.”
Born to a German-American, Lutheran mother and an African-American father, Williams was adopted and raised by African-American parents in suburban Westbury, N.Y., just outside of New York City. There, he attended an Episcopal parish day school, sang in the church choir and served as an acolyte. He went on to attend the Kent School in Kent, Conn., and then Amherst College where he was active in student affairs, served as a resident advisor his senior year, and was a soloist in the glee club.
After graduating magna cum laude with a B.A. in economics in 1975, Williams went on to earn both a law degree (J.D.) at Harvard Law School and a master’s in business administration (M.B.A.) at Harvard Business School, in 1979.
Upon graduation from Harvard, Williams joined Bain and Company, the strategy consulting firm, at its Boston headquarters; he was the first person of color ever hired by the firm. At Bain, he consulted for several Fortune 100 clients across a variety of industries. Williams left Bain after five years to co-launch Softbridge Microsystems, the first of several successful entrepreneurial ventures. A few years later, having grown Softbridge successfully, Williams was recruited to join American Express in New York, where he rose through a number of senior executive positions, including senior vice president of strategic planning, the head of the U.S. Platinum Card business, and the head of the U.S. Consumer Travel Network.
Hearing the call of the then-nascent Internet, Williams left American Express in 1996 to become CEO of Biztravel.com. He developed this early “dot-com” startup into a Webby Awardwinning site serving over 600,000 frequent business travelers by making two acquisitions and raising substantial venture funding before selling the business to then Philadelphia-based Rosenbluth Travel.
Since 2000, Williams has led a number of entrepreneurial ventures and engaged in strategy consulting in the non-profit and higher education sectors. He led Eduventures Consulting and was a partner in the higher education practice at The Bridgespan Group. During this period, Williams worked with a number of colleges, universities, and other educational institutions to help guide their strategy development in the face of a changing environment. He has also served for the past four years as an Expert-in-Residence at Harvard’s Innovation Lab, mentoring students from all across the university.
Williams has a distinguished record of service to his alma mater. He was first elected by the alumni to the Amherst College board of trustees in 1984. His fellow trustees elected him to a second six-year term before electing him as a life trustee in 1996. He has remained active ever since, serving continuously on and chairing multiple committees and taking leadership roles on several initiatives that have sustained and transformed the College. Williams has also been a strong supporter of campus diversity, in the broadest sense. He is a former board member of Prep for Prep, a nonprofit organization that identifies New York City’s most promising students of color and prepares them to excel at private preparatory schools and then thrive at the best colleges. He is also a former board member of Boston’s Museum of African-American History.
Muhlenberg President Randy Helm remarked: "I have met John and am impressed by his passion for Muhlenberg, his creativity, and his intellectual agility. I look forward to a smooth, successful, collegial, and celebratory transition during my remaining seven months in office. I know that he and his wife, Diane, will be great additions to the Muhlenberg community and to the Lehigh Valley."
Richard C. Crist, Jr. ’77, P’05, P’09, chair of the Muhlenberg College Board of Trustees, spoke about Williams and the search process that yielded him. “This was an extremely thorough and wide-ranging search,” Crist said. “I am proud and appreciative of the members of the search committee who were discreet, diligent and wise. They have earned the respect and gratitude of the entire Muhlenberg community for the excellent result of their intensive effort: the selection of John Williams as the next president of Muhlenberg College. John is a terrific choice, and I look forward to working closely with him in the years ahead.”
Williams pointed to his own life as evidence of the transformative power of a liberal arts education and said he looks forward to joining the Muhlenberg College community. “I’m delighted to be selected to lead this wonderful liberal arts college,” he said. “I’m attracted by Muhlenberg’s many qualities, including its caring culture, transparency and inclusiveness, openness to new ideas, focus on teaching and learning, the strength, variety, and innovativeness of its programs and, of course, the beauty of the campus. Muhlenberg has all of these qualities, and more, in abundance. I welcome the opportunity to lead a liberal arts college with
Muhlenberg’s excellent reputation, its rich history, fantastic students, and its deeply committed and hard-working faculty and staff. Muhlenberg is well-positioned to continue to grow even stronger in the years ahead.”
About Muhlenberg College
Founded in 1848, Muhlenberg is a highly selective, private, four-year liberal arts college located in the beautiful Lehigh Valley of eastern Pennsylvania. The College took its present name in 1867 from Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, patriarch of the Lutheran Church in the American Colonies.
Muhlenberg aims to help students become independent critical thinkers who are intellectually agile, characterized by a zest for reasoned and civil debate, knowledgeable about the achievements and traditions of diverse civilizations and cultures, able to express ideas with clarity and grace, committed to life-long learning, equipped with ethical and civic values and prepared for lives of leadership and service. The College offers 40 majors in the humanities, fine arts, social sciences and natural sciences, in addition to strong pre-professional programs in such areas as pre-health, pre-law, pre-theology, business and education.
Muhlenberg affords its students an unusual degree of freedom and responsibility, both within the academic program and in campus life. The Muhlenberg experience is characterized by a deep sense of community and connection, intense student-faculty relationships and collaboration; small classes; passionate teaching and active learning; and powerful outcomes in terms of graduate school and entry-level career placement.