John F. Williams is a busy man. In addition to being GW’s provost, he also serves as vice president for health affairs and was recently appointed to the Homeland Security Advisory Council.
Williams, better known around campus as “Skip,” relies on his organizational skills and his highly qualified staff to manage these prominent positions.
“The key is to have good colleagues, and to delegate responsibility,” he said. “I have a superb senior staff, and, as a physician, you learn to partition parts of the brain.”
The Homeland Security Advisory Council advises Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on matters of national security. Currently, Williams serves on a task force to ease the transition from one presidential administration to another.
“What we want to do is guarantee continuity,” Williams said. “We want to make this as smooth as possible.”
The council has also examined protecting critical infrastructure. Williams and his associates work to ensure the safety of nuclear power plants, railroads and refineries.
Williams has long maintained an active interest in national security. His medical background and experience with hospital procedures led him to participate in National Guard exercises for natural disasters during the 1980s. After Sept. 11, he examined emergency procedures in the District and found them to be significantly inadequate.
“I thought, ‘We have some real issues here,'” he said. “We needed to do something.”
As a result, he helped form the Homeland Security Policy Institute, a research center at GW designed to study “the connection between homeland security, health and medicine.”
Former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg appointed Williams as provost in January 2001 – the person first to hold that position in 14 years. While the traditional provost position deals with supervising university academic policy, Williams’ role as provost is very different. Trachtenberg, he said, wanted someone to run “day-to-day University affairs” while the president is away from campus.
One of Williams’ main goals as provost was to establish a better relationship with residents of Foggy Bottom and West End.
“We’ve done a really good job with this,” he said. “We’ve really helped to educate residents about the opportunities GW has to offer them.”
Williams encouraged University neighbors to feel like part of GW. He formed a committee for external relations, which specifically handles issues concerning the neighborhood. He attends town hall meetings and created a community Web site.
One of his more visible achievements is the annual Foggy Bottom and West End neighborhood block party. Now in its fifth year, the party is hosted by GW FRIENDS, a group which promotes discussion and better relations between residents and GW.
Williams is also helping to ease the transition between the two presidential administrations here at GW.
“As University President Knapp begins to enunciate his vision, we’re here to support him and make his vision a reality,” he said.
Williams said Knapp is a “very bright, witty, funny guy.”
“He feels that GW has several unrealized strengths,” he said. “For instance, we will be trying to do more with research, such as appointing a vice president for research.”
Despite his hectic schedule, Williams felt that everyone on his staff played an important role.
“What’s nice about senior leadership is that it’s all shared responsibility,” he said. “Everyone works based on their expertise.”