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Big Ideas: Tara Williams comes in as Barrett’s new dean


By Eryka Forquer

Calling ASU “meaningful,” Tara Williams took over Barrett, The Honors College, on August 1, due to Mark Jacobs’ retirement. 

Williams is the former dean of the University of Alabama Honors College.

“Barrett is a place, as is ASU overall, that is always interested in figuring out what the next really meaningful thing we can do to support students is,” Williams says. 

“Thinking about students holistically, thinking about a student as a person who’s doing lots of different things in the classroom and beyond, that’s the kind of work that I’m excited to join the Barrett community in doing now.”  

As dean of an honors college, Williams says she cherishes the relationships that she builds with students and enjoys working closely with them.    

“It’s one of the reasons why I’ve decided to pursue a career in honors education, because the dean of an honors college often has more opportunities to interact with students closely than other colleges might,” Williams says. 

“So that’s one of the things I find most engaging and rewarding about working in honors colleges.” 

A Florida native, Williams earned her undergraduate degree in English from the University of Florida and went on to obtain her Doctor of Philosophy from Rutgers University.    

“I experimented with a lot of different options but in the end, English was the thing that I felt most passionate about and most interested in pursuing,” Williams says. “So, I kept studying English, and when I got to graduate school, I specialized in medieval literature and culture.”  

After college, Williams became a full-time faculty member at Oregon State University where she taught English and conducted research. Once she joined the university’s administration and served as the associate dean of the honors college, Williams continued teaching to get “the experience of being with the students in the classroom.” 

“Once I started in administration, I continued to teach,” Williams says. “That’s something that I’m looking forward to doing at Barrett as well, is teaching maybe a human event or perhaps a seminar.”     

Williams’ career pivoted and she became dean of the University of Alabama Honors College. While there, Williams dedicated her role to increasing the diversity of incoming students, created additional faculty and staff positions and implemented a test-optional admissions pathway. 

Williams also helped construct “BIG Ideas,” a contest designed to provide students with the opportunity of entrepreneurship and innovation.  

“We developed a pilot that we ran last spring where we had seven teams come up with a solution to address some kind of global issue,” Williams says. “They presented that solution and were able to work with mentors and experts in the field that were relevant to their projects. Many of them were alumni of the Honors College.”    

Williams says the contest was “off to a successful start in Alabama” and could be an exciting project for other universities to replicate.  

“That was a valuable experience for our students and alumni, one that I think could translate to other people,” Williams says.   

Outside of her career and role as a dean, Williams is a reading and running enthusiast. 

“I am much better at one of those than the other,” Williams says.  

She is also the author of “Inventing Womanhood: Gender and Language in Later Middle English Writing” and “Middle English Marvels: Magic, Spectacle, and Morality in the Fourteenth Century.” The two books focus on varying aspects of the Middle Ages, a time that Williams says is still influential. 

“A lot of our present-day concepts can be traced back to the Middle Ages, and even some of our present-day language can be traced back to the Middle Ages,” Williams says. “So, it’s really interesting to me to see some of that taking shape and how that might be relevant to the world we live in today.”   

If Williams were to write an additional book in the future, she says it would likely be on education. 

“One of the reasons that I have stuck with honors education and wanted to be involved in education is because I think it’s a place where we can experiment, learn things and innovate in ways that will then influence the entire landscape of higher education,” Williams says. “A book that looks into that would be an exciting project for me.”   

As Williams moves to Arizona, she says she is excited to discover new hiking trails and view the state’s scenery. She is also eager to return to ASU and connect with the students and faculty.   

“Meeting the students and talking with them has been the real highlight of my visits to campus up to this point,” Williams says. “I can’t wait to meet more of them and hear about their experiences at Barrett and what they find really valuable and what they hope to see develop.” 

Williams says she will draw from her experience working in honors college and her role as dean with other universities. She is looking to implement her past work of increasing the diversity of incoming cohorts, developing curriculum and international experiences at ASU. 

“Those are some of the things that I want to talk with their community about and see how it will fit into what Barrett is already doing and what Barrett is envisioning for the future,” Williams says.  CT


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