President Gregory Williams has lived on both sides of the color line, and now he’s using his experience to connect with his students and turn around his university.
By Jamal Watson
When Dr. Gregory H. Williams left The Ohio State University in August 2001 to become president of the City College of New York, many of his colleagues in the academy were convinced that Williams — who was dean of OSU’s law school — had lost his mind.
At the time, City College — the flagship school of The City University of New York system — was mired in deep financial problems and was facing a declining enrollment. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred just six weeks after Williams took the job, and he found himself forced to rally thousands of devastated students and faculty.
It seemed almost too much for one person to take on.
But Williams was used to challenges. In 1954, at the age of 10, he moved with his family from segregated Virginia, where he grew up believing he was White, to Muncie, Ind., where he learned his father’s family was Black.
It was on a Greyhound bus that Williams and his brother would learn the news. His White mother had deserted them, and his father, James “Buster” Williams, had been keeping a startling secret that he could no longer hide: He was a light-skinned Black man who was “passing” for White.
“Life is going to be different from now on,” Williams’ father told them as they made the journey to Indiana. “In Virginia you were White boys,” but “in Indiana you’re going to be colored.”
The news left Williams bewildered. Back in Virginia, he had attended Whites-only schools and frequented swimming pools that were off-limits to Blacks. When he began to self-identify as Black in Muncie, even though he could’ve easily passed as White, he was subjected to all forms of racism.
“I hadn’t wanted to be colored, but too much had happened to me in Muncie to be a part of the White world that had rejected me so completely,” Williams says.
He chronicled his experiences in his best-selling memoir, Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black. The book earned him an appearance on “Oprah” and is now required reading for freshmen at many colleges and universities across the nation.
“Williams’ account of growing up in poverty resonates with many of the students at City College. Most are first-generation minority students, whose combined annual family income falls under $30,000, making it virtually impossible for them to afford the school’s yearly tuition of $4,000 without help.
For his part, Williams, 62, is using his national profile to help train a spotlight on a college that many argue had long been forgotten. He has been successful in raising millions of dollars for scholarships and research, prompting political and business leaders to take notice.
“When I came here, I was told that I would be lucky if I could raise $25 million,” says Williams, whose Harlem office is surrounded by personal mementos and photographs of himself with the likes of President Bill Clinton, actor James Earl Jones and former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, an alumnus and the namesake of the school’s public policy center. “In the five years that I have been here, I have raised $184 million.”
For the first time, the public institution founded in 1847 is seriously competing with other, better-known colleges and universities. In 2004, Lev A. Sviridov, then a senior at CCNY, won a Rhodes Scholarships to study at the University of Oxford in England. The school had not had a Rhodes Scholar since 1935. Recently, another student turned down Harvard University because he wanted to study medicine at CCNY’s Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education.
When Williams arrived in 2001, the student population was 10,000. The latest enrollment figure is 13,500 — a 30 percent increase in five years. Williams has also secured $500 million for the construction of a new science facility on CCNY’s already expanding campus.
And for more financial support, Williams has the ear of Andrew S. Grove, a City College alumnus and a founder, former president and board chairman of Intel Corp. In 1957, Grove entered City College as an immigrant from Budapest, Hungary. He spoke no English, but went on to graduate at the top of his class. In 2005, Grove returned to CCNY to make a $26 million contribution to the engineering school, citing Williams’ leadership as a large reason for the donation. The college responded by renaming the school the Grove School of Engineering.
“We have raised our academic standards,” says Williams of the changes he’s affected. The average SAT score is well above 1050. For honors students, SAT scores are in the 1300 range. Between 75 percent and 80 percent of City College students who apply to law and medical school are admitted, according to college officials.
Although CCNY is a commuter school, Williams oversaw the construction of a dormitory allowing students from other boroughs of New York City to live on campus.
“I think it’s important that higher education is available to all,” says Williams, who admits that as a public institution, the dependency on the city and state for dollars is often a challenge.
But he’s committed to bringing new programs and initiatives to campus, and he says that he is dedicated to ensuring that Black males — the most likely group to drop out of college — earn a bachelor’s degree from his college.
Despite the criticism that Medgar Evers College, another CUNY school, recently faced after it created a mentoring program for Black men, Williams is adamant that this demographic should be targeted.
“This issue is of great importance to me,” he says.
And while most Black CCNY students are often surprised to learn that their visibly “White” college president is actually Black, many say that they applaud his leadership style and his commitment to the student body.
“I think he’s been very effective,” says student Duane Brown. “There are probably a million other places where he could be president, but he is here at City College. That says a lot.”
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