Odessa College President Dr. Gregory Williams has achieved a success that extends beyond his institution, helping make the college a partner in the larger worlds of community, industry, and region.
By Shanti Terry
If community and professional recognition counts for anything, Dr. Gregory Williams is a much-revered figure. Currently in his 12th year as the president of Odessa College, Dr. Williams has guided the institution to its newfound status as a “Rising Star,” as the college has been awarded the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence three times in the last five years. He has himself been named “Citizen of the Year” by the Odessa Chamber of Commerce, an award given him last year for his services in education and community on the whole. Most recently, Dr. Williams was honored as a local hero in August when the Salvation Army Heroes Banquet recognized him, along with several other individuals, for their support and volunteerism in building a better community for Odessa.
But it is for his understanding of, and cooperation with, the employers in the Permian Basin that has made this administrator a “star” in local business circles.
His peers know best why he succeeds. Donald Wood, Vice President for Institutional Effectiveness at OC, says that the college has come a long way and Dr. Williams started the process. Wood says Dr. Williams deserves credit for taking Odessa College from a rural community college to a national leader in the education industry. “We [Odessa College] hadn’t grown in 20 years before Dr. Williams arrived. In 2010, Dr. Williams helped get a bond passed,” says Wood. “We had some buildings that were nearly 50 years old. We now have a state-of-the-art facility and we’ve implemented changes on every level of the college. In the 2018 Texas Public Higher Education Almanac, we have the highest graduation rates of all the community colleges in West Texas. I’m here because of the vision Dr. Williams has.” Wood went on to say that there is now a team of individuals in place that work to make sure that Odessa College is the very best it can be.
This college president is a locally grown resource. Raised in Ector County, he had a childhood and adolescence that supplied him with fond memories.
“Growing up here was great,” Williams said. “I had positive experiences with my parents. They were good for me. They gave all of us [he has four brothers and one sister] a foundation of skills and accountability, teaching us to do the right things. I had a lot of friends who supported me and kept me going in a positive direction. Even though I lost my dad at 13, and we didn’t have financial resources, I had everything I needed. Financial resources were a difficulty, and working hard is how I overcame it. I started work at a young age. I gained a perspective for those who are struggling. Not even just financial issues—other things on top of that. If you’ve been through something, you understand other people.”
Such experience has given Dr. Williams an understanding of what students can do when given the help they need to pursue their goals. He says his philosophy is always to give more and to do more than people expect; always going above and beyond. As a Pell Grant recipient, he started developing and using that philosophy in daily life long ago. “I was able to get a Pell Grant for college, and that was a great resource,” he said. “I graduated in three years instead of four, which saved some money. The Pell Grant was a good investment made by the country. I pay the amount of my Pell Grant back to the federal government every month. They’ve received that money back many times over.”
Making sure that Odessa College is the best comes from a commitment that Dr. Williams made long ago to himself and the community. For him, it is all about helping students through to the end of their journey. “Students from OC leave better than when they came and that’s not the case for every college,” he said. “If you don’t have students who are completing their education and getting their credentials in high numbers, then you have work to do. We make a serious commitment to help our students to graduate and get their credentials. After having experienced us, they leave better than when they arrived.”
Education and the Energy Industry
They’re not posing under these banners for no reason. Odessa College was winner last year (and in other years) of the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. College president Dr. Gregory Williams stands third from left.
Indulging my own curiosity about how Odessa College plays a role in the energy industry, I plied Dr. Williams for some specifics. As students graduate and go out into the community to do their part, how do they serve the industry that keeps the Permian Basin thriving? Obviously, many of them go into a position that’s involved with oil and gas, but on a deeper level, how does their pursuing an education play a part in their success? How do employers benefit?
According to Dr. Williams, the relationship between Odessa College, the community, and the energy industry is symbiotic. As the college gives qualified employees to the energy industry, those employees help to build the industry that keeps the world of the Permian Basin turning. “We give to them and they give back to us,” Dr. Williams stated. “There’s strong connection. All in this area are impacted by the oil and energy economy. Even in education or government industries, you are getting tax dollars [that originated in] the oilfield industry. People come here for the jobs made from the energy in the oilfield economy.”
Anyone who’s lived in the Permian Basin knows there’s a lot of truth to that statement. As energy companies grow, more tax money is funneled into the public treasury, much of which finds its way back into the economy. There are more jobs available and larger companies even move large numbers of families in from all over to aid them in their ventures. The support system works somewhat like a spider web. Not in the sense of it being a trap—for it’s nothing like that—but for the beautiful and intricate qualities the image brings to mind. Everything is connected, woven together, attractive, and functional. Dr. Williams went on to say, “The energy gifts to us, they support us through their taxes, gifts, donations, and employees, and we give back to them. We give them hope, we help businesses in the community, and we work to make the community more attractive, better educated, and well-rounded.”
Dr. Williams stated that, in the symbiotic relationship, another way the college gives back to the community and also the energy industry is through camaraderie. His goal is to have local community and industries be proud to have Odessa College as a string in the web. “We are, and we should strive for perfection,” he says. “Maybe can’t get there, but we must hold ourselves to high standards. I owe it to the community to try to lead the best college in the country. If taxpayers need to pay their portion, then we owe them an amazing product. They should be proud to be part of us.”
Dr. Williams remarked that getting an education is vital today, especially in energy, because of the way technology is changing. “It’s more and more important to be a graduate, especially here in our area,” he said. “Technology continues to move forward. Individuals can be replaced by technology or required to understand and utilize technology more than before. You need to be on top of training and education. It will be more difficult for you in the future if you don’t have an education in your background. I think that trend will continue because of technology.”
It’s true that technology is changing. We watch it happen before our very eyes on a daily basis. Education and the continuing of that education is indeed crucial, but there is another aspect that warrants investigation. That issue is the hiring market and the struggles companies face while trying to operate successfully as they search for people available for hire. From what I’ve gleaned, it’s not that people aren’t out there to be hired, it’s that it’s hard to retain them because there is always another company around the corner offering the same job for more or better pay, so people “jump ship,” so to speak. I have often heard or overheard people saying that the energy industry is, on occasion, desperate for employees. I hear people saying that the high turnover rates are due to the fact that sometimes the energy industry has to simply take what’s available rather than having the luxury of selecting from a plentiful, qualified field of candidates.
Dr. Williams said that he feels empathy for companies looking to hire in current times, and part of why he works hard to provide education to individuals around the area is his way of helping with the issue of finding capable, dependable employees. He mentioned that, with the way our current economy works, employers often have limited options. “It’s an obstacle to their ability to provide great customer service, and to uphold their high standards and their requirements of employees. If a person can leave at the drop of a hat as soon as you expect too much of them, or if you have limited options to replace them, then it forces you to pull back. It can force companies to lower their expectations of employees. We help employers by providing educated and highly trained individuals so that we can all be held to a higher standard and have accountability. We should all be trying to do our best work.”
With all the good work Dr. Williams has done so far, he says he still has more to do. He will continue working tirelessly to improve Odessa College and the Permian Basin as a whole. “We will become the best community college in the nation. We don’t work towards that to be able to pat ourselves on the back. We do that to demonstrate that we are doing good work and we aim to share our best practices with the rest of the nation. So we can help all citizens of the United States to be highly educated. That gets me excited.”
His excitement should be contagious. It’s great news for oil and gas because the industry can look forward to more educated workers who are learning skills for succeeding in life and at work. That happy balance will take our economy into a bright future. It’s how individuals like Dr. Williams are heroes to the local community. He may not wear a cape or have a secret identity, but he exercises powers that seem to benefit all.
Shanti Terry has been a freelance writer/blogger since 2011. She can be reached via email at: email@example.com.