The future is unclear.
That is why Muhlenberg College's new president, John I. Williams Jr., trumpets the new school year with an eye to the future and what it will look like for its newest students, the Class of 2019.
“We're preparing students for a less certain future than ever before,” Williams said. “They'll need to come up with ways to innovate and adapt to changing circumstances.”
It's the motive behind his top priorities, to draw attention to the importance of a liberal arts education in preparing the next generation of business leaders and innovators – and to shine the spotlight on the high-quality liberal arts education available at the Allentown institution.
Williams took over this summer, replacing Muhlenberg's 11th president, Peyton “Randy” Helm, who retired June 30 after 12 years on the job. It will be a big change for the school. Not only was Helm one of the longest-standing college presidents in the Lehigh Valley, but Williams is a very different kind of college president.
While Williams is a lifetime trustee of his alma mater, Amherst College, and has a Master of Business Administration and law degree from Harvard, he is no traditional academic.
In fact, Williams doesn't hold a doctorate, the traditional route for a college president, noted Muhlenberg spokesman Mike Bruckner.
Instead, Williams brings a wealth of experience from the corporate world, having traveled the globe launching several successful businesses, holding leadership positions at several top corporations, including American Express, and strategically consulting for others.
“His background is as a change agent, entrepreneur, innovator and management expert,” Bruckner said.
Williams was even on the cutting edge of the Internet boom, becoming CEO of the travel website biztravel.com in 1996.
But through all his business accomplishments, Williams said, his love of higher learning, and the liberal arts education that he credits with helping make him a success, always were at the core of his passions.
It was Williams' combination of business leadership and love of learning that led the presidential search committee to select him for the post.
Calling him a “true believer” in liberal arts education, Linda McGuire, math professor and faculty member of the search committee, said Williams had the right mix of business and academic inclination.
“We were looking for a leader that would understand the complexities of running a small college like Muhlenberg, but also someone who could move us forward into the future,” McGuire said.
Moving toward the future is exactly what Williams said he wants. He said he is excited to be turning that passion for liberal arts education into practicality and plans to use his business acumen.
He said he doesn't have plans for any major shakeups to coursework or programming; he likes what he sees.
What Williams wants is to shine a spotlight on the school so that others can see the potential of Muhlenberg.
“My job No. 1 here is to get Muhlenberg recognized for the quality institute it already is,” he said.
Williams noted that with the exception of a handful of programs, such as the theater department that draws students from across the nation because of its strong reputation, the school mostly draws students from Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.
He said the school has a number of high-quality programs, such as education, that don't receive as much attention outside of the region. He wants to change that.
Part of that effort will be through traditional marketing and outreach.
Williams said he wants to see the school take advantage of all social media channels to communicate with future potential students about the programs and education offered by Muhlenberg.
He also wants to do more with alumni, staff, community members and existing students to get them to tell their own story about the Muhlenberg experience.
Part of the dialogue Williams wants to begin isn't just getting out the story of what Muhlenberg has to offer, but changing the narrative.
He said there is a question looming over academia about the value of a liberal arts education with regard to career potential.
“Everyone is talking about STEM, STEM, STEM,” Williams said, referring to the program promoting science, technology, engineering and math education. “So many people think STEM is the best way to a career, but nothing could be farther from the truth.”
Williams said that while learning the latest in science and technology is important, it's not the end game because technology is constantly evolving.
“The students coming to Muhlenberg today are going to be preparing for careers that don't even exist yet,” he said.
Because of the ever-evolving landscape, it's just as important that students learn how to learn and not just to memorize facts, Williams said.
“The ability to be adaptive is only going to become more valuable in the future,” he said. “What Americans do best is innovate. The coin of the realm in the modern economy is ideas.”
Those abilities, he said, are strengthened by the kind of liberal arts education provided at a college such as Muhlenberg.
“I am the product of a liberal arts education,” Williams said. “I went to school for economics, but I studied history, English, music, and I can't think how many times I've used an analogy or metaphor that I learned from those classes to give me a model for what I was working on.”
Making highly employable graduates is the end goal of any academic institution, and Williams said that is what Muhlenberg has been doing with its traditional undergraduate students and with programs offered through The Wescoe School at the college. Wescoe provides continuing education degrees for mid-career professionals.
He said as the Class of 2019 begins its academic journey, it will be preparing for a more uncertain future than ever before as new economies and industries evolve and develop. He wants Muhlenberg students to be the ones who will develop new ways of doing things.
McGuire said that Williams' vision of preparing for the future of business was the strong factor in his selection as president.
“Most people who ascend to college presidency come from the faculty, but he is a role model for our students because he went out into the world and built a career,” she said.