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owen williams

R. Owen Williams brings expertise and enthusiasm to his role as president of Transylvania

When he set out 10 years ago to reshape his career from that of a successful Wall Street investment banker to the role of a college professor or administrator, R. Owen Williams was searching for something that would allow him to make full use of his life experiences.

After leaving the financial world in 1999 and spending the next decade engaged in scholarly work at several prestigious institutions, during which time he completed his Ph.D. in history at Yale University, Williams, 58, found what he was looking for in the presidency of Transylvania University.

As he takes over the top administrative position on August 1 from Charles L. Shearer, who is retiring July 31 after a historic 27-year tenure in office, Williams can hardly restrain his enthusiasm about the chance to shape the next chapter in the story of Kentucky’s oldest college as Transylvania’s 25th president.

“What was driving me in my transition from the world of business to academics were two life goals, which were to do a Ph.D. and get involved in college administration,” Williams said. “When Transylvania came along, I realized it was a fabulous opportunity. I’ve thought so much about all the aspirations I have for the university. It’s exciting in the extreme.”

William T. Young Jr., chairman of the Board of Trustees, directed the national search that brings Williams to Transylvania. He feels the university is getting someone who is an excellent fit.

“With his successful career on Wall Street and his decision to change direction and enter the academic world, Owen Williams has unique strengths to lead Transylvania to the next level,” Young said. “His educational background, his managerial experience, and his ability to relate to people of different backgrounds will serve Transylvania well. I am especially encouraged by his excitement and enthusiasm.”

A world traveler

Williams arrived at the decision to change his career focus after a 24-year sojourn in the business world with four companies that took him to assignments from New York City to Tokyo. He arrives in Lexington and at Transylvania following a 10-year period of academic preparation, along with some soul-searching, that confirmed an interest in scholarship and higher education that he identified as early as his undergraduate days in the 1970s.

After taking an A.B. degree in philosophy from Dartmouth College in 1974, Williams studied at Cambridge University in England, earning an M.A. in intellectual history in 1976 and setting his sights initially on an academic career.

Owen williams and b.j. gooch
B. J. Gooch, Transylvania Special Collections librarian, shows Owen Williams one of the rare books in the university’s holdings.

“When I left Cambridge, I promised myself I would go back to school someday and do a Ph.D.,” he said. “I wasn’t sure I was prepared at that point in my life to take on a career in academic pursuits. I had friends from college who said, ‘Come on down to Wall Street and check it out.’ So I went, very much on a lark. I never expected that for myself at all.”

Even without a business or economics degree, or apprenticeships or internships at investment banks that most Wall Street beginners have on their résumés, Williams soon found himself hired by Salomon Brothers and enrolled in the investment firm’s first training class for new employees.

“I was in a group of 30 people, and I was the only one without a business or law degree,” Williams recalled. “They all had the typical background for a career in business—I didn’t.”

After completing his training, he was assigned to an office in Los Angeles, followed by San Francisco and Tokyo. It was the beginning of more than two decades in the high-powered world of investment banking that eventually took him to Goldman Sachs, Bear Stearns, and finally First Union Capital Markets in Charlotte, N.C., where in 1999 he left the business world behind.

Williams had done well in his financial career. During his 13 years with Salomon Brothers, he became director and global product manager for the firm’s government bond department, and was vice president, Salomon Brothers Asia. He co-managed the world’s largest primary government bond dealership.

He was an executive director at Goldman Sachs, developing the company’s real estate business in non-Japan Asia, and a senior managing director at Bear Stearns. At his last stop, First Union, he was managing director and head of fixed income, increasing revenues in that segment by 10-fold to over $100 million.

Heading back to campus

As the new century began, Williams plunged back into the academic world by pursuing a Ph.D. in American history at Yale and winning a series of fellowships along the way at Yale Law School, Harvard University Law School, and New York University School of Law. He was awarded the Ph.D. in 2009, and took an M.S.L. in law from Yale in 2007 when he felt he needed more background in legal matters to support his historical research. He taught a number of history courses at Yale while working on his doctorate.

There are intriguing coincidences between Williams’ scholarly interests and the history of Transylvania. His dissertation, “Unequal Justice Under Law: The Supreme Court and the First Civil Rights Movement, 1857-1883,” has as its two primary protagonists U.S. Supreme Court Justices Samuel Miller and John Marshall Harlan, both alumni of Transylvania. Miller studied medicine at Transy, while Harlan graduated from the law school.

Also, Williams held the Cassius Marcellus Clay Postdoctoral Fellowship at Yale just prior to accepting the Transylvania presidency. Clay, the famed emancipationist and minister to Russia in President Lincoln’s administration, is an alumnus of Transy and completed his degree at Yale.

“Samuel Miller is one of the most important jurists in 19th-century American history, and John Marshall Harlan is my hero and the central figure in my dissertation,” Williams said. “So I felt as if there were a spiritual connection between me and Transylvania even before coming here.”

During the application process for the Transy position, Williams studied the history of the university and has become very impressed with the role the school has played in the history of higher education in America. He read Transylvania: Tutor to the West by history professor emeritus John D. Wright Jr., the definitive story of the university.

owen williams and students“I love history, and this is an institution steeped in history,” he said. “I think a big part of what makes Transylvania special is that it’s an American institution going back to the very beginning of our country.”

The Transy spirit

As he arrives at Transylvania, Williams plans to focus initially on admissions and fund-raising while spending time listening and learning about the university before deciding on other initiatives.

“I think it’s going to take three-to-six months just listening to people who know Transylvania well and can help me understand the spirit of this place,” he said. “I need to come to a firm understanding of what Transylvania has to offer students and what sets this institution apart from all others. That’s my first order of business. Then it will be my job to turn around and play back to the Transylvania community what I think they’ve told me, and hopefully set a new vision for the institution.

“People have asked me, ‘What do you want to change about Transylvania?’ I don’t want to change anything about the university. I think Transylvania’s great. What I want to do is ameliorate what is already here, enhance it, augment it, build it.”

In admissions, Williams would like to increase the number of out-of-state students. He would also like to build the applicant pool, thereby driving down the number of acceptances as a percentage of the pool and enhancing the quality of the student body.

Williams’ financial acumen will serve Transylvania well when it comes to identifying new sources of funds for the scholarships and many other academic initiatives, student life programs, and capital projects that the university continues to develop.

In fact, in addition to his primary business career, Williams comes to Transylvania with an impressive résumé of volunteer work for non-profit organizations that has included extensive fund-raising as well as the creation of strategic plans to alter and improve those organizations’ focus.

For example, as president of the Wilton (Conn.) Historical Society, he wrote an extensive long-range strategic plan that overhauled the entire structure and purpose of the organization. The plan shifted the focus from managing 22 historic buildings to an expanded historical educational agenda aimed at everyone from school children to seniors.

In financial campaigns for Dartmouth, St. John’s College at Cambridge, the Multiple Sclerosis Society, and the Wilton Historical Society, Williams has been responsible for raising millions of dollars to support their programs.

“I have always derived great fulfillment from the time I have devoted to fund-raising for non-profit groups,” he said. “I like fund-raising, and not everybody does. In this day and age, if you actually enjoy it, I think you have a certain responsibility to do it.”

Williams will bring to his new position many contacts within the financial world from his time spent on Wall Street, and he looks forward to taking the Transylvania message to new destinations.

“I have the enviable opportunity of becoming a champion for Transylvania, being able to travel around the region and the country, making it more clear to new audiences just how wonderful this university is,” he said.

Transylvania’s strengths
owen williams and students
A reception was held at Graham Cottage to welcome Owen Williams to Transylvania. Williams shakes hands with first-year student Andrew Goff.

As he becomes more and more comfortable in the president’s role, Williams hopes to use all the skills he has acquired thus far in the areas of financial management, marketing, fund-raising, academics, communication, and teaching to move Transylvania forward.

One of the strengths of the university he plans to build on is its essential character as a small, compact campus in the midst of a city of 270,000 with all its urban advantages.

“The size of Transylvania’s campus is confined by the fact that it’s in the middle of a city, yet the campus is very green and beautiful,” Williams said. “It isn’t like Hunter College in the vastness of New York City on the one hand, or small colleges in very rural locations on the other hand. This is a very special location. There aren’t many colleges that have the best of both worlds.”

Williams also sees Transylvania’s relatively small campus and enrollment as advantages in creating a sense of community and closeness among students, faculty, and staff.

“I had a board member tell me that the defining element of the Transy experience is the sense of belonging,” he said. “And I think that sense of belonging is an outgrowth, in many respects, of the closeness of the community. Transy is a small school, but I think that’s very much in keeping with the essence of a liberal arts education.”
On a personal level, Williams, who was born in Baltimore and lived in Texas, New Mexico, and California growing up, is already feeling a sense of belonging to the Transylvania community and looks forward to becoming a citizen of Kentucky. He and his wife, Jennifer, have a son, Tucker, 19, and a daughter, Penelope, 15.

“Everyone has been so friendly and warm toward us,” he said. “People have been very welcoming in a way that was a big part of our decision to come to Transy. I hope we’ll be accepted as Kentuckians in reasonably short order.”

Williams believes Transylvania’s potential to grow and improve over the coming years is great.

“Of the institutions that are this size, I think Transylvania could be one of the best in the country,” he said. “Why not? There’s not much in our way. For the past several decades, Transylvania has been flying high. If anything, I hope it can expand its wings even farther.”

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