There’s new leadership at the Rhode Island School of Design. And for the first time, the new leadership is not from a visual arts background. In December, 2021, trustees announced Crystal Williams as the school’s eighteenth president. Morning host Luis Hernandez spoke with Williams about her vision for the role, as well as her background as a writer, educator, and advocate for equity in higher education.

Luis Hernandez: Your journey here is not what you would think of as traditional for a school that's focused on visual art and design. I wanted to know why you wanted this job?

Crystal Williams: The arts have always been incredibly important in my life. And from my perspective, I'm a poet, and the relationship between poetry and visual arts is quite strong, historically. And my interest in this school has everything to do with what I think the power of art means to our society overall. And I think that the arts and artists have a way of thinking and engaging humans, our society, etc, that is increasingly important. Whether or not I'm a sculptor, or a poet or a dancer, I think the belief in the power of art is what is essential to leading a school of artists and designers.

Hernandez: What do you see as your greatest challenge here at RISD?

Williams: Well, one of the challenges, and it's not RISD-centric, is: I think people misunderstand the power of art and design education. They don't understand – they think that all we do is train people to become sculptors or glassblowers. And they don't understand both the power of what those disciplines represent in the culture, but they also don't understand that we are a liberal arts education, that we tie liberal arts to the deep disciplinary making that we also train students to undertake. So that's a challenge, because I think if people understood the ways in which the thinking that students leave RISD with positively impacts business, law, venture capital, art, design, they would have a different sense of the importance of the institution and the importance of art and design. So that's a kind of philosophical challenge, I think.

Hernandez: My understanding is, and clarify for me here, but I did check – you are the first Black president at RISD, right? 

Williams: I am.

Hernandez: What does that mean to you? And what is it about this moment in this institution's history, that they finally did this, they finally made this decision?

Williams: One of the things I think is important for people to understand about the way I think about this, I think the way my board thinks about it, is that they chose the most qualified person. And that I am Black is a fact. But they didn't choose me because I'm Black, they chose me because I have a great deal of administrative heft, I'm an artist, etc. And I think they think I can sort of speak coherently and powerfully about the power of art and society. So I would say that. The other thing that is important that I've learned about being the first is that, and I knew this sort of conceptually, when you step out in front, you create a pathway for other people. … And I did not understand the fullness of that until I actually inhabited this role. I was at an event here, it was called the Black Biennial. It was before I started, and we were all masked. And so I thought, I'll sneak up and just sort of attend this Black Biennial, and I want to support the young people, etc. And I thought, no one will know who I am. I'm behind this mask, and I haven't even started yet. And I turned a corner – it was packed – I turned the corner, and there were five young black women in front of me, all masked, with eyes huge like moons. And one of them said, “Are you President Williams?" So it was just a – that was the sweetest thing. And that was the moment where I really realized that my body, my presence, what I symbolize to them, was something beyond my experience of just having worked my way into more leadership positions. For them, my being here means that they have new possibilities that perhaps they did not consider, that the institution and the strictures that often in our society reflect lack of gender parity and representation, lack of racial parity and racial representation that this institution has moved beyond those strictures, to actually identify who the board thought was the best person.

Hernandez: Put yourself in your artists’ shoes for a moment here. Is the art world – and again, not just visual arts, but just art in general – is it becoming more inclusive? Is it opening up to Black, Latin, LGBTQ+ communities, other groups that historically may not have those opportunities?

Williams: The art world is becoming more inclusive, but as with all change, there is much to do and a long way to go. But if you pull back, even though we are becoming more diverse, the kinds of diversity are not as broadly cast as I would like to see. Last year, for instance, in our museum, we had a show called “Variance,” and it had to do with disability. And I don't see a lot of that kind of work out in the world of art quite yet. If you find your way to our museum, and you engage the questions that we're asking of you, you leave the museum not only with a broader sense of art, but also a broader sense of history and the ways in which art and art making inform, impact and define history.

Hernandez: I know a lot of people don't think about their legacy until it's over. But this goes to your vision. What is your vision for your time here leading this institution? What do you hope your legacy will be?

Williams: My vision is that we continue to educate the world's most promising creatives, and that they leave our institution as powerful interlocutors that continue to help drive change in society. That's the big vision. I think my legacy – I would love for RISD to become a tuition-free institution. That's a big ask. I mean, I'd have to go out and find a lot of support. But it is, if I could have a legacy that I would be very proud of, it would be that. I also want my legacy to be that our students from historically underrepresented groups – again, I define that broadly – are able to thrive here, and once they leave at their time to launch into their chosen careers, is equivalent to their peers. That will be a legacy. Informing, impacting the way people understand the power and importance of art and design, both within the school, in Rhode Island and the world. That would be a legacy I'd be very proud of.

Hernandez: President Williams, it has been an absolute pleasure. I appreciate it. Welcome to Rhode Island. Looking forward to more conversations with you.

Williams: Thank you so much. I look forward to it. Listen, have a great day.