Since 2007, Dr. Gregory D. Williams has been president of Odessa College (OC) in Texas, the same institution where he started his own college experience as a student in 1983. OC joined the ATD Network in 2009, achieving Leader College status in 2013 and Leader College of Distinction in 2021. The college received ATD’s highest award–the Leah Meyer Austin award–in 2021 and received the Rising Star Award for Community College Excellence from the Aspen Institute in 2017 and 2019.
Dr. Williams has been an ATD Board member since 2018, serving as vice chair since 2021, and becoming board chair this year. To help the Network get to know Dr. Williams better, we asked him a few questions about his experiences and motivations as a community college leader.
Q & A
Odessa has long been a leader in the student success movement and your results are impressive and have been recognized by ATD with the Leah Meyer Austin award in 2018 and by the Aspen Institute College Excellence program. What makes Odessa special?
Our success is driven by a persistent search for excellence and our commitment to becoming the most effective and the highest performing community college in the nation. That’s our goal and we are dedicated to it. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting closer and closer, because our team—and the community—have bought into that commitment. We continuously ask: “What does it take to be the best?” That sets the tone for our work. We don’t settle. We don’t allow ourselves to become complacent. We are willing to innovate, willing to change instead of fighting change. And we’ve hired people that believe in that and want to create inventive programs to be a part of something like this. Our whole college prides itself on seeking excellence.
Odessa joined ATD in 2009. How and why did you get involved with ATD? What role did ATD play in helping Odessa to build the capacity for institutional transformation?
When I arrived at Odessa, the college was facing numerous challenges, including a significant drop in enrollments. But I saw a college that, given its size and potential. could try things that others might not be able to accomplish. That we could strive to be the best community college in the nation, and we would commit to share our efforts and experiences with other community colleges. At that point we were looking for all sorts of information and new approaches to help us on that journey. We knew we weren’t good at the data game at the same time ATD was forcing colleges to look at themselves and look at the data—not just anecdotes. So we joined in 2009. It forced us to look at ourselves. It was very humbling, because we knew we had challenges, but we didn’t know how deep some of those challenges were. Our ATD coaches helped us disaggregate the data so we were able to uncover core issues that needed addressing. It inspired us to be more effective and being able to look at ourselves using all types of data has continuously led us to explore innovations.
One issue that many community colleges are facing is enrollment, though Odessa continues to grow. How do you see that challenge and what needs to be done (or not done) about it? What’s working at Odessa that might be replicated by other colleges?
Nationwide, as the data tells us, college and university going has changed over the last three of four years. The economy has changed, and students are thinking about the value proposition of going to college. But OC is growing. We have grown in enrollment for the last 10 years in a row and have had record enrollment in the last nine years and that includes COVID. We’ve done things to move the needle forward, but it’s a challenge each and every year.
It begins with our belief that we need to give more chances to more students to connect with us. That starts with a strong connection with elementary, middle, and high school students. We do “invasions” where we go into an elementary or middle school and take over for a day. We bring t-shirts for everyone. We bring our band and our cheerleaders and dancers, and of course, pizza. We bring our talented faculty—our scientists and literature experts—to help students learn what college is about. We bring our maintenance team and our carpenters and painters to make the school a bit more beautiful. We bring the whole college and make a commitment to leave the school better than we found it.
We also work with our high schools on dual credit, which is perhaps more important in our situation than others given the potential for high-paying work right out of high school in the energy sector. We want to get to students to delay that gratification a bit and get the skills and knowledge that will make them a more valuable employee with more opportunity for upward mobility. And we work with the community and our area employers so they understand we are working to bring them better and more flexible employees. Ultimately, it has to be about community and a sense that when we all make sacrifices together, we will be successful together.
At the same time, as the saying goes, the easiest student to recruit is the student you already have. So we have invested and innovated around retention. We have added life coaches for every OC student. We have quadrupled our tutoring services. We have gotten better at using technology in all facets of our work to help students. In short, we make it hard for students to fail. You have to give up on yourself if you aren’t going to be successful at OC.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing community colleges now and what needs to be done to address them? How is ATD a leading force in helping colleges to take on these challenges?
We have all just gone through a traumatic experience with a number of things that happened to us over the last two to three years—COVID , social unrest, and our look at history and the way we deal with that. All of us were shaken by that. We are shifting back to “normalcy” but the world of higher education and the world of work continues to change, and that is the biggest thing facing community colleges. We are trying to figure out who are students are, what they are looking for, and what their needs are. We were changed. We are trying to figure how to use technology better. We are trying to figure out what all this means for how we work and how we continue to provide educational opportunities that best serve our students and our communities. That is a continuous process.
ATD brings both a national perspective to those discussions as well as the knowledge and resources to help colleges navigate those challenges. ATD brings coaches and higher education experts. They bring both proven and potential solutions. They help us do things we can’t afford to do on our own. There is so much that we learn and do through our collective work with ATD and the other network colleges and the diversity of experiences they bring to the table. And just as we joined ATD at a time when OC was facing significant challenges, I would suggest that it is exactly times like we are now facing when colleges need organizations like ATD to help us all continue our search for excellence.Read Dr. Williams's bio