DELHI TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- H. James Williams is a deep believer in the power of higher education. And he points to himself as a prime example.
The 60-year-old seventh president of Mount St. Joseph University began his career in the late 1970s as an accountant in his hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina at Ernst & Young (then Ernst & Ernst), with a goal of becoming a partner in the firm and impacting his community in a positive way through his position.
It was during Williams’ time at Ernst & Young, however, that he took a year’s leave to earn his MBA in accounting at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was asked to teach a class of 55 students.
“It was through that experience that I realized that education was really my calling,” he said.
Williams went on to earn his doctorate in accounting from the University of Georgia; teach at the University of Notre Dame; receive two law degrees from Georgetown University while also teaching accounting there; practice taxation law; teach at Florida A&M University and at Texas Southern University; teach and serve as dean at Delaware State University, North Carolina Central University and Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich.; and, most recently, serve as president of Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.
“I wanted to go into administration because I wanted to help more students, and I realized I could have more of an impact as an administrator,” he said.
Before Williams starts at the Mount on Tuesday, and while he’s in the process of moving himself and his wife from Nashville to the West Side of Cincinnati – within two miles of the Mount, in fact – he talked with WCPO about why he took the job, his goals and what he likes to do in his downtime:
WCPO: Why Mount St. Joseph University?
Williams: My personal mission, vision and values align so nicely with the mission, vision and values of Mount St. Joseph and the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. That’s where I usually start. When I started there, I realized there are so many things I have in common with the Mount’s mission, vision and value statements.
WCPO: What are you most looking forward to in coming to the Mount and to Cincinnati?
Williams: I’m most looking forward to serving the faculty, staff, alumni and friends of Mount St. Joseph because I believe that’s the ultimate goal of any university president – to serve and to make sure we can enhance the lives and professional careers of faculty, staff, students and alumni while responding to the business and community needs. In coming to Cincinnati, I’m most looking forward to having a positive impact on the community as a whole.
WCPO: What is the biggest challenge you see with your new position?
Williams: I think it’s the challenge all small, liberal arts education institutions are facing these days around enrollment and being able to be successful in a buyer’s market for students, especially undergraduate students. You really do have to compete more aggressively than you did in the past, so the biggest challenge will be around enrollment, I think.
WCPO: What is the biggest opportunity you see with your new position?
Williams: I think the biggest opportunity is around philanthropy, because I believe that if we can rally our alums and work closely with our board of trustees and really be able to deliver our story to the community and reinvigorate our involvement in the community, we can encourage folks to invest in Mount St. Joseph activities.
WCPO: What is your goal for Mount St. Joseph University?
Williams: My goal is to take what is a great university with a great culture – I love that place already – and help it to have a great impact in all the different areas where we are impactful at the moment, as well as build on our outreach to the community. There are so many opportunities to build on what we do so well and to share the great culture the Mount represents with the Greater Cincinnati community.
WCPO: What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned about serving as the president of a university that you didn’t expect to learn?
Williams: Two things: How much deference there is to a president – sometimes, too much deference – and how challenging it is sometimes to communicate the message you have to communicate. Too often, you’re so far removed from the group you’re trying to impact and have to go through so many levels before the message gets to where it needs to be. It winds up being more of a challenge than I expected.
WCPO: What are you most passionate about?
Williams: I’m most passionate about pursuing excellence, and that means in anything and everything, from sports to learning.
WCPO: When are you happiest?
Williams: I’m happiest when I’m relaxing with my family, with my wife and my son, 21, my daughter and my son-in-law – both 25. We do family vacations together and family events like football and baseball games.
WCPO: What is your favorite food? Favorite sports team?
Williams: I don’t know that I have a favorite food, but I do love to eat. And I love ice cream. I’m really looking forward to trying Skyline Chili. As for sports, my favorite sport by far is football. My favorite team up until now has been the Indianapolis Colts, but I’ve got to support the Bengals now that I’m here.