Q&A: Michael R. Williams

The UNT System's new chancellor brings an entrepreneurial vision for the future.
Written by: 
Erin Cristales
Michael R. Williams
Michael R. Williams

Michael R. Williams, former president of the UNT Health Science Center, took the reins as the UNT System's fourth chancellor early this year. In his tenure as president, as well as a member of the UNT System Board of Regents, Williams has played a key role in UNT's explosive growth, as well as the incredible successes of the larger system. Here, he outlines his vision for the UNT System's future, and how it can draw upon its values-based culture, leading-edge research and student-focused approach to further bolster its local, national and global prominence.

What would you say are some of your greatest accomplishments and lessons learned as president of UNTHSC and as a member of the UNT System Board of Regents, and how will those inform your role as chancellor?
I bring a depth of institutional knowledge and perspective into my new role as Chancellor as an alum, former regent and president of HSC. So, I have a real connection to it all.

I enjoyed my time serving on the board. It provided me the opportunity to see the university system from behind the curtain. I am proud of many accomplishments at HSC -- including several financial achievements, such as not increasing tuition since 2013, doubling our total assets and tripling HSC's overall net position. The one accomplishment I will always go back to is the people-first, values-based culture we created, as well as the entrepreneurial spirit we instilled in our university. I am proud that we implemented training patient safety and developed the Institute of Patient Safety. Many patients are injured while receiving care in our country, yet teaching about how to avoid it was virtually nonexistent.

We can similarly focus on culture, innovation and entrepreneurism at UNT System and transform higher education as we know it today. One thing that excited me about the opportunity to be Chancellor is the great potential across the entire UNT System yet to be fully realized. We have the potential to be a major, prominent mover in the North Texas region around business, education, health care and so much more.

What are some of your initial priorities as you begin your tenure as UNT System chancellor?
I've been somebody who has always built teams around the model of servant leadership and serving others first. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to build a values-based culture that empowers our greatest resource -- our people -- and creating an environment that fosters innovation and transforms higher education to better meet the needs of our customers and current market. To me, it is all about our people, our students and their families.

In the coming months, I will unveil my strategic vision as Chancellor and work with our people to deliver a new mission statement, purpose statement and system-wide values in which this will be built upon. I believe that once our vision, mission and purpose is established, the opportunities will be endless as we work together to build something extraordinary across the entire UNT System.

We need to develop our value proposition as a system in order to maximize our potential and impact. I plan to continue to meet with faculty, staff, alumni and students to listen to their ideas and their thoughts. I want to help bring new thoughts, new ideas and new opportunities to the forefront. Higher education has a lot of room to improve, and we have the opportunity to create impactful change in this dynamic region and across Texas.

How do you see your background in both medicine and business translating to your leadership of the UNT System?
I have always been someone who asks why and capitalizes on opportunities to innovate. Throughout my career as an anesthesiologist, CEO and entrepreneur, I have always maintained that the way things are done now doesn't mean they have to be done that way forever. That mindset led me into several entrepreneurial opportunities. For example, when I applied to buy a house for the first time, I found the traditional mortgage process with a bank to be a poor and frustrating experience. So, a partner and I created a mortgage company focused on a different approach. I was far from an expert on mortgage banking and the mortgage industry, but we started a new company built around customer service and the customer experience. It ended up being quite disruptive and very successful, which led to positive change.

And that is how I see higher education. Higher education is ripe for positive change, and frankly, the industry's value proposition is at risk of becoming obsolete. Today, we are seeing large industries building their own training programs for that reason. But the UNT System can address that by thinking like a business with innovative ideas, concepts and approaches. With the right partners, we can lead change in higher education.

As a former university president, you have a deep understanding of the importance of student and faculty/staff recruitment and retention. How do you see yourself bolstering recruitment and retention within the UNT System?
Perhaps our most obvious asset or selling point is our geographic position in Dallas, Fort Worth, Denton and Frisco. There are few areas in the country growing faster than Dallas-Fort Worth and North Texas, and that's going to continue. We have a robust economy that provides job opportunities to our graduates. Quality of life and affordability within our region is also a strength.

Over the last several years, we have grown enrollment across our system, and there's a lot of student recognition in DFW about what we bring and what we offer. We can build on this brand recognition and really take advantage of the population growth in our region to recruit and retain students, faculty and staff.

I also think it's important to remain affordable for our students. I'm very proud of the record we have at HSC, going nine years without ever raising tuition and being recognized by U.S. News & World Report as the third-most affordable medical school in the country. I think that says a lot to students, as far as our value proposition -- a high-quality education and reasonable tuition.

Affordability will be a focal point across our system. I want to make sure we do not put a financial burden on our students and their families. With that in mind, we will look at our own operations and find ways to be more efficient and cost effective. We will look at how we can generate new revenue streams, just as you would running any business. If you increase revenue streams and reduce costs, increased expenditures won't be put on the backs of our students and their families.

How will you help the UNT System continue to elevate its standing among research universities?
UNT continues to establish itself as a rising Carnegie Tier One research institution. Our flagship has spent the last several years strengthening its research enterprise -- from bolstering equipment and spaces to helping faculty researchers be more competitive in the grant process. We will continue to invest in research at UNT and across our system.

At HSC, we've had tremendous success in growing research by focusing on programs that deliver value to our community. We've focused on health disparities to address our ever-diversifying population here in North Texas. We've helped to combat human trafficking through cutting-edge DNA research. We've worked on ways to improve the patient experience in health care through research and innovation. Research programs that are relevant to the community will enable growth.

We will also continue to think outside the box. I've talked about being entrepreneurial, and that mindset certainly applies to our ability to grow research. How can we be disruptive in our efforts to become a catalyst for positive change? What problems can we solve that others are not? Just because research has always been done a certain way doesn't mean there's not a better approach. We will not leave any stone unturned as we work to maximize our impact on North Texas and beyond as a leader in growing research.