There are many values that guide Dr. Murray Jean Williams, but her philosophy for success in leadership is simple. Put students first, always remain humble and find your voice. That thinking, paired with the professional lessons she’s learned along the way, has made her the community college president that she is today.
Growing up in rural Mississippi, Williams believed that community was family, and that service to others would be a foundation for her success in life and in work. Her interest in education started young, sparked by her mother – an early childhood teacher – whose love for students and passion for teaching would serve as a lifelong inspiration.
“My mom was the oldest of five and had to drop out of school when she was young to help raise her siblings. But when I was in middle school, she went back to school to earn her GED. I remember we used to study together,” Williams recalled. “Years later she got her associate degree in early childhood education. I actually carry a miniature version of her diploma in my wallet to remind me of the work that community colleges do… and how that impacted my family.”
Years later, after receiving her Bachelor of Business Administration in computer information systems at Delta State University, and her master’s degree in Christian education at Luther Rice College & Seminary, Williams was hired by Luther Rice as the director of institutional effectiveness. She served in the position for five years, while simultaneously earning a Master of Divinity in theological studies and a doctorate in educational leadership and administration from Liberty University.
And although the position was the beginning of her professional journey, her path to becoming a college president, she says, truly began in 2010 when she accepted a director of curriculum and planning position at Atlanta Technical College (Atlanta Tech).
“While in that role, I had a conversation with then-president, Dr. Alvetta Peterman Thomas, letting her know that I wanted to be a college president and asked her if she would mentor me,” said Williams. “I noticed that community college presidents across the state didn’t look like me and I thought that was an anomaly. Because when you look at the students that we serve, they should be able to see themselves in all levels of leadership. That wasn’t happening in the community college system in Georgia.”
Over the next several years, Williams held additional leadership positions at Atlanta Tech while concurrently earning her MBA in international business from Liberty University. In 2017, she accepted a role as vice president of adult education at Southern Crescent Technical College in Griffin, Ga., and in May 2021, her journey brought her to North Carolina to take office as president of Roanoke-Chowan Community College (R-CCC).
The foundation established from her previous experiences has positioned her well for her role as president of R-CCC. But it is the advice of mentors – in her personal and professional life – whom she credits for guiding her in establishing the values and priorities that shape her leadership philosophy.
“Foremost, is the idea that students must come first. So here at the college I try to make sure that everything we do focuses on them. I really believe that if we put students first, everything else will follow. The second thing is to always remain humble. Pride doesn’t get you anywhere. And lastly, find your voice, because if no one knows you’re in the room, they’ll never hear what you have to say… and as African Americans, it’s hard to get our story out there. If we’re not telling our own story, no one’s going to do it for us.”
As one of only three female women of color currently serving as presidents in the 58-school North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS), Williams certainly believes that her race has influenced her leadership and presidency. “The unfortunate thing about African American women – and African Americans in general – is that we always seem to have to be better than to be considered equal to. So, because of that, I always try to achieve more to be at my best. I’m always working to represent African Americans and women the best that I can,” Williams said.
For Williams, that mindset goes far beyond her personal goals and translates significantly into the work that must be done to achieve equity and racial justice in the NCCCS. Even now in 2022, she says, African Americans are still fighting for many of the same rights that others have – just like they were during the civil rights movement many years ago. And that while progress is being made in the NCCCS, significant improvements must continue to be made system-wide.
“In a racially just system, the faculty, staff and administrators would look like the students that we serve. And right now, it doesn’t,” said Williams. “When they come through our doors and can’t see themselves in the room, they may not believe that they can reach these goals, be a president or vice president, or work at a system office. I think we’ve got to get to a place where we are hiring people who look like the people that we’re here to serve.”
But according to Williams, equity means more than just race. It’s about being inclusive in all areas and addressing gaps in student achievement and college funding – evening the score so that all students are being served well.
It’s that thinking that makes Williams a trailblazer. Building a road where there wasn’t one. Making sure that those who come behind her will have an easier route, or certainly, an easier trail to follow.
And while she is undeniably blazing trails, for Williams, college presidency is simply her calling. “I don’t see this as a job, I see it as a calling. In my heart of hearts, that’s how I feel about my presidency, even on the hard days. This college was made for me, and I love being here. With every challenge we have, I still want to come in every day, and say, ‘Let’s check off another challenge, let’s get to work’.”
And her advice to others about listening to their calling?
“I would say to any African American, Native American, Asian American, minority and especially females, if you believe that you want to be in a particular position – whether it’s president of a community college or president of the United States – go for it. Even if you don’t see yourself in the room currently, set the aspiration that you will be the first one to be in that room. Hold on to your dreams and do everything that you can to achieve those goals.”