Lexington, KY – Dr. R. Owen Williams has taken the reins at Transylvania University, bringing a personal history with investment banking, philanthropy, academia (think Dartmouth, Cambridge, Yale), and other countries and cultures. Business Lexington columnist Jane Shropshire talked with him about his plans as he settled into the president’s office.
BL: Could you address the city of Lex-ington and how you hope to work with it?
ROW: When my wife and I came here for what was the last visit in the search process, we were completely smitten by Lexington, and that was a very big part of the decision for us as to whether or not to take this job, because in our mind we weren’t just moving to Transylvania, we were also moving to Lexington.
Lexington to me is a big part of what distinguishes Transylvania.
Frankly, I don’t think we’ve done enough to capture the value of our location or the relationship that we might have with the city, and that’s very, very important to me. So it’s going to be a key initiative of my administration to find ways to bridge our relationship with Lexington.
BL: In Transylvania Magazine, you’re quoted as saying, “Of the institutions that are this size, I think Transylvania could be one of the best in the country.” I wonder how you will define and measure “best,” and which peer institutions you may use as benchmarks.
ROW: U.S. News and World Report Ö is a metric that is used by families, parents and students alike Ö Another very important metric is the response that we get from our students as they go through this experience and as they reflect on it as alums. Ö Finally, I think in many respects, the extent to which the community approves of what we’re doing and feels engaged in what we’re doing is also an important way for us to determine the success of our program, because, frankly, if we can’t reach out to Lexington and make meaningful connections, in some ways we’ve failed ourselves, we’ve failed our students, and we’ve failed our community Ö We’re currently in the middle of Tier 2, and we’re all of us of the mind that we should be Tier 1. Ö I don’t think that what we have to do for that to happen is simply publicize who we are. There’s more to it than that. I think that we have to continue to improve our faculty, we have to continue to improve our student body, we have to continue to improve the quality of resources that we’re offering to both. Ö
My predecessor, Charlie Shearer, did a fabulous job of building what is now a healthy and stable institution. He’s provided me and the rest of the team the opportunity to really take it to the next level, and that’s what we’re going to do.
BL: Are there peer institutions you might be keeping an eye on?
ROW: Peers are subjectively determined Ö In a seven-year plan, we can articulate goals for our endowment, goals for our curriculum, goals for the size of our student body and our campus, goals for who it is we want to be when we continue to grow up that will all, I think, overlap on one another quite nicely. Ö
So in the near term, I think of our peers as institutions like Rhodes in Tennessee, or Wooster in Ohio, but with time, seven years from now, I’d like us to be thinking of institutions like Davidson in North Carolina, or Washington and Lee. There’s no reason why we can’t compete at that level. What we’re hoping to do will not just be good for Transylvania in isolation, but for all of Lexington. Ö
BL: Are there changes ahead that you can speak to?
ROW: There are three main areas where we’re going to be pushing hard. One is in diversity, one is in sustainability and one is in technology. Then the fourth, actually, is in community outreach.
As for diversity, we need to be a more diverse community at Transylvania at every level: on the board, in the administration, in the faculty, and in the student body.
We need to be more diverse geographically, culturally, racially – in every way – and this is just so obvious an issue on our campus that there’s no one at Transylvania who doesn’t agree that this is something that has to happen.
We have to be more sustainable, not only here on campus but we have to be doing an even bigger and better job of educating our students and our community, both Lexington and beyond, as to the value of sustainability.
Technology is clearly the wave of the future for us all. And then, finally, our community outreach: Lexington is just a treasure that Transylvania needs to take advantage of, and so a community outreach program, both for the purposes of getting more from Lexington and giving more to Lexington, is really very, very important.
BL: Do I understand correctly that Transy produced three Fulbright winners in this last academic year?
ROW: Students are more apt to maximize their potential in an environment like this one, where they get the kind of intimate and more direct attention that they get at Transylvania than they might get elsewhere. And so I believe that we are very much a part of the solution in terms of identifying people with talent and helping them realize their dreams.
Jane S. Shropshire guides students and families through the college search process and is Business Lexington’s Higher Ed. Matters columnist. Contact her at JShrop@att.net.