Meet the Dean: Karen Williams

Meet the Dean: Karen Williams

By Amy WilliamsUniversity Communications
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Interior of UA Main Library (Photo by Patrick McArdle)
Interior of UA Main Library (Photo by Patrick McArdle)
Karen Williams
Karen Williams
Karen Williams on a ski trip in Colorado. (Photo courtesy of Karen Williams)
Karen Williams on a ski trip in Colorado. (Photo courtesy of Karen Williams)

They're experts in their fields and essential campus leaders. But how well do you know deans across the University?

This occasional Lo Que Pasa series introduces deans across campus and provides insight into their motivations, challenges and reasons for choosing to work at the UA.

This week, meet the dean of the University Libraries – an environment that is ever-changing to adapt to the way information is provided. Williams is also serving as interim CIO and vice president for information technology. Besides reading, she enjoys traveling, hiking, camping and spending time with friends and family.  

Name: Karen Williams
Dean of: University Libraries
Number of years serving as dean of the University Libraries: 3
Fun Fact: I collect beautiful Mata Ortiz pottery.


Why did you choose to join the UA?
I first joined the UA many years ago, fresh out of grad school. Never having seen a desert, I was certain I’d be moving back to the Midwest as soon as possible. A year later I was in love with the desert and proud to be part of such a great university community. Eventually, I took a promotional opportunity at the University of Minnesota and enjoyed nine years in the Twin Cities, but my goal was always to return to Tucson and the UA. When the dean of libraries position came open I couldn't believe my luck, and have been back as dean for a little more than three years.

What do you enjoy most about serving as dean of the University Libraries?
I love that our librarians and staff get to work and partner with everyone on campus. We add value to the research, teaching and learning enterprises and we showcase the work of UA scholars and students for the Tucson community and beyond. I love that I work with so many passionate, brilliant, devoted colleagues who throw all they have into their work, and have fun in the process. I love walking through the libraries and seeing students studying and creating, singly and in groups, because in addition to all the digital stuff at their fingertips, they are still coming into our buildings. No two days are the same, and in all of this, I find joy.

What is your leadership philosophy?
Everyone participates. I'm charged with providing leadership by virtue of my role, but I'll only be successful if I draw on the strengths and knowledge that every individual brings to the enterprise. Sometimes this takes the form of populating teams that reflect complementary skills and knowledge; sometimes it's recognizing that all individuals commit "acts of leadership," often at times when we most need them. Leadership means inspiring a shared vision and making it possible for others to act on the vision. It means challenging the status quo, taking risks and celebrating failures. Leadership is finding your courage, your sense of humor, and your humility, and inviting others along for the ride.

A vast amount of information today is digital and instantly accessible. How has that changed how students use libraries and how librarians help students?
Change is the name of the game in today's information world. Libraries are less about housing physical collections and more about providing access to content wherever it lives. The world is our collection. Some of our analog services simply added digital choices, such as students being able to use our help desk service through chat and soon through texting. Many of the changes have much greater impact as we use technology to create new services and options for students. We have maker spaces such as the iSpace in the Science-Engineering Library that provides 3-D scanning and printing, a visualization wall, virtual reality headsets, Raspberry Pi, and littleBits kits. With our partners, we created the largest collaborative classroom on campus, which is changing the way faculty teach and recognizing the way students learn. With other campus partners, we are developing a model to make textbooks either free or low cost, saving students significant amounts of money.

Transformative student experiences are at the heart of the University of Arizona's mission. The Student Affairs/Enrollment Management & Academic Initiatives/Student Success and University Libraries have joined forces to envision a Student Success District. The UA Libraries embody innovation through student-focused services and spaces that support different learning styles and feature cutting-edge technologies. Similarly, SAEM/AISS adapts programs and facilities to meet today's students' expectations, such as understanding that a commitment to students' health can translate to academic achievement, and building systems that take academic support to where students live and congregate.

What does the future hold for the University Libraries?
Many exciting changes as UA Libraries adapts to the ways in which powerful forces are transforming higher education and prompting a fresh examination of research libraries. These forces include new and rapidly changing technologies, an abundance of digital information in myriad formats, an increased understanding of how students learn, evolving research methods, and changing practices in how scholars communicate and disseminate their research and creative work.

You're also the interim CIO and vice president for information technology. How do you balance your UITS responsibilities with your Libraries responsibilities?
Life is crazy busy but I'm thoroughly enjoying working with both organizations. I've changed some of the ways I organize my work and hope they kick in soon. And I'm surrounded by great colleagues who will point it out to me if I've lost the balance between the two.

How do you spend your free time?
As the occupant of a very large and exciting job, my mantra is that I'll be a better dean if I make sure that I have some free time. I enjoy hiking, camping, yoga and skiing. I love traveling with friends and family and always have a trip on the horizon. Next summer we'll spend time in the Canadian Rockies and now I'm working on finding the best place to see the northern lights. And reading. I'm always reading.

What is one thing most people don't know about you?
When backpacking with a friend in Yosemite National Park, we once stayed up all night throwing rocks at a bear who thought our food bag hanging from a tree looked pretty tasty. We were just below tree line so the trees were short and the bear was large. We kept him away that night, but the next night he captured our bag and had a feast.


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