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Cornell Engineering

Q&A with JoAnne Williams

Cornell Engineering's top administrator has degrees in law and engineering

In September 2012, Cornell Engineering signed JoAnne Williams on as associate dean of administration. She has been an engineer, a lawyer, a chief negotiator, and responsible for many business operations. Williams comes to the college following a stint as Cornell’s director of sponsored programs and associate vice president for research. She has years of industry experience as vice president of operations, assistant general counsel, and director of strategic accounts in global manufacturing, and in research and development for for-profit organizations. Williams holds a Juris Doctor and a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering.

As Cornell Engineering’s chief operating officer, Williams is responsible for managing resources to meet the goals of the college's strategic plan and provides oversight for the administration of the college; including among others, human resources, information technology, marketing and communications, corporate relations, operating and research budgets, and implementation of the facilities master plan.

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Cornell Engineering Magazine: This is a big job. What were your first steps as associate dean?

Williams: There are so many things to learn here. I spent the last few months meeting directly with all the engineering team, including staff and academic leaders, to get a clear picture of what is working well and what needs to change. I also needed to get up to speed on a three-year-long budgeting project, moving toward a profit-and-loss-based system. I turned to others involved to help me get into a position where I could know enough for some critical analysis and decision-making. It was a great way to hit the ground running. The new budget model implements a uniform budget across Cornell University.  For the College of Engineering it represents a very significant change and also an opportunity to gain a better understanding of our resources and expenses and to implement strategic changes.

I needed to hire a director of finance and was fortunate enough to meet a candidate with industry and academic experience and, most importantly, who had the energy and commitment to take on this role at such a critical time.  We are delighted to have him in our college. He’s not your traditional finance director and brings so much to the department in terms of being able to collaborate effectively.
I’ve also been working on learning as much as I can about the dean’s priorities, quickly enough to take some of the dean’s extra responsibilities off his shoulders. 

CEM: What aspect of your new job do you find the challenging (or what keeps you up at night)? 

Williams: The most challenging part of the job is also the most exciting part of the job. I was fortunate enough to join the college at a time when change was happening more rapidly than ever. I love change—painful as it is sometimes. New, exciting collaborations such as the Cornell Tech campus, a new strategic plan for the college, a facilities master plan to renovate and grow the engineering footprint, a new program in biomedical engineering, and an exciting campaign to create a unique brand for Cornell Engineering. The times call for bringing in the entire college team—and other experts around campus when needed—and tapping into their most creative thinking in order to position the college to meet and exceed our strategic initiatives and to thrive under the new budget model. 

CEM: Every research institution wants to increase research funding. What can the college’s central administration do to help faculty secure more grants? 

Williams: Increasing research funding is a very complex process where many factors and organizations can, and do, impact the institution’s ability to accomplish the task. Externally, the research landscape is changing and the amount of federal funding available is decreasing while the number of regulations is increasing. Foundations and industrial sponsors are seeking to recoup their investment by focusing on intellectual property returns that sometimes conflict with the university’s policies and mission. Internally, we are hoping to enhance the support we provide to our researchers in the areas of proposal submission and management. Our college is committed to pursuing and winning a national center in each of our four areas of strategic focus. We are also very committed to expanding our relationships with industry to identify synergies and jointly pursue research and other opportunities. 

CEM: The college is in the midst of a faculty hiring initiative. What is central administration’s role in attracting and landing top candidates? 

Williams: To attract and land top candidates, we must have an environment that supports faculty research and teaching excellence in areas that are important to the faculty and also in line with the college’s mission and strategic plan. In central administration, this means an ongoing focus on staffing plans knowing that there are times when we have to step outside of our staffing plan and react nimbly when an unplanned opportunity to hire a great candidate presents itself. We constantly evaluate financial and facilities-related issues and make smart decisions about how to spend the resources we have. 

CEM: The college has had to scale back its facilities master plan. How do you balance the needs of faculty and students with a balanced budget? 

Williams: We need to be wiser about how we spend our money and understand the differences between our “needs” and our “wants.” Then we can re-prioritize. There is also a bit of a “cultural” change that we will have to address as we plan our facilities projects: We need to renovate or improve existing facilities and focus more on sharing our departmental resources instead of duplicating resources that may not be unique to one department or research area. Our new facilities should serve as many as possible and encourage collaboration.  

CEM: The college has recently launched a leadership program. What kind of a leader are you?

Williams: There are so many adjectives that try to capture in one or a few words certain personality and character traits into segments—and it’s so difficult to identify with any one single set of descriptors. If I had to pick a style, I would say it is democratic. Good leadership must enable team members to excel at their jobs by providing for the team a vision of the future and the means, including authority and accountability, to achieve the vision. I strongly value both individual input and the power of collective thought—it makes for very powerful teams. I like to be “present” for the team and participate in the projects/activities by providing guidance and feedback and ensuring we are all on track and still on the same page. At the end of the day, I retain the right—and the obligation—to make an informed decision.  

CEM: Some worry that the new Cornell Tech campus in New York City will take resources away from the Ithaca campus. What are you doing to make sure that doesn’t happen?

Williams: I don’t think that will happen. The mission of the tech campus does not compete with Ithaca. There is tremendous synergy between the Cornell Tech campus and the Ithaca campus and I believe the opportunities for collaboration are innumerable. Our faculty and students will be able to take advantage of the unique opportunities presented by the model that is being created in New York City and through our relationship with the Technion. Cornell Engineering hopes to provide a pipeline of qualified students that will thrive in the creation of advanced technology; mentored by highly qualified industry experts, researchers, and educational leaders in an environment that has multidisciplinary collaboration at its core.

CEM: The new tech campus emphasizes entrepreneurship as a means of spurring both technological and economic development. Is Cornell Engineering doing anything to promote entrepreneurship in Ithaca?

Williams: The college has been involved in supporting entrepreneurship for quite some time. Our students have quite a variety of courses available to them to build essential skills. We also provide opportunities to practice the skills through student projects and teams. Recently, we have been exploring options to further promote entrepreneurship by partnering with other colleges and outside agencies. Upstate New York is on the governor’s radar and opportunities for entrepreneurs to thrive in this area will increase. I believe Cornell Engineering is poised to participate in the creation of tomorrow’s entrepreneurs and leaders.