Michael P. Williams

By any measure, Temple trustee Michael P. Williams (B.A., CLA ’93) is an extraordinarily successful man.

He’s the City of Philadelphia’s deputy finance director and director of the Minority Business Enterprise Council.

He’s an accomplished attorney and one of the region’s most prominent advocates for the rights of gays and lesbians.

The Philadelphia Tribune called him one of Philadelphia’s most influential African-American leaders earlier this year, and the Philadelphia Daily News named him one of 21 “People to Watch in 2005.”

And he has the academic credentials to match: He graduated magna cum laude from Temple and was vice president of his class at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law.

Yet Williams’ academic career didn’t get off to a very good start. You might even say it was disastrous. That experience — overcoming the rockiest of beginnings as a college student, and then even homelessness — shaped his feelings about his alma mater and its role in the community, and still guides his actions as a Temple trustee.

Williams first came to Temple from Compton, Calif., in the fall of 1977, knowing little about the school or Philadelphia other than what he had learned from a brochure and watching Bill Cosby on television.

“When I first got dropped off, I didn’t know where I was,” Williams said. “Temple and the East Coast were a bit of a shock, from the language to the food.”

He struggled to stay afloat, and less than a year later, he sank.

“I just didn’t acclimate to college as quickly as I wanted,” he said. “I stopped showing up. I dropped out. And then I was homeless. I had trouble finding a job, and I felt that I couldn’t ask my family for help. They were struggling financially too.”

Williams found his way out of homelessness with the help of an entry-level job at Pennsylvania Hospital. He then moved back to Los Angeles and remade himself as a telecommunications worker before returning to Philadelphia in 1989.

He re-enrolled at Temple in 1991, and he eventually graduated with a bachelor’s degree in French studies and a 3.51 GPA.

“The second time around, I got it,” Williams said. “I was ready for college, and I was able to appreciate it.”

Williams’ tortuous undergraduate odyssey has informed his view of recent changes at Temple.

He has heard the concerns about the consequences of the University’s more rigorous academic and admissions standards, and the claims that Temple might not be serving local minority communities as well as it once did — and he rejects them.

“I don’t buy that criticism,” Williams said. “I think that Temple serves the city of Philadelphia, particularly people of color, better than ever. If Temple raises its academic standards, that’s a good thing for the community. If folks aren’t meeting those standards, there are other options that are viable. The community college partnerships can help: You go to a community college, you hone your skills, and then you go to Temple. That does more to serve the city’s residents. It’s a disservice to let folks in who aren’t ready — like I wasn’t ready — and let them drop out! Open enrollment doesn’t help folks if they’re not going to be able to keep up and compete.

“But that’s not the only way that Temple serves local communities,” Williams continued. “Temple serves Philadelphia’s people of color through school partnerships and public service from its faculty, students and staff. And Temple means economic development. It means jobs and job creation. It means creating a pool of human capital from which the city can benefit, particularly the city’s brain trust. Temple is a jewel in this city, and should be treated as such.”
Williams’ connections with Temple are deep. In addition to being a member of the Board of Trustees (his nomination as a commonwealth trustee by Gov. Ed Rendell was approved in 2003), he’s also an adjunct faculty member at The Fox School of Business and Management.

And although there are plenty of Temple alumni on the board, none can claim to have been enrolled as undergraduates in both the 1970s and the ’90s. That long relationship with the University has given Williams a unique perspective on recent improvements at Temple.

“With all due respect to the Temple University I knew in the 1970s, the Temple of that time felt like a commuter school,” Williams said. “It was a campus that didn’t have any sort of student life whatsoever. It was dark, and a scary place to walk.

“Now I see a school that has revived student life. I see a well-lit campus. I see great students, and I see them hanging out day and night. I see a new, fancy Student Center. I see more Temple spirit, as well as great academics.

“You can say ‘I’m part of the Temple community’ with pride and without making any excuses,” Williams said. “This is an exciting time.”

- By Hillel Hoffman

2005 Temple Times