At the center of campus in Cutler Hall is a John Milton loving, kind-hearted administrator who has worked at Ohio University for the past 20 years.
Executive Dean of Regional Higher Education Bill Willan will be retiring at the end of this year. He has held a range of positions at the university — from executive dean to adjunct professor of English composition. Over that time, he has played an instrumental role in shaping the regional campuses through his work on copious committees and a dedication to students.
“I’ve pretty much insisted that Bill be on basically every committee I’ve created, period. He needs to be there. I need him there. We need his wisdom, we need his sense of what’s important and what’s not,” David Thomas, former faculty representative of the Board of Trustees and a film professor, said.
From making sure his colleagues take care of themselves to serving as a mentor, Willan’s ability to motivate people and infect a room with laughter has made the long hours more fun, Associate Provost for Faculty and Academic Planning Howard Dewald said.
“I have appreciated his belief in me, his support and his friendship,” Dean of OU Southern Nicole Pennington said. “None of us achieve success in isolation. I contribute my growth and success to him. He has been an incredible mentor, a great listener and a strong leader.”
About 10 years ago as the curriculum council chair, Thomas created an online study group to research virtual education and the financial implications of such. He immediately brought Willan into the study group to provide insight.
“I needed his sense of humor,” Thomas said. “He’s an amazingly sharp guy, and it’s not that kind of sharpness where it cuts, that’s not the kind of human he is. The humor he has is accepting, and it’s warm-hearted and it’s ironic and ... those are three characteristics I really respect in any administrator.”
Although Willan has served as an administrator for about a decade, he began at OU as an adjunct professor of English composition in 1999 at the Chillicothe and Athens campuses. He quickly moved into the Office of Regional Higher Education in 2000, where he performed all of the back-office functions for the academic unit until 2008.
In 2009, Willan became the dean of OU Southern until he assumed the position of executive dean of Regional Higher Education in 2013.
“It’s been 20 years and all associated with regional campuses, and it’s been a real joy,” Willan said.
Throughout that time, Willan has experienced influential changes within regional higher education and higher education as a whole — from ever-evolving student demographics to the declining amount of state dollars put into public universities.
“He’s the kind of person that doesn’t lose track of why he’s there and where he started,” Thomas said. “That’s hard stuff. It’s difficult administration, it’s a lot of paper pushing, it’s number crunching and for a person who loves students at heart and is a teacher at heart, it’s work.”
Willan is a first-generation student. He is the only member of his immediate family to graduate from high school.
“When I think of the difference that education has made, and it’s not just in the job that it provided, it’s been in the understanding of the people,” Willan said.
Education has made an instrumental impact on Willan, from his time at University of Indianapolis as an undergraduate student to his time at Purdue University as a graduate student studying English literature.
“The difference education has made in my life, I can’t tell you,” Willan said. “Being able to make that available to the students in Appalachian Ohio through the mission of the regional campuses — it’s been a joy. It’s been an honor. I’ll miss that part of it.”
From highlighting influential programs at Board of Trustees meetings to advocating for colleagues and students, Willan has served the university with a full heart.
“It’s about that big heart of his,” Thomas said. “He loves students. He’s here for the students, and I find that really what we all have to be.”
Willan is looking forward to retirement because he will have more time with his family and be able to teach renaissance literature again.
“I’ll be playing golf,” Willan said. “I’ll actually have time to practice now so watch out.”