A decade of impactful leadership

Posted: February 3, 2021
Image of David B. Williams in front of Hitchcock Hall
Under David B. Williams' decade of leadership, the College of Engineering has transformed in size, stature and impact.

After leading the College of Engineering to historic growth, David B. Williams will step down as dean at the end of February.

“I thank my longtime friend and colleague Dean Williams for his visionary and thoughtful leadership over the past decade,” said Ohio State President Kristina M. Johnson. “He cultivated a deep and diverse bench of engineering talent, sparked growth in our state’s economy, and fostered cross-disciplinary efforts to design solutions to the world’s greatest challenges. I have witnessed his dedication for many years and know that the College of Engineering has a bright future in large part due to his many contributions.”

Since Williams was appointed its 22nd dean in 2011, the college has transformed in size, stature and impact. During his tenure, the college’s annual budget has increased more than 40% to $300 million, and external gifts and donations total nearly $500 million.

“I have been privileged to be the dean of an extraordinary college, staffed by the best team I have ever led, where the brightest students are taught by talented, committed and diverse faculty and staff,” said Williams, the Monte Ahuja Endowed Dean’s Chair. “Our alumni and industry partners are generous in the extreme.”

Over the past decade, faculty numbers climbed from 289 to 412, with a 112% increase and 121% increase in female faculty and minority faculty, respectively. Diversity of the college’s leadership team also improved; today 41% of the Executive Committee are women.

“I'm proud of the diversity that I brought to the leadership of the college,” Williams said. “I think it's the best-run college in the university. We’ve managed our resources extremely well and to have hired so many faculty is again something I'm very proud of.”

Williams also implemented the college’s first strategic plan that emphasizes engineering innovation in materials, manufacturing, mobility and medicine—areas where Ohio State plays a leading role and which are vital to Ohio’s economy.

This strategy has led to new centers and collaborations, including the recent launch of the Center for Cancer Engineering, a partnership with The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute. The center has a singular focus—engineering cures for cancer.

Capitalizing on his more than 20 years as an economic development leader, Williams has worked to expand industry partnerships and investment, benefitting both the university and the state. He serves on the board of One Columbus, the economic development organization for the 11-county Columbus region.

“Dean Williams’ tenure at The Ohio State University’s College of Engineering has extended beyond the boundaries of the institution,” said Kenny McDonald, president and chief economic officer of One Columbus. “His legacy of leadership can also be seen in his contributions to the development of Ohio, the Columbus Region, individual industries and the community in general. His commitment to diversity and excellence has elevated all of the above.” 

Image of four buildings of the College of Engineering
Clockwise from top left: The Biomedical and Materials Engineering Complex, Center for Electron Microscopy and Analysis, Austin E. Knowlton Executive Terminal & Aviation Learning Center and TRC's Smart Mobility Advance Research Test Center.

Williams focused much of his economic development efforts on The Ohio State University Airport at Don Scott Field and the university-affiliated Transportation Research Center (TRC). These two non-traditional organizations have strong ties to the College of Engineering’s faculty, researchers and students, and are robust contributors to Ohio’s economy. Some of the results of those efforts can be seen in the $15 million Austin E. Knowlton Executive Terminal & Aviation Learning Center at The Ohio State University Airport and the TRC’s $45 million Smart Mobility Advance Research Test Center.

“Once neglected, TRC is known throughout the state for what it is, truly a world leader in transportation testing and research,” said Williams, who also serves as TRC board chair. “And Don Scott Field now has the finest general aviation field in the Midwest, if not the nation.”

Over the Dean Williams era, the college has invested $300 million-plus in new and renovated facilities. These include the Biomedical and Materials Engineering Complex, Center for Design and Manufacturing Excellence, Center for Electron Microscopy and Analysis, ElectroScience Laboratory, Simulation Innovation and Modeling Center, and Spine Research Institute.

Academic programs and online offerings have also expanded under Williams’ leadership, including the addition of professional and distance education programs, establishment of the engineering education department, and the creation of the engineering technology degree now available on the Lima, Mansfield and Marion campuses.

“Here is a way for us truly to fulfill our land grant mission and to educate the sons and daughters of Ohioans in the places where they need to live and work,” Williams said about the new bachelor’s degree. “We're trying to reverse the brain drain and, thereby, attract manufacturing companies to those communities which have been so desperately depleted by the drop in manufacturing.”

Williams noted that none of these accomplishments would be possible without the tireless efforts of the entire leadership team, faculty and staff, as well as engaged alumni.

Image of a group of 6 people wearing Ohio State gear on the Knowlton Plaza
Dean Williams (center) and wife Margie chat with alumni.

“It’s impossible to have done anything without the involvement of the alumni. They are so proud of Ohio State Engineering, so thankful for the education they got and eager to give back in so many different ways,” he added. “Out of all of that comes an extraordinary thread of donations to scholarships, millions of dollars that we spend every year, changing the lives of young men and women by giving them the opportunity to graduate with less debt or no debt.

In particular, I wish to thank personally the members of the College’s External Advisory Council and others from which I often sought insight, my ‘kitchen cabinet.’”

The last year has been marked by challenges, Williams shared, particularly the pandemic. But also opportunities, like the nationwide calls to address systemic racism and racial injustice that led the college to re-examine its own failings and establish an action plan to promote greater equity, inclusion and racial justice. He remains optimistic about the college’s future, especially with the appointment of Ayanna Howard as its 23rd dean, the college’s first female dean and only its second Black dean.

“Dean Howard reflects the engineer of the 21st century and I think the college will benefit from her view of engineering and the challenges that she has faced to get where she is,” he said. “She can teach many of us many things. In that respect, the future is much better than it might have been.”

Williams, whose 45-year academic career includes serving as the president of the University of Alabama in Huntsville and 31 years on the faculty of Lehigh University, plans to spend more time reconnecting with family and friends, and is actively discussing a future role at Ohio State with university leadership.

Although he’ll miss the team he built, the people he works with, as well as the alumni, industry leaders and friends with whom he interacts, Williams said the time is right for the college to have a new leader.

“Putting the college in a good place fiscally and personnel-wise, then I think that's a good time to hand it over to somebody else and say, ‘Okay, the base is firm. Now, build as much as you can on the foundation and the stability that I put in place.’”

by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications, clevenger.87@osu.edu