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Independent Minded

Hope Williams brings dogged determination to her work
representing the state's independent colleges and universities

By Phil Kirk

Not many people are introduced by the governor as “one of the truly bright lights of our state,” but that is precisely the way Dr. Hope Williams was described by Gov. Hunt at a recent meeting of North Carolina's Education Cabinet and key legislators.

Williams, 46, has earned that reputation in her 23 years of service in state government and higher education. In her eight years as president of the North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities organization, she has also earned the respect of the leaders of our state's 36 private colleges and universities.

The organization's current volunteer leader, Dr. Julianne Still Thrift, president of Salem Academy and College in Winston-Salem, put it this way in a recent interview: “All 36 presidents of North Carolina's independent colleges sleep a bit better because Hope is in Raleigh representing us. She understands our colleges' values and our students' dreams. She cares for the success of all North Carolina students as if they were her very own.”

Williams' love and passion for education go back to her father, Newberry Williams, who died in the early 1980s, and her mother, Kathleen, who resides in Raleigh.

“They began every conversation with, `After you graduate from college. . . .' There was no doubt I would go to college,” Williams recalls. She also credits her teachers and counselors in the Fayetteville City Schools who encouraged her to be active in student government and to be a leader at an early age. Born in New Bern, she also lived in Havelock and Fayetteville, where she was exposed to Methodist College and St. Andrew's. “They were the cultural centers in the community,” she says.

With an undergraduate degree in French and history from Duke, a master's of public affairs from North Carolina State, and a doctorate. in education from UNC-Chapel Hill, she appears to have touched the major education bases in the Triangle. In addition, she attended The Governor's School at Salem College, graduated from The Government Executives Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill, and two years ago received an honorary doctorate of laws from Campbell University.

After graduating from Duke, she went to work as a volunteer — and later as a paid staff member — for then Lt. Gov. Jim Hunt, who was seeking his first of four terms as governor. Obviously the campaign was successful, and although Williams had not planned on moving into a state government position, she went to work in the Department of Administration. There she held several leadership positions and developed a close working relationship with Jane Patterson, who later served as secretary of the department.

Her work in that department dealt with personnel, budgets, advocacy, and legislative activities — all issues she has continued to deal with in her current leadership position with the state's independent colleges and universities.

It was during this time in state government that she received her master's at State and began work on her doctorate at Carolina. After the second Hunt administration ended, she did some consulting work for the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, which lead to the formation of N.C. Equity, an advocacy group for women's issues. In 1986 she became the executive director of the North Carolina Center for Independent Higher Education and in 1992 moved into her current job.

Around the same time, a merger brought together three well-re-spected organizations — the Center for Independent Higher Education, the Independent College Fund, and the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities — under the umbrella of the North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities. The newly merged organization has no regulatory authority over independent colleges as the UNC Board of Governors does over the public universities.

Brooks Raiford directs the Independent College Fund, which raises private dollars for 27 of the 36 colleges. All funds go to student scholarships. Williams represents the independent higher education sector on public policy issues, such as the Education Cabinet, which is composed of the governor, presidents of UNC and community college systems, superintendent of public instruction, and the chairman of the State Board of Education.

“I think the working relationships are stronger than ever before,” Williams says, referring to the major players in education-policy setting. “The cabinet helps those relationships because we see and work with each other on a regular basis.”

Although the future of the cabinet, which is mandated in legislation, is often a subject of discussion because of next year's change in the governor's office, Williams has strong feelings about its future. “The Education Cabinet has proven to be a very important vehicle for developing partnerships. The commitment of the next governor to this process is very important,” she says.

In addition to representing the independents' viewpoint on policy, Williams works, along with vice president Tim McDowell, to increase support for the North Carolina students in the independent colleges.

The state funds two individual grant programs to the tune of $60 million per year. The State Contractual Scholarship Fund was begun by the General Assembly in 1971 and the Legislative Tuition Grant program was funded in 1975. Coincidentally, Williams was in the first class to receive those funds. The past three legislative sessions have granted increases, and the grants made to individuals now total $2,800. The goal is to have the state fund students in independent colleges at the level of one-half of the state subsidy for North Carolina students in the public universities.

Williams' experience in the capital city has been a boon to the independent colleges and universities' stature and support in the legislature. “Our presidents know their legislators, and the legislators know how important these colleges — most of them small — are to their communities,” she says. “Most of them are familiar with their campuses.”

Williams and her staff of seven also organize meetings of various groups of professionals from the 36 campuses, such as deans of teacher education, development officers, alumni directors and business officers. They are also involved in providing research, facts and figures through the Center for Independent Higher Education.

“One of the most joyous parts of the job is learning to know so many individuals at the institutions,” Williams says. “I continue to be amazed at how much time our people spend with individual students.”

The veteran educator is especially impressed with the amount of time and effort spent on helping address the financial needs of many students. “While our fees are substantially lower than many other states, college is still expensive for many families,” she says. “The financial aid people work so hard to put together a package of state grants, federal aid, institutional aid and private donations.”

She says the public would be surprised at how many students receive at least some financial assistance. On some campuses as many as 90 percent of the students receive some form of aid.

Williams is an unabashed advocate for independent colleges. “Our colleges are small. We emphasize class ratios, and our classes are taught by professors who know their students.”

She also has a strong sense of obligation toward using her position and her member institutions to help to improve the K-12 public schools. “We are continuing to strengthen our teacher education programs. The colleges are changing. We are increasing standards, and we're getting prospective teachers into the classroom earlier and longer during their education.”

Access is clearly one Williams' top priorities. “Colleges are working hard to keep costs down. They need more technology, state-of-the-art labs, new buildings, and maintenance funds.

“Our costs need to remain competitive and prepare students for the global economy. We depend a lot on private donors, but much of the money needed must come from student fees and tuition.”

Among the changes Williams has seen in her career is the need for college presidents to be effective fundraisers. “In order to keep tuition affordable, much private and business money must be raised,” Williams says. She does her share of speaking to many groups and raising funds from businesses. She enjoys her association with business people through their contributions to the fund and as members of local boards. “NCCBI members continue to be important as trustees, donors and partners in projects.”

Williams has a formula for a successful president. He or she must have a commitment to students, a willingness to work 24 hours a day, ability to motivate faculty and staff and to share governance with the board, leadership and energy to be a pacesetter to create the vision of the college in conjunction with trustees, staff, faculty, students and alumni.

She also sees local trustees becoming more and more involved. “In the past they saw their role as helping the president and that is still true, but now they're also contributing more time and they want to be sure that they're making a real difference. I don't mean they are micromanaging, but they want to be more helpful in the policy arena. They want to feel valued and useful.”

Williams believes in the often-held view that everyone needs to give back to the community. She has done that through Rotary, Junior League, and church in her community and through many state and national professional organizations.

For example, she currently chairs the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities State Executives. This provides her with opportunities to discuss national trends in higher education and to share challenges and solutions with some of the brightest educational leaders in our country.

“Every state is different, but at the same time student needs are the same,” she said. “Everyone is trying their best to help students to graduate without an overwhelming personal debt.”

Williams has worked closely with many public leaders who share her enthusiasm for education. She cited her work with former senator and governor Terry Sanford and Gov. Hunt. Her early experience attending Governor's School at Salem showed her how one of Sanford's dreams was realized. Then she worked with him when he was president of Duke and chaired her association.

“Governors Sanford and Hunt have had a great influence on my life. They are great examples of giving back to their state. That is part of what makes me work hard.”

Her former boss, Gov. Hunt, says, “Hope Williams has been a champion of public education throughout her entire life. As the president of the North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities, Dr. Williams has helped to make the private colleges and universities in our state full partners with the other education sectors, not only the post-secondary institutions but the K-12 schools as well.”

She haracterizes her leadership and management style as being a team player who recognizes and depends upon an involved staff. She not only delegates, but she tries to create an atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable in presenting their own ideas.

Dr. Jim Hemby, president of Barton College, puts it this way: “Hope's penchant for absolute integrity translates into the kind of trustworthiness that energizes her leadership, captures legislators' wills, and makes roadways for higher education's creative imagination. Her sterling intellect embraces disparate ideas with adroit grace and aplomb, posturing her to anticipate the unexpected, analyze the consequences, and come to the right conclusions, all portraits of a great leader.” He formerly chaired the organization's board.

When she's not at the office or on a college campus or at a state or national meeting, she likes to spend time with her family. She met her husband, Tom Bersuder, when she was a senior at Duke. “He's a great example of an out-of-state student who came to Davidson and Carolina and stayed!” Williams says, laughing. From Texas, Tom is a computer systems analyst for state government.

Fifteen-year-old son Jonathan is a student at Enloe High in Raleigh, and Edward, 12, is at Ligon.

Much time is spent with the sons on the soccer field, and the family enjoys traveling. She loves to play the piano, but has difficulty in finding the time to do so.

There's likely to be no increased amount of spare time in Williams' busy but well-organized and challenging life as an administrator, wife and mother.

With Gov. Hunt's much-publicized First in America by 2010 program for the K-12 public schools on the front burner, Williams will be doing her part on various committees and in pushing the state's 36 independent colleges and universities to aid the effort in every possible way.

“These independent colleges and universities are private institutions with a public purpose,” she explains. “That is why we are so committed to providing education for North Carolina students. We see them meeting many of the future needs of our increasing enrollments during the next several years.”

COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL. This story first appeared in the May 2000 issue of the North Carolina Magazine.


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