Williams achieved goals to grow Delaware State University


Delaware State University president Dr. Harry Williams and his wife, Dr. Robin Williams, walk down Loockerman Street during the school’s annual Homecoming parade in 2015. (File photo)

DOVER — Harry Williams’ main career goal was to be president of a historically black college or university. Now, after eight years at the helm of Delaware State University, the 53-year-old is turning a new page — sort of. He will soon begin a new job, but many of his duties will change little other than in scale.

The Thurgood Marshall College Fund and DSU announced in October Dr. Williams will be taking over as the head of the fund. A nonprofit named for the U.S. Supreme Court’s first black member, the fund is dedicated to helping its 47 member institutions, all historically black colleges and universities.

Opting to leave Delaware State, Dr. Williams said Wednesday, was a hard choice.

“We have an opportunity to literally scale it up on a national level,” he said of his work with DSU. “It’s something that is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

As president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, Dr. Williams will lead its efforts to promote diversity, raise money for HBCUs and help nearly 300,000 students prepare for the workforce.

“It’s a really big job,” Dr. Williams said.

His last official day at DSU is today, and he will begin at the Washington D.C.-based organization the following day.

Dr. Williams’ passion for HBCUs was shaped by his upbringing and by his time working at North Carolina A&T University, one of the largest HBCUs in the nation. From 2000 to 2004, the native North Carolinian was an interim director of admissions there, where he witnessed why HBCUs continue to attract black — and non-black — students.

“That was the place that really sparked my interest because I could see firsthand the power of education and the power to change lives,” Dr. Williams said, noting most HBCUs were founded out of necessity.

A majority of HBCUs in the country were formed in the 1800s, especially after the Civil War, when millions of blacks were suddenly free. With that freedom came a need for education for former slaves who hoped to establish careers and obtain knowledge previously denied to them.

Although Dr. Williams did not attend an HBCU (he obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Appalachian State University and a doctorate from East Tennessee State University), North Carolina A&T spoke to him.

HBCUs, he said, offer chances for students who might otherwise be left behind. Many are able to attend college only with the aid of scholarships, and some, like Dr. Williams, are first-generation college students.

To Dr. Williams, working to help HBCUs is not just a job.

“It’s almost like a spiritual thing,” he said.

Delaware State

Dr. Williams will be succeeded for the time being by Wilma Mishoe, the chair of the board of trustees who was selected as the interim president in November.

“Dr. Williams is a visionary leader whose acumen and style are matched only by his commitment to our students’ success,” Dr. Mishoe, whose father, Luna, served as president from 1960 to 1987, said in a statement. “There could not have been a more ideal person to lead us through the still early days of the 21st century. He embodies the very best of us from our initial roots as the Delaware College for Colored Students to our evolution as a comprehensive teaching, learning and research university.”

Dr. Williams came to Delaware in 2007, leaving the University of North Carolina to become DSU’s interim associate vice president for academic affairs. Six months later, he was named interim senior associate vice president for academic and student affairs, and a few months after that, he was selected as provost.

President Allen Sessoms left his post in 2008 to head the University of the District of Columbia, and in November 2009, Dr. Williams was named DSU’s next chief.

He is the 10th president in DSU’s 126-year history. (There have also been two acting presidents.)

“DSU is at a place where it needs a leader who can tackle the challenges before us, meet them and find solutions. Dr. Harry Williams has proven in every job he has taken that he focuses on strategic priorities, aligns resources and ensures the institution is on a pathway for success,” Dr. John Land, acting chairman of the board of trustees, said in a statement at the time.

“Equally important, we are at a turning point in history for historically black institutions, and we need a leader who understands that and can expertly merge our historic purpose with the need to be known as an institution of higher education that exceptionally educates all students for a global marketplace. The board is confident that Dr. Williams will do just that with rigor, enthusiasm and deep commitment.”

The average college president holds his or her position for seven years, according to a 2012 publication from the American Council on Education.

Were it not for the offer from the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, Dr. Williams said he likely would have stayed at Delaware State for a few more years. Working at the university over the past 10 years has been a “defining moment,” he said.

HBCUs have struggled in many ways over the past decades, a result of more black students choosing traditional universities and, more recently, the Great Recession making money tight.

Delaware State is sometimes seen as an afterthought to the larger and wealthier (and whiter) University of Delaware. But DSU is far more than the Robin to UD’s Batman: It plays a pivotal role as the First State’s only HBCU and as an option for Delawareans who want to stay in state but not attend school upstate. The university is also an economic driver for Kent County.

Dr. Williams was “the right man at the right time,” state Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, said.

“Under his leadership … DelState became one of the top HBCUs in the United States, and that is something that the people of Delaware and the whole Delmarva region can be proud of,” he said.

In 2009, shortly after being named the next president, Dr. Williams said his main goal at DSU was to strengthen the school’s heritage and make it one of the best HBCUs in the country.

U.S. News and World Report ranked DSU behind 12 HBCUs and ahead of 67 others in its 2017 list of top HBCUs. It was behind 16 HBCUs in the same rankings in 2011.

One of Dr. Williams’ first tasks as president was to work with lawmakers to pass legislation establishing a scholarship to assist in-state students. The Inspire program, modeled after the Student Excellence Equals Degree initiative at Delaware Technical Community College, passed without a single vote in opposition, allowing Delawareans with good grades to attend DSU at greatly reduced cost.

The program, Dr. Williams said, was a “gamechanger” that allowed Delaware State to boost its numbers, especially by adding more Delaware students.

The university has received several grants under Dr. Williams, such as $1.05 million from the Bernard Osher Foundation, $1.2 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and $2.6 million from the U.S. Department of Education. It’s also raised $20 million through the most successful fundraising campaign in DSU history.

Plenty of money has gone to the Delaware Institute for Science and Technology, with the groundbreaking Optical Science Center for Applied Research opening in 2015. DSU’s graduate optics program fills a niche, allowing the university to attract some science-oriented students who otherwise might not consider the school.

Researchers in the OSCAR building study fields like quantum mechanics and use lasers to examine things like greenhouse gas pollution and space.

In 2014, the Early College High School opened. Located at the former Sheraton hotel just off campus, the charter school focuses on science, technology, engineering and math and offers attendees chances to earn dozens of college credits.

The first class of about 80 students will graduate in the spring. The valedictorian, Dr. Williams proudly noted, has been accepted to Stanford University.

“That’s a really positive success story,” he said of the school.

Delaware State University has seen record enrollment during Dr. Williams’ tenure, growing from 3,800 in 2010 to 4,600 this year. It has developed partnerships with universities and businesses around the world, including in China, South Africa and Poland.

In 2013, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities named Delaware State the 1890 Land-Grant Institution of the Year, and in 2015 it honored DSU by selecting the school as the 1890 University of the Year.

Dr. Williams himself was deemed one of the 10 most influential HBCU presidents in 2016 by HBCU Digest.

“Dr. Williams has led Delaware State University during a critical time — when higher education has been more important than ever to the success of young Delawareans, and to our collective success as a state,” Gov. John Carney said in a statement.

“DSU has long been one of Delaware’s most important and historic institutions, and its contributions to our state, our ability to attract talented young people, and prepare the next generation, have only grown under Dr. Williams’ guidance. We’ll miss his leadership in Delaware. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund is lucky to have him and we wish him well.”

Asked about his regrets, Dr. Williams said he had checked off every single one of his goals, although he expressed a tinge of disappointment neither the football or basketball teams won a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship during his tenure.

Whoever follows him, officials say, has big shoes to fill.

Hopefully, Dr. Williams said, “people will say the things I said I was going to do at Delaware State, I accomplished those goals.”

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