Texas Tech University

Margaret Williams Reflects on Her Time as the Rawls College's First Woman Dean

March 14, 2024

Margaret Williams Reflects on Her Time as the Rawls College's First Woman Dean

Williams took the long way to develop her career interest and practice her expertise at Texas Tech for the past seven years as dean of the Jerry S. Rawls College of Business.

Margaret L. Williams had a lot on her mind for a 10-year-old.

As she walked the half-block home from her best friend's house, she couldn't help but think about her future.  

“I don't know what got me thinking about it,” she admitted, “but I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I'm going to spend a long time at work, so I better find something I like to do.”

Those answers did not come quickly for the fourth grader, who had recently braved a move from Florida to Ohio. The daughter of a pastor, she spent her school days caring about others and speaking up when needed. 

She didn't really consider herself a leader, but her teachers thought otherwise. 

“In seventh grade, my science teacher pulled me aside because there was a group of us being disruptive in class,” Williams recalled. “He told me, ‘You're the leader in this class. Could you encourage people to pay a little more attention to what's going on in class?'”

Williams genuinely enjoyed school, but she was not drawn to a specific field of study. By the time she enrolled in college at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio, she decided to major in environmental biology with a secondary interest in psychology. 

She lived a disciplined lifestyle by joining the swim team and becoming the editor of the student newspaper. But Williams never truly had a clear career goal – a fun fact she likes to share with undergraduates in her role as dean of Texas Tech University's Jerry S. Rawls College of Business

“I like to tell them that I was a biology major because they're worried about their next step and how that's going to determine the rest of their lives,” she said. “But that's not the case. You have a lot of different decision points along the way that will ultimately shape what you do.”

In Williams' case, by the time she graduated with her Bachelor of Science in 1980, she had job offers that coincided with her biology degree. The problem was, they were less than exciting to her. 

That's when she found a promising venture in the help wanted ads of her local newspaper, working in a residential facility for young individuals with developmental disabilities.  

“I sort of made a decision: Do I want to work in a lab with no interaction with people, or would I rather work around people?” she recalled. “I decided I would rather work around people.”

Just as Williams tells students, that decision led her to a supervisor position that helped develop her long-awaited career interest – management. She found leading the staff was more of a challenge than she expected, but one she enjoyed. 

At that point, she decided to pursue her master's degree in psychology from Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. She moved to a part-time position as a training and development specialist, which allowed her to gain experience in human resources. 

She also met someone who would quickly become her biggest advocate – her husband of more than 40 years, Larry. In contrast to her, Larry knew from an early age what his strengths were, and he planned to pursue a doctoral degree in organizational behavior and human resources management.  

The more she thought about it, Williams decided to enroll with him. She would get her Master of Business Administration (MBA) and doctoral degrees at the same time, building a background in business. 

“I thought, ‘This is the perfect way to take an interest in psychology and social science – not natural science, but a lot of the principles are the same – and bring those two together,'” she remembered. “I wanted to invest in a Ph.D. program that would prepare me for a long-term career.”

This decision did indeed lead to various faculty positions over the next 25 years – from Purdue University to University of Tennessee, and a span of 13 years at Virginia Commonwealth University. During this time, they raised their two sons, utilizing their flexible schedules. 

Williams became a recognized scholar in the field of management. Her research interests included leadership and employee motivation, compensation systems, organizational justice and work/life issues. Her work appeared in top journals in the field, such as the Academy of Management Journal, Human Resource Management, the Journal of Management, the Journal of Management Education and the Journal of Applied Psychology, among many others.

It was not until she had been tenured for a while that Williams began to wonder about the next step of her career. 

“Some faculty stay absolutely focused on their research, and that's rewarding to them,” she said. “I didn't feel as though that was going to be rewarding for me over the long run.”

Deemed a Dean 

Williams decided to complete a leadership development program at Virginia Commonwealth University. This helped her realize she wanted to be involved in academic administration. 

This kicked off her “odyssey around the country” in 2010 with an opportunity to become a department chair of management and information systems at Wayne State University. Williams filled this role for nearly two years when she was asked to become interim dean. 

She felt nervous about taking on the position on such short notice, not quite equipped with the confidence to become a dean. But then a five-minute conversation with her first professor from graduate school changed her mindset. 

“He is a psychologist who ended up being a provost at another university, and I told him, ‘I'm just not ready to do this,'” she recounted. “And he asked me, ‘Well, why not?'”

Margaret Williams in front of framed artwork hanging on her wall.
In her office, Williams hung this artwork by Daryl Howard which features a sentimental phrase: “For all the bridges I have dared to cross.”

Williams didn't really have an answer to that simple question, telling her she was more ready to fill the position than she thought. It turned out to be a safe learning experience for the next three years. 

“It's a unique situation because you're definitely in a middle management role,” she explained, “but at the same time, you're CEO of your own organization. So, there's a lot of decision-making latitude given to deans, but at the same time, you have to be sure that your thought processes are aligned with the folks above you – the provost and the president.”

There were students, student parents, faculty, staff, employers, alumni and political figures among her constituencies to respond to, but Williams felt well prepared for the role. So much so that in 2014, she became the Page Endowed Dean at the University of North Dakota College of Business and Public Administration. 

She developed a passion for her position, which allowed her to combine her interests in leadership, psychology and research. She successfully led the establishment of a new school of entrepreneurship, enhanced the college's research portfolio and steered development and alumni relations.

“In a funny way, you're still using research skills to tease out what's going on in a situation,” she said. “I think reliance on a decision-making process based on data and information and understanding how to make decisions without being too emotional, is a good background to have.”

Trek to Texas Tech 

Williams received a call from a search firm more than two years later. Turns out, a colleague had nominated her to become the dean of Texas Tech's Rawls College. 

She had heard of Texas Tech before, partially because she used to cheer for former longtime Indiana University men's basketball head coach Bobby Knight (who went on to coach at Texas Tech). The other reason she knew the university was because of its high academic reputation. Several of her colleagues had even joined the Area of Management faculty.  

“I thought it sounded like an exciting opportunity, and then when I learned more about it, I realized it was an even better opportunity than I ever imagined,” she remembered.

Williams completed the applicant process, which included a presentation she delivered to the entire college. A faculty member who listened from the audience later told her she could sense the potential difference Williams could make. 

This sentiment was shared by others within Rawls College, apparent when Williams was offered the position in 2017. It was surreal to move into her office, the walls just outside lined with portraits of the 12 previous Rawls College deans – all male. 

Margaret standing in a hallway lined with portraits.

“I think it is very important who people see in leadership roles and whether they can personally identify with those people,” she said. “I think my role has made a difference from that perspective.”

Aware of her influence as a leader on campus, Williams made sure to back her words of advice with personal experience.  

“Do everything you can to build your self-confidence,” she said. “Find your voice. Don't be afraid to speak up and speak out to develop a thick skin, because you have to be able to take criticism and not have it devastate you.”

Williams brought these viewpoints, many new outlooks and fresh perspectives to her role as dean. Larry waited more than two years for a Texas Tech faculty position to open that fit his expertise. That happened in 2019 when he became the James C. and Marguerite J. Niver Chair in Business and a professor of management, bringing the Rawls College a globally recognized non-profit center he developed 25 years prior: the Consortium for the Advancement of Research Methods and Analysis (CARMA).

Within five years, Williams created an opportunity for staff to increase their participation and voice in the college through the Rawls Staff Council. College level research-related policies and procedures were instated, including tenure and promotion, third-year review, annual merit reviews, faculty workload and more. 

“We have definitely enhanced support for research by making it much more competitive with our peer and aspirant institutions, which allows us to attract and retain excellent faculty who are both good in the classroom as well as good at research,” she said. “So, I think that's been an important initiative.”

Williams and her team worked to build connections between undergraduates and industry so they would have clear pathways from internships into careers, evident through their banking, real estate, risk management, family business and entrepreneurship programs. They also formed a focused program called the Rawls First Year Experience, designed to get first-year students more involved in the college. Combined, these efforts have helped enhance student retention. 

Strides were made in graduate program enrollment by adding additional specialized master's degree programs and offering their weekend professional MBA beyond Lubbock in DFW, Houston and San Antonio. Consequently, the Rawls College graduate program enrollment and rankings are at an all-time high.  

Williams also played a major role in the fundraising success of more than $50 million – including $14 million for the Excellence in Banking program and permanent endowments for several programs, professorships and other strategic initiatives. More recently, in December 2023, the School of Accounting was renamed the Terry Lyons School of Accounting after a significant gift was made by the Rawls College distinguished alumnus.

“We are grateful to Terry and the Lyons family for their investment in the future of accounting education within the Rawls College of Business,” Williams said. “Their gift will elevate our ability to create leading-edge programs and prepare students to contribute to the evolution of the accounting field at a critical time in its history.”

Margaret standing in front of a lit "Rawls" sign.

Williams looks forward to more campaign opportunities later this year. She remains focused on managing growth and wants to ensure the college has adequate facilities to support its aspirations. She also plans to revitalize the undergraduate curriculum, launch an online Bachelor of Business Administration and raise the stature of the college as she moves into the second phase of her deanship. 

Time flies while she chases these priorities, but even so, she has become personally invested in the university. 

“I love Texas Tech,” Williams expressed. “After we moved to town and had been here a while, people asked, ‘What's been the biggest surprise?' And I said, ‘Well, the biggest surprise is there really haven't been any surprises. Lubbock is an easy place to settle into. That's one of the things I love about Texas Tech and this part of the country: People are honest and they don't play games.”

Williams is proud those traits are also apparent in university leadership – making her role much less complicated. As she reflects on how fortunate Texas Tech is to have strong academic leadership, a growing population and support from the state, she realizes her 10-year-old self finally found her place. 

“It's not that I was doing poorly, or that I was doing badly,” she remarked. “It just took a while for me to see how I could best contribute.”

That big picture will one day be framed as a portrait of herself gleaming among 12 men, a painting that captures when she was poised and ready to – in Jerry Rawls' words – “insist on excellence” in all the Rawls College's present and future endeavors. 

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