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New Huston-Tillotson president vows to grow campus after housing shortage limits enrollment

Dr. Melva K. Williams poses in front of Huston-Tillotson University
Renee Dominguez
/
KUT
Melva K. Williams took over as the seventh president and chief executive officer of Huston-Tillotson University in Austin in August 2022.

Oct. 28 is Charter Day for Huston-Tillotson University, the historically Black university in Austin. It commemorates the day in 1875 when trustees signed the State of Texas Charter of Incorporation officially establishing HT.

This year marks the 147th Charter Day for Huston-Tillotson. But it is the first one for new President and Chief Executive Officer Melva K. Williams. She took over from Colette Pierce Burnette as the seventh president and CEO this summer and comes from the Southern University System in Louisiana.

Williams said the decision to come to Austin and HT was easy.

"We are in the state’s capital," she said. "And not only the state's capital, but being in a city that has really embraced the technology and the tech community."

Williams said that gives HT the opportunity to create mutually beneficial relationships with local companies and she wants to capitalize on that proximity.

After arriving at HT, though, Williams quickly realized there was a pressing campus priority. After experiencing an increase in applications for this fall semester, Williams said "we ran into an issue where we just didn't have the housing."

"We couldn't support the students who wanted to live here, who wanted to come to Austin," she said.

She said there were students from other states and countries the university had to turn away because it could not accommodate them.

Listen to the interview above and read the transcript below to hear more from the Huston-Tillotson University president about her plans for growing the institution and why she says HT is "not going to be the quiet school."

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

KUT's Jennifer Stayton: Why did you apply for and accept the job as president and chief executive officer of Huston-Tillotson University?

Melva K. Williams: When you're making your list of the pros and cons, the cons list — it was hard to find one. The pros were being in the city of Austin. So many HBCU's (historically Black colleges and universities) are located in small rural communities. Huston-Tillotson is not. We are in the state’s capital.

And not only the state's capital, but being in a city that has really embraced the technology and the tech community gives us a unique perspective to do some of the things that I enjoy doing, That is, connecting institutions to opportunities that are unique to higher education, to do things that institutions may not have done before, to serve as incubators for new ideas. So that's really what drove me to apply and to want to be here.

In accepting the job, you did say that you looked forward to “advancing an aggressive agenda that will ensure HT’s continued success.” Are there some items in that agenda or some specific things you do have in mind that you want to bring or try here at HT?

Now it is time to really grow. So that's the key. And I think there are certain tentacles that are there. That's grow enrollment, that's grow our fundraising, and that's also to really just grow our landscape and that's our infrastructure.

Sometimes universities think to just put up buildings to put up buildings for student use, and, of course, that is the first thought of mine and that's exactly what we're doing. But in addition to that, how do we build in opportunities for some of those startup companies and infrastructure for workforce to be a part of this community? And not just for them to come rent space, but that there is some really substantive partnership. That could be certificate programs. That could be very unique certificate programs, not just your basic coding. ... I mean some really high-end, cool things where there are companies that need some specific type of training that's high-level. High-touch training that we could really support here at the institution.

You said one of your goals in all of these larger plans is to grow enrollment. How do you do that? What are ways that you get more students interested in learning about Huston- Tillotson?

HTcampus
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Williams said it was "heartbreaking" to have to turn away some accepted students for the fall 2022 semester because of a shortage of campus housing and other affordable housing options in Austin.

The benefit is that we are already there. This semester we saw a huge uptick in interest and the applications were there. And I think with the announcement of the new president and all of these things were happening and then we see these influx of applications. Well, then we ran into an issue where we just didn't have the housing. We couldn't support the students who wanted to live here, who wanted to come to Austin. They wanted to be a part of this community. They were thrilled to see the work that the faculty were doing. And we got stuck, and there were students that we literally had to turn away from other states and countries that we could not accommodate.

And so that was a sad moment and challenge for us. So the students are there, and the people that want to be a part of what we're doing, they're there. Now, we have to address the challenge of infrastructure.

I want to ask a question of you that I asked of former Huston-Tillotson University President and Chief Executive Officer Colette Pierce Burnette in a conversation we had as she was heading out. And I asked her if she thought that the City of Austin really appreciated and understood and kind of “gets” Huston-Tillotson.

I am learning that answer. I will say that for the first two months that I've been here, people have been phenomenally, overwhelmingly supportive. I believe that people are understanding, and it is imperative that people, especially those who are interested in how Austin continues to grow, realize that we are the workforce, that our institution is the incubator for ideas, and that our students are the ones that are going to be solving problems that don't exist today, but the ones that we don't even know about. And it is imperative that we do business together. And I'm not sure. I'm still learning that relationship.

I noticed on social media Huston-Tillotson has been using the hashtag #WeWontBeTheQuietSchool. Has HT been too quiet?

Dr. Burnette came in at a time where there was transformation and there was a lot of work to be done. When you're building a house, there's a foundation and there are pieces that need to continually be put on so that it is ready for the next phase of the next iteration. Hats off to her for being able to put this institution on the map.

But now it is time for us to continue to share what we know, what we do well. And that's in our biology and STEM programs; that's in our business programs; that's in arts and humanities. We have a band, the Jazz Collective. It's actually the President's Jazz Collective. We go back to why did I apply for the job? Because there's a president's jazz collective. Okay, that's why! But no, really, I mean, all of the things. Our partnership upcoming with South by Southwest— that's phenomenal.

So no, we're not going to be the quiet school. And I don't think that people that know me know that that is anything like my personality.

I think there is an assumption from a private liberal arts college that we're always focused on being to ourselves and staying introverted. And if you come into our walls, then we'll educate you and we'll have this very quiet experience and then go out into the world. Well, no. This private liberal arts college is going to be all out in the business of the workforce.

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Jennifer Stayton is the local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT. Got a tip? Email her at jstayton@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton.
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