Q&A: Owen Williams

Dr. Owen Williams, who became president of Transylvania University in 2010, recently met with columnist Jane Shropshire to reflect on his first two years at Transylvania and share a glimpse of his vision for its future.


JS (Jane Shropshire): Can you describe any changes in Transylvania’s relations with Lexington in the two years since you arrived?

OW (Owen Williams): …One of the most enjoyable moments I’ve had since becoming president of Transylvania goes back probably a little more than a year ago now, when I was surrounded by a bunch of people talking about the fences that had served as rather stark demarcations on various parts of our campus. I did my best imitation of Ronald Reagan, and I pounded my hand on the table and said it’s time we bring down those fences. And it was really a gratifying thing to see those fences come down and to have all of the different sides of our campus become more porous, and to see neighbors start to spill onto the campus. It’s really been fun to watch.

JS: You also have established relationships with various organizations and institutions?

OW: The first organization that we established a relationship with was the Carnegie Center. We felt like their mission overlapped with ours so completely that it just made sense for us to try to find some important synergy between our two organizations.

We’ve done a number of projects with the University of Kentucky. We’ve started talking to Bluegrass Community and Technical College about things that we could do with them. … We’re about to do something very important with the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship.

JS: At Ashland?

OW: Exactly. We’ve been hosting for the last several years the students who come from all over the country to participate in their summer colloquium, and it’s been really very gratifying to see that relationship develop between the Center and Transylvania. We’re looking to take that to the next level now, and it’s kind of exciting to think about how that might unfold.

We feel like we benefit so much from our location. One of the things that makes Transylvania distinctive, aside from its 232-year-old history, is our location. Most residential liberal arts colleges are in rural destinations.

There are, of the top 50 liberal arts colleges in the country, probably only a handful that are in urban locations, and we feel like Lexington, my gosh, it’s just such a spectacular place. It’s big enough to be very urban and have lots of activities to offer its residents, but at the same time small enough to be familiar in the way that we all engage with one another. And what our students say about having Lexington at their disposal just confirms our observation that that’s a really important part of what draws them to us in the first place. So anything we can do to give back to the community, we want to do.

JS: Have changes occurred at Transylvania in the areas of diversity, technology and sustainability?

OW: In terms of diversity, we have hired a wonderful gentlemen who was with the United Nations for all of his career. His name is Edwardo Nino-Moreno, and he is responsible for diversifying our campus across all constituencies. And we’ve been really quite successful there. … we’re recognizing that for this to be a vibrant educational environment, we have to have as many different perspectives brought to the table everyday as is possible, which means that we have to have people from all around the world, all around the country with every different possible background. And I can tell you, the numbers have jumped very handsomely for us with regard to the student body. Where we have more trouble, to be candid, is at the staff and faculty level. It’s unfortunately the case that we just don’t get the applicants for the positions, and that’s been vexing for us. We want desperately to be able to bring in diversification at all levels, because frankly students will go to those institutions where they know they will feel comfortable, so they have to feel that there are people in the senior ranks of the institution that represent something of a diversity.

On the issue of sustainability, we want to put the ‘sylvan’ back into Transylvania. Transylvania means “trans” — across, in Latin — and “sylvan,” the forest. Transylvania was the first college across the forest into the frontier, and that’s a really nifty element of our past.

We have a beautiful campus and yet we want to make it even more sustainable than it is. That speaks to the way we serve food on campus, the way we electrify our rooms, or the way we light up our spaces; the kinds of foliage and vegetation that are on our campus; having butterfly parks; having places for gardens where people can grow food or plants that could be used in class or that could be served in our dining facilities. We’re really very serious about that, and we’re making real progress.

Two years ago, I challenged the Transylvania community to go paperless. I got a rather harsh spanking from the community on this one, but it turns out that Transylvania was one of the first and only colleges in the state to give away free paper. We were consuming literally millions of pages of paper every day.

JS: And probably no small part of what folks on campus perceived as a wonderful perk?

OW: That’s right, absolutely. They’d go into the library, they’d print an article, and they’d find something better and they’d print that article, and that process would continue. And a lot of articles would just sit on the library floor. So we have reduced our paper consumption by over 60 percent.


JS: And technology?

OW: Well, this issue of technology and the tsunami that is about to wash over higher education is much on the minds of us all. We’re in the process of doing a strategic plan for the period between now and 2020. We’re calling it our 20/20 vision. And technology is going to factor prominently for so many reasons. Not only because technology is important in helping us assess ourselves, to know ourselves — we can now collect and process data in a way that we couldn’t do before. But also we’re looking at the sort of pedagogical changes that technology will afford us. What can we do in the classroom that is different from what we used to do?

And there are lots of things that we’re experimenting with. In fact, we’re even talking about putting together an incubator college or an experimental college within the college that will be all about testing technological ideas, whether it’s Skyping students from elsewhere all around the world into our classroom, or the flipping phenomenon, where instead of students coming in for lectures, they’ll listen to the lectures on their own time and then they’ll come into class for the digestion process.


JS: You’ve added some new athletics programs at Transylvania?

OW: We have.


JS: Can you list those for us and talk about the institutional motivation behind adding them?

OW: Well, like all colleges in America, right now we’re challenged as to the number of male students that we have on our campus. The average in the country is 52 percent female and 48 percent male, and frankly, most colleges have to dip the standard just a bit in order to get the male numbers up to what they are. Girls just mature more rapidly, and I guess women have known that for a long time. But you know, high school students that we see, the females among them are just so much better prepared and so much more willing to go the extra mile academically. And so it’s tough to fill our ranks in terms of male students on campus. For us, we’re more like 40 percent male, depending on the class … so part of the solution is to try to draw them in any way that we can.

And needless to say, institutions like ours that are Division 3 don’t give scholarships. We certainly don’t privilege athletics over academics. We call our students scholar-athletes, and the scholar comes first by design. But we absolutely value the contribution that athletes make on our campus, so we were very happy to take on lacrosse. Lacrosse has become a hot sport in Lexington and throughout Kentucky, and in many ways, we’re catching up with the rest of the country.


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