H. James Williams Named New President of Fisk University

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As Aundrea Cline-Thomas at Channel 5 puts it, Fisk University's "legacy continues to be marked by struggle." It seems that stories of its impending collapse are a biennial event, and the university has recently taken the drastic, and controversial, measure of selling off part of its stake in their famous Stieglitz art collection to the Crystal Bridges Museum in Benton, Ark., to raise funds for the school.

To say that Fisk's new president faces some challenges is like saying that hikers at the bottom of Everest face an uphill climb. Just for starters, he's got to keep the school accredited, then raise the funds to keep it running. And he steps into a university where a lot of annoying nonsense is overlooked or tolerated because the annoying nonsense has been going on so long it's now part of the school's charm.

But making sure that classes are where and when they claim to be; that the people who are supposed to be in those classrooms — teachers and students — have that information; that people have the things they need in order to do their jobs; that people and vendors get paid in timely fashion; that things are open when needed and, at least, open when they say they are goes a long way to making people feel like they're dealing with an entity with a future — and not a school running a prolonged going-out-of-business sale.

Enter Dr. H. James Williams from Grand Valley State University, who has been named Fisk's new president starting in February. Williams is an interesting choice. I think he signals an effort by Fisk to move beyond a state of constant fiscal crisis (and like or hate what she did, O'Leary did the most obvious, biggest-impact thing to move the university out of crisis mode) to a rebuilding period. Under Williams, for instance, Grand Valley State has made some enormous steps forward:

Under his leadership, the college created a full-time integrated master of business administration degree, offering students a paid fellowship and study abroad experience.

The college also broke ground for the nearly completed L. William Seidman Center in downtown Grand Rapids. The $40 million building will house the Seidman College of Business along with the Small Business Technology and Development Center and the Van Andel Global Trade Center. Williams also helped establish the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the Center for Leadership and Innovation.

And keep in mind, he did all this while Michigan was turning itself into a third-world anti-intellectual quasi-dictatorship. Hostile climates and enormous fiscal challenges? Williams knows them.

He faces no small task at Fisk, but it says a lot of good things about where the university sees itself that it offered him the job, and I think it gives everyone who wants Fisk to thrive reason for hope that he sees enough possibility here to take the job.

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