DSU’s President introduces a new style of leadership

Harry L. Williams entered Delaware State University’s new student center around lunchtime and started working the room.

He walked table to table, shaking students’ hands, until a facilities manager informed him of a conference on the second floor for victims’ advocates and social workers.

“Social work?” said the university’s new president. “I thought someone said it was a sociology conference.”

Soon, one of the event organizers, assistant professor Marlene Saunders, approached him. She apologized for not asking sooner, but while he was there, could he say a few words to welcome guests at the conference?

So Williams walked upstairs, grabbed a microphone, ad-libbed a few general remarks and moved to the next item on his tightly drawn daily schedule.

“I had no idea I was going to speak to that group when I came in the building,” Williams said later. “As a leader, you have to be on your A-game all the time. … In this position, students and faculty and staff, they’re all watching you.”

Now four months into his tenure, Williams has emphasized his visibility and approachability.

He makes a point of taking a stroll around campus almost every day, he said. Sometimes for lunch, sometimes for a meeting he intentionally schedules outside the office, sometimes for no particular reason. He calls his leadership style “management by walking.”

“I have a lot of energy,” said Williams, 45. “I could easily sit in this office all day and sit on the phone and work. But I purposely will break away from that. … When people see you, they see you’re engaged, and it leaves an impression.”

In turn, Williams has engaged the campus community to help set the agenda for his administration. In February, he created a Blue Ribbon Commission to craft a new vision statement for the university and has hosted town hall meetings around the state to invite public input.

The approach has come as a relief to alumni and faculty, many of whom felt either ignored or left out of the process by Williams’ predecessor.

Williams often repeats his career ambition — to lead a historically black school. With that dream achieved, he has said frequently, his goal is to make Delaware State the best of the nation’s HBCUs.

He also wants to reconnect with DSU’s roots of nurturing first-generation black college students.

“We have a distinct niche in the African-American community, just like Notre Dame does in the Catholic community,” he said. “The institution started out for that purpose, and that’s something you embrace and support.”

Williams will face obstacles and controversy, regardless of his affable disposition. He gained faculty support with his decision to trim the $12 million athletic budget, said Steve Newton, president of the faculty union. But when he cut the women’s equestrian team, its members sued DSU, claiming Title IX gender discrimination. The school agreed to fund the team for another year while the lawsuit is pending.

In this economy, more budget fights could await, and the university has struggled to maintain adequate state funding throughout its history.

“With the limited resources we have, we have to be able to use our resources appropriately and efficiently,” Williams said.

The university could receive a windfall from an extra $2.55 billion approved by Congress last month to fund HBCUs, and Williams has engaged state lawmakers more than any other DSU president in decades, Newton said.

“You can’t go to [Legislative] Hall once a year, hold your hand out for money and then ignore the political process the other 364 days of the year,” Newton said. “Dr. Williams seems to understand that

Williams showed that initiative last week when he accepted the impromptu invitation from Saunders, the social work professor, to speak at the conference in the student union. Williams knew Lt. Gov. Matt Denn would be there, and Saunders filled him in on the important guests and sponsors of the event.

“He took it from there,” Saunders said. “He’s able to roll with the punches.”

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