Michael D. Williams became the sixth president of Harding University on June 1. Before that, he was the eighth president of Faulkner University of Montgomery, Alabama, from 2015-22. In his time the school added a College of Health Sciences and an autism center.
In previous roles at Harding, he was a leader in enrollment management from 1987 to 2003, when he was promoted to vice president for university advancement.
Williams has a bachelor’s in accounting and an MBA from Harding, as well as a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Williams took over for David Burks, a former Harding president who resumed the position after his successor, Bruce McLarty, retired in October 2020.
With the number of new high school graduates flat or declining, what levers are available for a university to use to balance revenue and expenses?
University leaders must have highly developed business acumen to flourish in this competitive marketplace. Institutions are constructing more robust financial models to foster sustainability. As universities refine their grasp of the economic drivers and laggards within the institution, they can make strategic investments and attack their weaknesses with precision.
What does the future of private higher education look like, and how will it be different?
American higher education is still the gold standard globally. The hallmark of our system is the rich tapestry of diverse institutions. Independent institutions add a distinctive contribution to the mix. Increasingly, the movement pushes towards uniformity. Private higher education institutions need to clarify our distinctive brand and articulate our relevance. In reality, the states cannot accomplish our higher education attainment goals without the private sector. Every student from Arkansas who chooses an independent option saves this state thousands of dollars in investment. We believe Harding makes a tremendous contribution to the advancement of our great state.
Your last institution, Faulkner University, added a health sciences college and an autism center. What similar opportunities are you exploring at Harding?
In my first year, we will launch a robust strategic visioning process. Part of this effort is to conduct an environmental scan of our state. We aspire to be a strategic asset of this state as together we address societal challenges. Building a flourishing world is central to our historic Christian mission. As we see a challenging economic forecast, increasing demands in K-12 education, health care and myriad other arenas, Harding seeks to partner with business leaders, public policymakers and people of faith to pursue solutions.
What have you heard from students about what they want in a four-year degree program?
Nationally, the driving force of college choice is career preparation. The futurists predict that this emerging generation will most likely have 20 jobs in five different industries (of which one or two do not currently exist). So, how do we prepare them for a dynamic career? We certainly need to prepare them with skills and competencies to enable them to compete for the first job or intellectual capacity to perform well in graduate/professional school. But we also need to give them the tools that extend the breadth of their lives living in a knowledge economy. Critical thinking and communication skills, executive functioning, emotional intelligence, leadership and moral reasoning are all attributes of a well-rounded professional.
What must private universities do to attract and retain students these days?
They must have a clarity of mission and vision. To attract students, you must be able to clearly articulate a narrative that is both compelling and competitively differentiated in the marketplace. To retain students, you must serve their needs and deliver on your ambitious claims.
What are the benefits of running a religious college?
I love the engagement with students at a Christ-centered university. The conversation extends far beyond the academic discipline. We foster conversations such as, “Who is God?,” “What does it mean to be a human?,” “What really matters?,” “What are our responsibilities?” At Harding, we aspire to build leaders, change agents, influencers, individuals who restore the world to what God intended from the beginning.
What’s your management philosophy?
Vision-casting, inspiring, collaborating!
What has been an important leadership lesson for you, and what did you learn from it? Peter Drucker says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” However, positive culture produces the best strategy. This notion that the best strategy comes from the top is not always true. I love the quote from Gary Hamel: “The revolution is rarely led by the monarch.” In a day where we seek innovation, entrepreneurship needs to be teased out from the breadth of the organization.