Rhode Island School of Design’s Board of Trustees is pleased to announce the appointment of Crystal Williams as the institution’s 18th president effective April 1, 2022. Currently Boston University’s vice president and associate provost for community & inclusion, Williams was selected after an international search for a leader with the capability and passion to educate artists, designers and scholars for a rapidly changing future, and one with the global vision to guide RISD’s role in helping to create a more just, fair and sustainable society.
“When we began the search for RISD’s 18th president, we sought candidates with not just the experience, education and wisdom that the job requires, but also receptivity, an aesthetic sensibility, the skill to communicate in a community that trades in images and materials, and something even more intangible: a deep, abiding empathy that can bind us all together,” notes RISD Board of Trustees Chair Michael Spalter. “We found all of that and more in Crystal Williams. Crystal shares our strong conviction in the critical role art and design play in shaping our world, and she has the expertise and qualities of leadership needed to meet the urgency of this moment and take RISD into the future. We are thrilled that she has accepted our invitation to be our next president.”
When launching the search for RISD’s 18th president, the institution’s Board of Trustees convened a 15-member search committee that included RISD faculty, staff, alumni, parents and trustees, and an 11-member student advisory council. The search, which began last winter and was co-chaired by four trustees, started with a listening tour to solicit ideas and input from across RISD’s community. Isaacson, Miller, a search firm with substantial art and design knowledge and experience identifying higher education leadership nationwide, supported the search process. After considering more than 100 candidates from around the globe, the search committee unanimously recommended Williams to become RISD’s next leader.
In their recommendation to the Board, search committee co-chairs Hillary Blumberg BFA 92 Film Animation Video, Ilene Chaiken BFA 79 Graphic Design / Parent 18, Karen Hammond and Tavares Strachan BFA 03 Glass wrote: “When you first meet Crystal, you are immediately struck by her warmth. She is present, receptive and kind. She has an aesthetic sensibility and a keen power of observation and she listens, deeply,” notes the committee. “It is no great revelation to say issues of equity and inclusion are critical at this moment at RISD and throughout the world. But those terms can also be tossed about in ways that can shake the meaning out of them. Crystal has done the real work behind the words—the hard, relentless, unglamorous, often under-recognized work. She has a deep commitment to leading change. It is for all of these reasons and many more that we believe Crystal is the ideal next leader for RISD.”
Williams brings more than two decades of higher education experience to RISD and she is an accomplished leader, collaborator and community builder. Throughout her career Williams has been an institutional catalyst, helping to envision, define and achieve greater outcomes for students, faculty and staff. As a faculty member, she advanced artistic inquiry and engagement and, as a leader, she has focused on ensuring that institutions are more effective, mission-aligned and diverse, equitable and inclusive. Williams began her career teaching at Reed College where she became a faculty activist, collaborating with colleagues to envision and catalyze a more inclusive and diverse institution. As a result, Williams was appointed the college’s inaugural dean for institutional diversity. She moved on to similarly catalytic roles first at Bates College, where Williams was the college’s first associate vice president for strategic initiatives, and then Boston University, where she also served in inaugural roles, first as associate provost for diversity & inclusion and currently as vice president and associate provost for community & inclusion.
An award-winning poet and essayist, Williams has published four collections of poems, and her work is part of MoMA’s Poetry Project, a tour of poems responding to pieces in the museum’s permanent collection. The daughter of an educator and a musician, Williams was raised in Detroit, MI and Madrid, Spain and holds degrees from New York University and Cornell University. Please find more information about Williams below.
“I entered this search because I believe in the value of art and design to elevate and amplify the human experience, and to narrate who we have been and who we can become,” notes RISD President-Elect Williams. “Art, education, and equity and justice are the three foundational focuses of my life and everything about me—who I am as a teacher, a writer, a leader, friend, daughter and human—are in accord with RISD’s mission, areas of focus and social equity and inclusion goals. Having the opportunity to serve as RISD’s president, to sustain and build on RISD’s core strengths and work on behalf of its extraordinary students, faculty, staff and alumni is a profound honor.”
Williams succeeds Rosanne Somerson BFA 76 Industrial Design, who now serves as the institution’s first president emerita. RISD Senior Vice President of Finance & Administration Dave Proulx has been serving as interim president since Somerson’s retirement at the end of June 2021.
About Crystal Williams
A teacher, leader, advocate and poet, Crystal Williams believes that education, art and design, and commitments to equity and justice are essential to transforming our society. Williams has more than two decades of higher education experience. During that time, she has been an institutional catalyst, helping to envision, define and achieve greater outcomes for students, faculty and staff. As a faculty member, she has focused on advancing artistic inquiry and engagement. As a senior administrator, her work has ensured that institutions are more effective, mission-aligned and diverse, equitable and inclusive.
As Boston University’s inaugural and current vice president and associate provost for community & inclusion since 2020, Williams provides leadership, vision, management and strategic direction for initiatives that support the development of strong communities of faculty, staff and students, promoting diversity, equity and inclusion within BU’s 17 schools and colleges. With a portfolio that includes BU’s Provost’s Arts Initiative, Organizational Development and Learning, the Newbury Center, which supports first-generation students, the LGBTQIA+ Faculty/Staff Center, Academic Living and Learning Centers, and BU Diversity & Inclusion, Williams works collaboratively on efforts to nurture a positive campus climate, build the excellence of faculty and enhance the academic program. Since her arrival at BU in 2017 as the institution’s associate provost for diversity & inclusion, Williams has led a number of critical initiatives including the University Scholars Program and Target of Opportunity Hiring Program, which both seek to impact faculty hiring culture; the Inclusive Pedagogy Initiative; the LGBTQIA+ Task Force; and the 2020 BU Day of Collective Engagement, which brought the university’s community of faculty, staff and students together to reflect on the impact of race and racism on our society and communities. To foster a deeper sense of unity among individuals from underrepresented communities and their allies, Williams also oversaw the creation of employee resource groups at BU. In addition to her administrative roles at BU, Williams is a professor of English.
Prior to her work at Boston University, Williams held similarly catalytic roles at Bates College (2013–17) and Reed College (as a faculty leader from 2000–11 and as a dean from 2011–13). At Bates, Williams served as associate vice president for strategic initiatives, professor of English and senior advisor to the president, developing programs, strategies and measurable outcomes that enhanced diversity, equity and inclusiveness.
At Reed, where she began her academic career as a professor of English, Williams became a faculty activist, working with colleagues to envision and create a more inclusive and diverse institution. Realizing the power of a liberal arts education to uniquely elevate and magnify the interconnections and interdependencies between ideas and solutions, she was appointed the college’s inaugural dean for institutional diversity, directing multiple faculty-driven initiatives to create an infrastructure to support greater diversity and inclusion.
A deeply collaborative leader, she has helped to drive meaningful change in higher education through national roles and collaborations, including as a member of the Oversight Committee for the Sloan Foundation-funded STEM Faculty Leadership program; the Executive Committee for the Creating Connections Consortium (C3), an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded consortium of liberal arts colleges and research universities (including Bates, Connecticut College, Middlebury, Williams, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Chicago, Columbia University, and the University of Michigan); as co-chair of the Liberal Arts Diversity Officers; as a member of the steering committee for the Consortium for Faculty Diversity; and as a collaborator with senior members of the Mellon Northwest 5 Faculty Consortium.
An award-winning poet and essayist, Williams has published four collections of poems. She is the recipient of several artistic fellowships, grants and honors, including a fellowship from the MacDowell Arts Colony, an appointment as the Distinguished Visiting Professor of University Writing at DePauw University, a Master Poet residency at Indiana University, the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Prize, a Literary Arts fellowship, an Oregon Arts Commission individual artist grant and a Barbara Deming/Money for Women artist grant, among others. Her work regularly appears in leading journals and magazines nationwide.
Williams’ poem Elegy for Us, in response to Faith Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die, was commissioned by and is part of MoMA’s Poetry Project, a tour of poems responding to pieces in the museum’s permanent collection. Williams was also one of 10 poets commissioned by MoMA to write poems (Double Helix, Year After Year We Visited Alabama) as a part of the Jacob Lawrence Migration Series exhibition. In early 2016, Williams joined the president of the Ford Foundation in a conversation about Cultural Equity, which was a part of the Equity Series, a collaboration between the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and MoMA. She has also served as moderator for multiple arts-related conversations, most recently a 2020 talk hosted by WBUR titled Black Boston: Transforming the Arts.
Williams is a thought leader on diversity in the arts and higher education, serving as a regular advisor to senior leaders, organizations and colleges across the nation on topics including leadership development, recruitment, retention, inclusive climate development and organizational capacity building. An ardent arts advocate, Williams regularly engages in leadership positions within the arts community and has served on multiple arts and humanities-related boards and selection panels, including as an Oregon Arts Commissioner, a board member for the Maine Humanities Council, Write Around Portland and The Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center; on the Oregon Poet Laureate Selection Committee; as a judge for the 2015 Donald Hall Poetry Prize, Regional Arts and Culture Council Literary Arts Fellowship, and the Oregon Arts Commission Individual Fellowship; on the Governor’s Ad Hoc Committee to Reduce the Achievement Gap; and on the editorial board for The Writer’s Chronicle.
The daughter of an educator and a musician, Williams was raised in Detroit, MI and Madrid, Spain and holds a BA from New York University and an MFA from Cornell University.