New RISD President Crystal Williams Begins a New Era in the Arts

The 18th president gears up to tackle challenges and carry out the art school’s legacy

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Now officially on the job and with her first June graduation behind her, the 18th president of the Rhode Island School of Design, Crystal Williams, has settled comfortably into her downtown office. In appointing its first Black president, RISD is following the path of several other respected arts institutions, from the hiring of Eric Pryor at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to Kymberly Pinder at Yale. 

With a BA from New York University and MFA from Cornell University, Williams arrives at the school with solid academic credentials. She’s an award-winning poet and essayist with four published collections of poems; has been widely anthologized; and was the recipient of several artistic fellowships, grants, and honors. Early in her career, she excelled in national poetry slam competitions.

In her initial communication with RISD students, one asked the obvious question: “But what do you know about art?” Flashing an infectious smile, she admitted, “To be frank, I can’t even draw a triangle. In fact, I don’t do doodles well either. But, I have spent over 20 years as an English professor and pride myself on being able to work productively with my students, trying to coax out of them what they are trying to say even when they feel they lack the actual words to say it.” 

Recently there has been recognition within the art world, from museums, collectors, and, especially, students that something must be done in terms of creating more diversity and inclusion. Following RISD student-organized public protests two years ago calling for a commitment to diversity among both students and faculty, as well as more affordable tuition, the school is well attuned to nationwide efforts for increased equity. 

Among the great art schools – and RISD is arguably at the top of that list – are two additional challenges: an educational commitment to the craftsmanship that underlies the arts as well as developing what RISD calls the “whole artist,” knowing their graduates need to possess the flexibility to thrive in our rapidly changing world. 

So when the school assembled its presidential search committee, seeking a candidate to tackle these challenges, it paid special attention to ensure they represented all facets of its community: faculty members, administrators, trustees, and, of course, students. Williams was chosen in a national search that included well over 100 interviewees.

Her background in both teaching and inclusion are indeed impressive. Williams spent her first 10 years of teaching at Reed College on the West Coast, where she honed her pedagogical skills and also developed her passion as a faculty activist working with peers on equity and diversity. Her upward trajectory then turned eastward with teaching and administrative stops at Bates College in Maine and later Boston University, where she became the school’s first vice president and associate provost for community and inclusion.

Her reputation in the academic community is that of a warm, collegial, and collaborative thought leader, a respected consultant on inclusion and equity issues, and a passionate and patient champion for developing solutions to educational issues. 

But what makes president Williams stand out as a particularly exciting choice for RISD is a background dramatically different from her 17 predecessors and many of her peers. Adopted at an early age by an educator and musician couple, she was raised in Detroit and Madrid. In her bio-film presentation to the RISD student body, she details her unusual path to the presidency.

“I confess it took me about 10 years before I finally got my college degree,” she says with a laugh. “During that time, I guess you can say I learned by living. I ran a bookstore, tended bar, entered national poetry slam competitions, acted in plays…It was quite a trip.” 

When asked about her specific plans for the college, she shares, “For the next few months, I plan to listen intently and learn as much as I can about the communities both in and out of the school.” 

As for her perception of her relationship with the city, she acknowledged she was aware of the long-term and positive relationship between the school, the museum, and the broader community, and looks forward to expanding it. “I’m especially well aware of the important role artists play in helping to develop neighborhoods especially in less affluent areas.”

Past RISD presidents have often found unusual ways to make their presence known in big and small ways, from relocating dorms from the East Side to downtown to RISD officials frequently attending the first organizational meetings of the College Hill Neighborhood Association. Roger Mandle, who served as president for 15 years, housed students in extra rooms in the president’s house and gave out crayons instead of candies to trick-or-treaters on Halloween. The Jolly Roger Deli on South Main Street serves as a reminder of his popularity. 

Based on her background, experience, and what she calls her “radical passion for inclusiveness,” there’s reason to expect exciting developments ahead for the school. “I can’t believe a school as spectacular as RISD can’t be made accessible to a family earning $40,000 and that the creativity of its students and faculty can’t be used for the benefit of its host city.”

And on that note, let the Williams years commence.

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