The Rhode Island School of Design announced the appointment of Crystal Williams as its 18th president Dec. 16, making Williams the first Black president of the school. Williams, described in RISD’s press release as “a teacher, leader, advocate, and poet,” is currently the vice president and associate provost for community and inclusion at Boston University. She will assume the role of president April 1.
In her messages to the RISD community following the announcement, Williams emphasized the importance of improving diversity and access at the school. Her appointment comes after years of student protests urging RISD to make the school more equitable for marginalized students.
“I have long admired” RISD, Williams wrote in a December letter to RISD community members. “All the years spent enlivening student creativity, enhancing outcomes for students, faculty and staff and advancing equity and inclusion on campuses and in arts advocacy work of course led me to you and this incredible community of artists, designers and scholars.”
“RISD has an opportunity to really play … an essential role in helping to catalyze more inclusion in the arts and in creative spaces in the world,” Williams said in a video interview that accompanied the announcement of her appointment.
Williams’ appointment is “a signal that we are not willing to follow anymore, that we are willing to be a leader in this discussion,” said Jessica Brown, assistant professor of industrial design and a member of the search committee that selected Williams. “We knew that in searching for a new president, we had someone who could answer the call for what’s happening today with racial injustice, equity and inclusion and marginalization.”
“We need someone who’s not afraid to step forward and say … that we are going to actively be an antiracist school, that we are going to address the issues that we see in the world head-on because we are creating the next leaders,” she added.
Brown said that one of William’s priorities was to make RISD accessible to certain groups that were historically unable to attend the school. She noted the importance of expanding financial aid so more students can afford to attend as well as establishing funnel programs in low-income middle and high schools in Providence.
Brown added that Williams “is going to listen” to calls by students of color and other students from marginalized backgrounds to achieve equity at RISD. Protests for a fairer RISD have taken place multiple times over the past decade, including a 2020 protest that demanded the school diversify its disproportionately white faculty, reallocate funds from RISD’s Department of Public Safety to support mental health care and financial aid, take steps to diversify the student body and reduce tuition to make the school more affordable for low-income students.
Andrew Wang ’24, a member of the student advisory council for the selection process, wrote in an email to The Herald that Williams “really left a good impression as a leader who was deeply knowledgeable, experienced and a great listener.” Wang also emphasized the importance of Williams’ appointment for equity at RISD.
Williams will take over administration of the school from Dave Proulx, who has served as interim president of the school since July 2021. Reflecting on his time at RISD, Proulx wrote in an email to The Herald that he was most proud of the school’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, making progress on advancing equity, increasing access through financial aid and improving RISD’s financial stability.
Looking forward to the future, Proulx wrote, “I am hopeful that we will continue to work together as a community to ensure RISD is more accessible to students — regardless of their ability to pay; to continue to make progress on our social equity and inclusion initiatives … and to develop a long-term plan for financial sustainability.”
“I look forward to working with President-Elect Williams and the RISD community on these and many other initiatives,” he added.