Dr. Jermaine F. Williams ’0By Bryan Hay

By Bryan Hay

Dr. Jermaine F. Williams ’01 was inaugurated as the 11th president of Montgomery College Feb. 28, 2022, bringing to Maryland’s premier community college a vision for higher education that focuses on improving access for students, as well as retention, graduation, and post-completion success. 

Paying special attention to mitigating institutional, societal, and racial inequities, throughout his career he has created programs and policies that support historically underrepresented and/or marginalized groups.

Prior to Montgomery College, Williams served as president of Nassau Community College in New York. He also has served as vice president of student affairs at North Shore Community College in Massachusetts and as assistant vice president for access, transition, and success and assistant dean of academic development at Northeastern Illinois University.

As director of student success initiatives at Community College of Philadelphia, a predominantly Black institution, Williams led several of its Achieving the Dream strategies, a national initiative to help more community college students earn degrees and certificates. He also held roles at Temple University and St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y. 

He received his bachelor of arts in anthropology and sociology from Lafayette College, a master of arts in sociology from St. John’s University, a master of education in educational administration with a higher education specialization and a doctorate of education in educational administration with a higher education specialization from Temple University. 

Williams took time from his busy schedule recently to talk in depth about his days at Lafayette, how that experience shaped his career, and his goals for Montgomery College, which serves more than 40,000 students each year through credit and noncredit programs on three campuses and at two training centers in Maryland’s most populous county on the northern border of Washington, D.C.

Why did you choose Lafayette for your undergraduate experience?

Lafayette is obviously a great institution of higher education. I grew up in Easton and graduated from Easton Area High School. I was familiar, to a certain extent, with Lafayette College. One of the main reasons I chose it was because I had to stay really close to home to address family emergencies occurring at the time. And lucky for me, there was a great institution close to home willing to have me, and that was Lafayette College. It was a fantastic fit for me and provided a solid foundation for my career.

What inspired you to pursue a career in higher education?

I was focused on sociology and went to St. John’s University to pursue a master’s in sociology, so between Lafayette and St. John’s I had sort of a launching pad. I wanted to apply my master’s in sociology practically, so I moved to Philadelphia and worked for a nonprofit organization designed to help individuals transition from public assistance to self-sufficiency.

What I realized very quickly is that the individuals I was helping were all primarily older individuals, usually in their 30s and 40s, if not older. They were primarily Black and brown individuals and women. And one other common component was level of education. The organization I worked for offered an educational component that was Adult Basic English, pre-GED, and GED. I would say nine out of every 10 participants were in ABE, pre-GED, or GED.

It was at that point in time I realized I needed to transition back to higher education. I was an adviser working my way through graduate school. But I realized that I wanted to make the type of impact on society to help individuals gain access to post-secondary education and focus on completing it successfully. 

So, in a way, Lafayette College put me on the path to want to create societal change. I went back for a second master’s degree, in educational administration, and a doctorate as well. 

How did Lafayette prepare you for your career?

Through the liberal arts education at Lafayette, I learned to think critically, to communicate effectively, and to take advantage of a senior capstone course in sociology, allowing me to see the world through the eyes of other individuals. 

I’ve taken all of this with me on my journey, and I still hold tight to that experience. As a leader, I’m consistently trying to identify the lived experiences of those whom I’m charged with leading and those whom we are charged with impacting. Only through those lived experiences will we be able to identify the equitable opportunities that are going to lead to the transformation we seek.

Can you recall Lafayette professors who shaped your leadership style as you address institutional, societal, and racial inequities, and other issues in higher education?

David Shulman, David M. ’70 and Linda Roth Professor of Sociology, is one of the faculty members who still resonates with me when I think about Lafayette College and my experience there. He has this ability to really relate to the students, probe different ideas, different concepts, things that were totally new to me, while showing compassion and equity at all times. I really appreciated that.

In your view, what are the biggest challenges facing higher education?

Equity, diversity, and inclusion should be throughout the framework of everything we do. In society, we’re at a crossroads with the level of argumentation, the level of disputes, the level of disagreement. It’s people being disagreeable. It’s unfortunately turned into a zero-sum approach, which is kind of part and parcel for a lot of our society.

But I will also talk more broadly about access to higher education. It’s not just about gaining access to a post-secondary education, and it’s not just about completing it. While I’m thankful for my Lafayette experience, the message there was to get your four-year degree and you’ll be OK.

But for individual economic and social mobility that leads to intergenerational mobility, we must talk about the opportunity of post-completion success; we must talk about credentials of economic value that lead to family sustaining wages. We have to ensure our educational pathway is aligned with an outcome that leads to a positive economic situation with social impact.

It’s not just about getting your certificate, your associate’s, your bachelor’s, or your master’s or your doctorate. It is about how you’re contributing to society, how you’re contributing to the public good, and being civically engaged while having a family, a sustaining wage, and a good life. That’s a paradigm shift

What are some of the initiatives you’re planning at Montgomery College?

I am overjoyed, exhilarated, and truly humbled, and could add lots of superlatives to describe my role at Montgomery College. There are just fantastic opportunities and successes that we can build on, such as a community policing program for new officers in Montgomery County. As we talk about Tyre Nichols, we also have to talk about the need for having a more enhanced community policing approach.

We are leaning into access, completion, and post-completion success, and what it means to instill a college-going culture among historically marginalized and underrepresented groups and individuals, perhaps by providing an educationally purposeful experience with Montgomery College starting by seventh grade. 

I have a beautiful partner and two sons, and not a day goes by that they don’t hear about education and even post-secondary education. But that’s not the life for everyone. That wasn’t my life growing up as a first-generation college student. How do we become socially proximate to individuals, so that post-secondary education is something they know, they live, they breathe, so it becomes their road map to the next stage?

With a year into your presidency at Montgomery College, any thoughts about what your legacy might look like?

I stand on the shoulders of some leaders who are giants as we’ve continued to carry on our efforts to take a collaborative approach, to dive deeper into the community to support its diverse needs.

What would it look like to decrease unemployment by 50%? What would it look like to see an end to poverty and provide family-sustaining wages? What would it look like to decrease the gaps we see between certain groups? Those are bold goals I’ve identified through talking with constituents and that are being embraced during the process of refreshing our strategic plan.

And how do we adapt? How are we innovative and transformational in a way that is bold and continues with our mission of being the community’s college? There are so many great successes and a great history at Montgomery College, and we want to go deeper and broader, to create more change.

Could you identify one particular joy in your service as president at Montgomery College?

It’s the students. All of us are endeavoring to impact the lives of the students we serve and the residents we seek to serve. For me, the greatest joy, the greatest pleasure, the most wonderful accomplishment is seeing how we’ve been able to help residents and students identify their goals, put them on a path to achieving their goals, provide equitable support for that, and see they are basking in post-completion success while living a good life.

Do you see similarities between Montgomery College and Lafayette College, or any lasting imprints from Lafayette that perhaps you might want to instill at Montgomery?

Lafayette College has done a lot to contribute to the community, in terms of economic development and in terms of creating opportunities for partnerships. This represents what Montgomery College has done historically and what we strive to enhance. 

We serve a county of more than a million individuals and want to build bridges that positively impact the community, with supportive partnerships in the community, much like what Lafayette has done.