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Person of the Year: Brian Williams

May 3rd, 2007

In a matter of months, Brian Williams has found himself very much at home in Cleveland.
As Vice President of Enrollment at John Carroll University, Williams has transitioned quite nicely from his eight years at Providence College in Rhode Island to here.
Though he recognizes that he doesn’t know everything about the area and its people, he is well on his way and can’t wait to get there.
As vice president, Williams reports directly to the Rev. Robert Niehoff, a fact he notes is one of the main reasons he took the job.
He has the chance to work one-on-one not only with the president, but also with everyone else on campus, especially the students.
This position was created by Niehoff and focuses on understanding and maintaining enrollment.
Its purpose is to look at the normal functions of admissions and financial aid but under a wider spectrum.
“It’s admissions responsibility to recruit alumni. It’s too easy to just focus on getting a class and saying ‘here are the freshmen,’ let’s market to them, do the right scholarships and get them to say yes,” Williams said.
“When you stop there, and don’t carry it all the way through to ensure you’re choosing the right people who will be happy here, get involved here and graduate, that’s the wider dialogue that’s important to me professionally.”
Williams has worked at four different Catholic institutions since 1993.  He started at St. Louis University in admissions and financial aid, then moved to LaSalle University in Philadelphia.
He was dean of enrollment services at Providence College in Rhode Island for eight years before coming here.
He is originally from Massachusetts and was educated there until he moved to St. Louis.
Williams was very eager and excited to step out of New England and experience another part of the country.
The first two years of his job were spent traveling the country and recruiting in 20 different states.
Williams feels that Cleveland is very Northeastern, as opposed to the typical stereotype of the Midwest. He compares it to other major cities such as Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Baltimore.
He feels comfortable to have landed here and the transition has been easier than expected.
Williams lives in Twinsburg with his wife and two sons, who have also adjusted very well.
The attraction of vice president was easy for Williams.
“Having a revised and newly created position very rarely happens as a professional. When jobs open especially admissions and financial aid, you’re taking over for someone else and inheriting their structure and the organizational structure of the school,” Williams said.
“This job started at the time of a new president, putting his vision on an institution and a new role that didn’t have any rules. The role evolved from associate vice president for enrollment services reporting to the academic vice president.”
“Professionally, it was the right time for me to take what I was learning and have the leadership and ability to put new systems in place, to be accessible to the president and be more engaged with the Board of Directors.”
Though Williams holds Providence College in high esteem, he knew that staying there meant staying in the same role with no opportunity for growth.
The job wasn’t a dead end, but he described the process as “lather, rinse, repeat.”
Hurricane Katrina was a wake-up call for him to realize that he wanted to be someplace else and make a difference. “There was something more important than doing the same thing every day and there are people who need help. There are different challenges in different parts of the country,” he said.
On April 14, JCU hosted its largest open house program for seniors in high school. More than 700 families and students attended, with almost 200 faculty, staff and students volunteering.
Williams said that this turnout of volunteers was the best testament of commitment to helping the admissions office with their goals. “There are great people here and success is possible,” he said.
Williams said one of the difficult things about coming into this job in July was that he and the admissions office was unable to influence the seniors who were applying that year.
The class of 2011, however, was recruited by the admissions office in their junior and senior years of high school with the existing Web site and materials.
Because of this, Williams feels that he has inherited this class.
His goal for this year was no expectations of application growth, but those that do apply need to be treated well and this treatment must be maintained through the whole selection process.
All of the energy was put into how applications are reviewed, timing, campus programming, changing publications and focusing on the current high school sophomores and juniors by introducing them to JCU’s story for the first time in a new way.
“We’re trying to find who chooses John Carroll, who is successful here, and then it’s our responsibility to go and find these people and market to them the right way,” Williams said.
He believes the key to instituting this process is personalizing the admissions process. He is most proud of the admissions office for making sure that no two acceptance letters are the same.
It’s not a standard format, but rather points out the distinctive qualities of the prospective student, such as honors, essay and community service.
“We’re putting back into the application process the fact that we actually read the materials the student sent us,” he said.
The need for video is much greater now than it has been in the past in terms of marketing to prospective students. It’s important to let people who aren’t here actually see JCU for what it is and give them a sense of place.
“It’s just as important for Cleveland as it is for JCU,” he said.  “Everyone has stereotypes of certain cities and what they’re all about.”
Williams is trying to market the city better, as well as the school for people who aren’t from around here. Williams is not sold that there is a typical JCU student or a typical Clevelander.
“There isn’t a one-size fits all brochure. It’s segmented marketing and again back to personalization,” he said.
“There is a head and a heart to the college search. Early on it’s about features and having what one wants. Later the heart takes over. Will I be comfortable there? Are there people like me? Different than me?” he said.
There are three populations to stable enrollment: bringing in new freshmen, keeping the existing students here and bringing in transfer students. Williams feels each one is as important as the next. The process is always evolving and the conversations on this topic will never stop.
Williams has found a nice fit here at JCU so far and is eagerly looking forward to the upcoming years. When told he was moving to Ohio, Williams’ youngest son asked him, “Does Ohio have Applebee’s?”
It seems that having Williams on the JCU team will prove to be very beneficial in the years ahead.