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Williams casts wide net for genius

An afternoon chat with Ronald Williams ’76 about his years at Lehigh is much more than a walk down memory lane. It is a journey into the world of a black West Indian professional committed to discovering and nurturing the potential of students, in places where genius might otherwise be overlooked.

As the president of Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Md., just outside Washington, D.C., Williams has dedicated his life to helping others fulfill their potential for excellence.

Williams came to the United States from Barbados during a time of transition to independence in his homeland. He had been witness to the struggle for self-determination in the 1960s, so his arrival at Lehigh and into the black community began with a different view of “the struggle.”

Whereas the African American experience, as he saw it, was centered on overcoming racial oppression, Williams’ experience was one of the pursuit of national independence and the continuing social emergence of the individual, and by extension, the nation, through education, expression, debate, and intellectual engagement. Not that either perspective was superior, but clearly Williams was more a product of his nation’s struggle for independence than of the 1960’s civil rights movement in America.

A perfect fit

Just as his Barbados upbringing shaped Williams’ lifelong quest for excellence and love of language, his Lehigh years played a major role in providing a rigorous, socially diverse and intellectually rich environment. His experiences at Lehigh allowed him to move professionally to his current position, where he invests his energy in service to a broad range of learners.

“I became familiar with Lehigh when the college’s track team came to Barbados on spring break in 1972,” Williams recalls. “We competed against them and won.”

The next year, he made Lehigh his academic home.

“I found Lehigh a perfect fit,” Williams says. “As part of the experience of growing as an institution, Lehigh needed as many perspectives as possible.”

In those days, the campus was much less diverse. Williams was one of only 60 or so black students at Lehigh, but the last thing he seemed to experience was isolation or disconnection. In fact, Williams thrived in an environment that many others may have found alienating.

“So many of the professors were willing to push me,” says Williams, who got his bachelor’s degree in English and history in 1976. “I was also interested in testing the teachers. I especially remember Professor Jim Frakes in English, David Green, with whom I maintained a running battle on Paradise Lost, and Tony James and our fights over Robinson Crusoe.

“Then there was Professor Haight in history—we debated the central result of World War II. I remember arguing that it was the weakening of Britain as a colonial power. Jim Saeger in history—we engaged in intellectual discourse on Latin America, and Betsy Fifer, who always saw value in my ideas.”

Williams recalls how much he enjoyed challenging his professors and being challenged in return. He found intellectual debate stimulating and was interested in learning through his own experiences.

New experiences for Williams were not limited to the classroom. He helped establish the Dance Troupe, Le Compagnie and performed in Black Theatre. The Black Theatre was formed as a smaller group within the Mustard and Cheese Drama Society.

“These groups grew out of a sense that blacks didn’t have much in the way of cultural expression, that there were no expressive outlets on campus for black students,” he says.

A quest for the best

After receiving his master’s degree in English from Lehigh in 1978, Williams returned to Barbados, feeling the need for “reinvigoration.”

“I wanted to rediscover the source of my energy and inspiration,” he says. “I was tired and I wanted to live again in the embrace of a culture that I didn’t have to question and which would accept me without questioning.”

After a year, he returned to Lehigh to work on his doctorate in literature, which he received in 1982. When asked why he remained at the same institution for all three of his degrees, he says that he had already made one big move and was comfortable at Lehigh. He also felt he had much more to accomplish before moving on.

Williams quotes Matthew Arnold, a 19th century British poet and critic: “Culture [is] the acquainting of ourselves with the best that has been thought and said in the world, and thus with the history of the human spirit.”

“This is what I was seeking in literature,” Williams says. “I wanted to attach myself to the best. I read across disciplines, not just fiction and poetry. History gave me context and literature gave me language.”

English and history were two areas that Williams made a significant part of his studies. His love of language is rooted in its ability to move both the individual and society.

“My examination of literature was in relation to action, the ability of literature to inspire or retard action,” Williams says. “My intention was to use language actively, for a pragmatic purpose. The true meaning of being a slave is to be without voice, to be a nonentity. Education can provide a voice with which you can locate yourself at the center, rather than the periphery, of social problems.”

Achieving excellence

One might expect to find Williams at an Ivy League institution, exploring the literary and language capacities of the top 1 percent of the nation’s best and brightest. Instead, he is driven to uncover the genius that he believes is distributed throughout society.

His cousin, who at the time was director of the office of community colleges for New Jersey, arranged for Williams’ first teaching job, at Mercer County Community College.

“At first I thought I would self-destruct,” Williams recalls. “But by the end of the first year, I was impressed with the students, who seemed not to have a lot of academic preparation, but who brought incredible spirit and heart to the classroom.”

After a year in the faculty, he went on to serve as assistant to the president. He held the position for three years, but still couldn’t figure out where he wanted to be.

“I was working, but I couldn’t identify the products of my work,” Williams says.

Taking a one-year leave of absence, he sold mailing equipment for Pitney Bowes, then spent six months in Barbados before returning to Mercer County Community College.

Project Future, a program for severely disadvantaged students in inner-city Trenton, was the start of Williams’ substantive administrative career. He recounts a story from that time that contributed greatly to his understanding of just how committed his students were to their education.

“For these students, discipline was important. They couldn’t arrive late for class without checking in with me first,” Williams says. “One day a student arrived with his head wrapped in a bloody towel. He had been mugged for his welfare check. I asked him if he’d been to a doctor and he said no. He came straight to class. That impressed me immensely. Something had clicked in his head so that school had become his first priority. This was a graphic confirmation of the real need for education in these communities and the ability of college to improve the lives of students.”

It was experiences like these that added to Williams’ awareness of the need to take a leadership role in higher education—a role he has defined by seeking excellence and brilliance.

“My personal belief is that genius is distributed randomly,” said Williams. “If you only serve elites, you will miss some of the genius. We should cast the net as widely as possible in order to have a better chance of finding the genius and to better serve society. I am still looking for excellence, but it is not necessarily found only among the wealthy and elite. I believe strongly that most of the people who are in the community college environment have the capacity to learn and that if I can get the best out of each student, then excellence will be achieved.”

Williams continues his own personal search for excellence and achievement. He has served on Lehigh’s alumni board and is an avid writer, as one would expect a lover of language to be.

“I have written three unpublished novels and am working on a fourth,” Williams says. “I’ve never attempted to have my books published. For me, the fun is in the act of writing. All my novels are historical and political in nature.”

One thing is certain. Williams provides a clear rationale for taking a more serious approach to language. Whether we use it to advance our own standing in life or to uplift others, finding our voice allows us to preserve our past while paving the way for a better tomorrow.

--Lance Orndorff

Posted on Wednesday, February 18, 2004

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