Crystal Williams Becomes First Black Leader of RISD, One of the Nation’s Oldest Art Schools

Crystal Williams, a professor and poet, has been named the next president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), one of the nation’s top art schools. Williams, who was selected from a pool of 100 candidates, will assume the position as the school’s 18th president on April 1. Never before in the school’s 144-year history has it had a Black president.

Since 2017, Williams has been vice president and associate provost for community and inclusion at Boston University, where she has led initiatives around access and equity across the university’s 17 schools.

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Prior to working at Boston University, where she also serves as a professor of English, Williams held senior leadership roles at Bates College in Maine and Reed College in Oregon. Alongside her administrative roles in academia, she has written poetry. Her 2014 volume Detroit as Barn was a finalist for the National Poetry Series, among other awards, and she was last year commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art to write a response to Faith Ringgold’s painting American People Series #20: Die (1967).

Michael Spalter, RISD’s board chair, said in a statement, “Crystal shares our strong conviction in the critical role art and design play in shaping our world, and she has the expertise and qualities of leadership needed to meet the urgency of this moment and take RISD into the future.”

“Art, education, and equity and justice are the three foundational focuses of my life,” Williams said in a statement, calling the appointment to the premier arts institution a “profound honor.”

Williams is taking over from Rosanne Somerson, who retired in June after six years leading the school. Somerson now serves as RISD’s first president emerita. RISD senior vice president of finance and administration Dave Proulx has since acted as interim president.

In July 2020, after the school’s Anti-Racism Coalition and BIPOC faculty members raised concerns about structural racism, RISD promised significant changes. Several months later, the school pledged to add at least 10 new faculty members specializing in academic fields related to race, decolonization, and cultural representation. A major gift from an anonymous donor is funding salaries for the new hires for five years.

Williams’s hire comes as art schools across the U.S. diversify their uppermost ranks. In June, Kymberly Pinder was named dean of the Yale School of Art, the nation’s leading M.F.A. program. Pinder is the first woman of color to lead that school.


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