Crystal Williams, an educator, advocate, and award-winning poet and essayist, has been named the 18th President of the Rhode Island School of Design effective April 1, 2022.
Williams, a graduate of New York University and Cornell University who grew up in Detroit and Madrid as the daughter of an educator and musician, is currently vice president and associate provost for community & inclusion at Boston University. She succeeds Rosanne Somerson at RISD, who retired at the end of June of this year and now serves as inaugural president emerita for the 144-year-old institution located adjacent to Brown University on Providence’s College Hill. A woodworker, furniture designer, and RISD alumna (BFA 76, Industrial Design), Somerson was appointed as president in February 2015. RISD’s Senior Vice President of Finance & Administration Dave Proulx will continue to serve as interim president until president-elect Williams assumes her role next year.
The highly anticipated selection of a new RISD president follows an international search that kicked off last winter with a listening tour seeking input from the RISD community. The aim was to identify a potential new president possessing “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,” a RISD press announcement elaborated. Co-chaired by four trustees and supported by executive search firm Isaacson Miller, the process was helmed by a 15-member search committee comprised of RISD faculty, staff, alumni, and parents, along with an 11-member student advisory council. In the end, the committee unanimously recommended Williams to lead RISD from a global pool of more than 100 candidates.
“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,” said Williams in a statement. “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.”
Prior to her current role at Boston University as vice president and associate provost for community & inclusion, Williams served as BU’s associate provost for diversity & inclusion. In addition to those administrative roles, Williams is also a professor of English at BU. Before that, she was the first associate vice president for strategic initiatives at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine (2013–2017). Prior to settling in New England, she served as the inaugural dean of institutional diversity at Reed College in Portland, Oregon (2011–2013). It was at Reed where Williams began her career in higher education as a professor of English and faculty activist who collaborated with colleagues “to envision and catalyze a more inclusive and diverse institution,” per the announcement.
In addition to her two decades in education as an “accomplished leader, collaborator and community builder,” Williams, who launched her career in the arts as a Washington, D.C.-based theater actress before moving to New York City where she focused on poetry and performance, has published four collections of poetry, most recently Detroit as Barn (2014), which was a finalist for the National Poetry Series, Cleveland State Open Book Prize, and the Maine Book Award. Her work is also featured as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s Poetry Project. She has received numerous fellowships, grants, and accolades for her artistic work, including a fellowship from the MacDowell Arts Colony, and has sat on numerous boards and selection panels relating to the arts and humanities including as an Oregon Arts Commissioner, a board member for the Maine Humanities Council, and editorial board member for The Writer’s Chronicle.
What’s more, Williams has also held a number of national roles relating to higher education including, among others, serving 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), and as co-chair of the Liberal Arts Diversity Officers.
You can read more about Williams’ vast breadth of experience here.
“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,” said 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.”