Incoming RISD President Crystal Williams. | Photo by Jo Sittenfeld

 

THE NEXT PRESIDENT of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) is Crystal Williams. The school’s board of trustees announced the news this morning. A professor, poet, and diversity advocate, Williams brings more than two decades of higher education experience to RISD. She currently serves as vice president and associate provost for community & inclusion at Boston University.

The new appointment is historic. Williams will be the first African American to lead RISD. Williams said the appointment felt “surreal” and added “I would not be sitting here if I didn’t believe in the depth of my being that RISD is an extraordinary place.” She officially starts on April 1.

“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,” RISD Board of Trustees Chair Michael Spalter said in a statement.

“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.”

Located in Providence, R.I., RISD was founded by a small group of women and incorporated as a school and museum in 1877. A leading arts institution, the academic program includes liberal arts studies and studio-based education. About 2,500 undergraduate and graduate students are served across 22 art and design majors. Notable alumni include highly regarded artists Julie Mehretu, Kara Walker, Tavares Strachan, and Deana Lawson.

“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,” Williams said 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.”

Crystal Williams “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.”
— RISD Board Chair Michael Spalter

AT BOSTON UNIVERSITY, Williams has been serving as the inaugural vice president and associate provost for community & inclusion since 2020. Working with BU’s 17 schools and colleges, her leadership, management, and strategic planning role is central to creating a positive campus climate, building the excellence of faculty, and enhancing the academic program.

Her portfolio includes the Provost’s Arts Initiative; Organizational Development and Learning; the Newbury Center, supporting first-generation students; the LGBTQIA+ Faculty/Staff Center; Academic Living and Learning Centers; and BU Diversity & Inclusion. Williams joined BU in 2017 as associate provost for diversity & inclusion. In tandem with her administrative duties, she is a professor of English at BU.

Previously, Williams worked at Bates College (2013–17) in Lewiston, Maine, where she served as associate vice president for strategic initiatives, professor of English, and senior advisor to the president.

She began her academic career at Reed College in Portland, Ore., as a professor of English (2000–11), eventually becoming a faculty advocate in an effort to bring more diversity and inclusion to the university. Her vision and leadership resulted in a newly created position. Williams was appointed Reed’s inaugural dean for institutional diversity (2011-13). Williams holds a BA degee from New York University and earned an MFA from Cornell University.

In addition to her credentials as a higher education administrator, Williams is a successful poet. She has published four collections of poetry, including “Kin,” “Lunatic,” and “Troubled Tongues.” Her latest book, “Detroit as Barn,” was a finalist for the National Poetry Series, the Cleveland State Open Book Prize, and the Maine Book Award.

She has also participated in projects with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Last year, the museum’s magazine asked Robin Coste Lewis, the poet laureate of Los Angeles, to invite a group of poets to write in response to a particular work of art. Williams chose Faith Ringgold’s “American People #20: Die” (1967) and wrote a poem titled “Elegy for Us.”

In 2015, the museum commissioned a Poetry Suite to accompany the exhibition “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North.” Poet and essayist Elizabeth Alexander selected 10 poets to create new poems inspired by Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series. Williams penned a poem called “Double Helix.”

“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.” — Crystal Williams


RISD Beach: Installation view of “Daybreak,” a sculpture by late alum Gil Franklin, ’41 SC. | Photo by Jo Sittenfeld

 

WORKING WITH THE EXECUTIVE SEARCH FIRM Isaacson, Miller, RISD launched an international search for its next president last winter. More than 100 candidates were considered. The process was co-chaired by four trustees (Hillary Blumberg, BFA ’92, Film Animation Video; Ilene Chaiken, BFA ’79, Graphic Design / Parent ’18; Karen Hammond; and artist Tavares Strachan, BFA ’03, Glass).

In their unanimous recommendation to the board, the co-chairs 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. 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.”

The appointment of Williams to lead RISD comes less than one week after Eric Pryor was named president of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia. (PAFA also worked with Isaacson, Miller.) Founded in 1805, PAFA is the first and oldest art museum and art school in the United States. Earlier this year, Kimberly Pinder was appointed dean of the Yale School of Art, which is recognized for its top-ranked MFA program. Similar to Williams, Pinder and Pryor are also the first Black people to serve in their leadership roles.

At RISD, Williams is succeeding Rosanne Somerson (BFA ’76, Industrial Design), who retired in June 2021 and now serves as the institution’s first president emerita. Since she stepped down, RISD Senior Vice President of Finance & Administration Dave Proulx has been serving as interim president.

In a new video introducing Williams as the next president of RISD, she responded to a series of questions. A few highlight her leadership perspective and priorities:

    What do you hope to do as president?
    Williams: I come to the endeavor as a Black woman from Detroit, Michigan, who is a poet who is trying to elevate the ability of our faculty, staff, and students to be creative and bring into the world the thing that is in their heart and their mind.

    Why is access important?
    Williams: Access to me is deeply personal. I was adopted as an infant and I was given up because the family didn’t have enough money to care for me. The result of that is I was adopted by my parents, extraordinary humans, and have had incredible access. It cannot be the case that a place as extraordinary as this leaves out students whose parents make $40,000 because they can’t afford to send their kid here. What do we lose? Right? What does the school lose when that is the reality? What does the world lose when that is the reality? So for me access is truly about opening up opportunities for our nation’s and our world’s most promising creatives.

    How does this moment feel?
    Williams: I think there’s been so much good, important, and essential work that has happened at RISD to get us to this moment. And the opportunity that I see is that we push forward, and bring into fuller realization, the vision that this art and design school becomes radically inclusive. I would not be sitting here if I didn’t believe in the depth of my being that RISD is an extraordinary place. CT

     

FIND MORE Last year, RISD was among the many mainstream institutions accused of fomenting an environment of structural racism. In July 2020, in response to such complaints from BIPOC students, faculty, and staff, RISD announced plans to create a more racially just institution through a series of actions designed to advance social equity

FIND MORE The short documentary “The Room of Silence” (2016) features RISD students sharing their experiences with race, identity and marginalization at the school, with particular attention paid to responses to their work in critiques. The film is directed by Eloise Sherrid, in collaboration with co-producers Olivia Stephens, Utē Petit, and Chantal Feitosa, and the organizing efforts of the student group Black Artists and Designers (BAAD)

 

FIND MORE Nancy Elizabeth Prophet was the first Black graduate of RISD in 1918

 


Incoming RISD President Crystal Williams introduces herself, shares some of her priorities, and responds to whether she knows how to conduct a crit. | Video by RISD

 


In 2015, the Museum of Modern Art commissioned a Poetry Suite from a selection of poets to accompany the exhibition “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North.” Williams penned a poem called “Double Helix” in response to Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series. | Video by MoMA

 

FIND MORE Crystal Williams was in conversation with Ford Foundation President Darren Walker at the Museum of Modern Art in 2016. The event about access issues in American culture was moderated by Vinson Cunningham

 

BOOKSHELF
Crystal Williams has published four collections of poetry, including “Kin,” “Lunatic,” and “Troubled Tongues.” Her most recent book is “Detroit as Barn.” Faith Ringgold’s “American People #20: Die” (1967) inspired a poem by Williams and the painting is also the subject of a publication. “Faith Ringgold: Die” provides the backstory for Ringgold’s fascinating work, which was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 2016. Williams was also commissioned to present a poem in response to the exhibition “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North.” The fully illustrated exhibition catalog includes her poem. Williams also considered “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson when penning her words.

 

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