Four months into her role as vice chancellor of University Communications, Marie Williams brings fresh perspectives and big ideas to her department and the CU Denver community. Since she joined the university in January, she has been instrumental in several campuswide initiatives, including Lynx Together and the 2030 Strategic Planning Process, all while (virtually) getting to know her team and strategizing a direction for the department’s future.
Williams has served in senior leadership roles at public relations agencies and within higher education, most recently as vice president of marketing and communications at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. At CU Denver, Williams leads the team responsible for external and internal communications, issues management, media relations, marketing, brand strategy, social media, and web development.
Williams began her public relations career in editor roles at the University of Pennsylvania (her alma mater) and Temple University. For the next six years, she worked in the private sector, in communication and marketing positions for Pennsylvania companies, including PECO Energy and The Pep Boys. From 2007-18, Williams held leadership roles for the education practices at two New York-based public relations agencies, serving as senior managing director at RF|Binder Partners and senior vice president at Edelman. Most recently, at Saint Joseph’s, she transformed the Office of Marketing and Communications into an in-house creative and strategic consultancy that has enhanced the visibility and reputation of the university.
Williams moved to the Denver area in May, just in time to volunteer at and witness the Cross the Quad event. CU Denver News sat down with Williams to ask her about her previous experience and her vision for the University Communications team.
How have your former roles prepared you to be the vice chancellor of University Communications?
One of the things that I’ve done by design in my career is build communication skills in a variety of ways. Experience and portfolio aren’t one-dimensional.
I started out in print journalism doing editorial, magazines, publications, and freelance writing. That was always my passion, and I always wanted to be a journalist. As I was exposed to different forms of communication—public affairs, marketing, brand strategy, crisis communications—I wanted to keep growing my skills. I wanted to explore areas like speech writing, product marketing, public relations, and more strategic work. I also wanted to gain diversification from an industry perspective. Over my career, I’ve worked in health care, retail, automotive, energy, nonprofit, public relations, and social media—a gamut of different industries. It has helped make me a well-rounded communicator from all aspects.
Over the past year, our community has experienced a pandemic, as well as social and political unrest. How do you feel about joining and leading the University Communications team through this historic period of time?
COVID-19 was the unimaginable. As institutions of higher education, keeping everyone safe and informed was front of mind. From a business and leadership perspective, it helped people really prioritize and focus on what’s important in their professional and personal lives.
While you can never lose sight of important business goals such as enrollment and fundraising, emotional intelligence is incredibly important in leadership. I believe transitioning to remote learning and working has made me a more empathetic leader. As we move forward, I want to focus on the positive disruptions—even though there was so much tragedy and so much loss, I think in the final analysis there are things to be gained, such as innovation, prioritization, and a really sharp focus on students.
As it relates to political unrest, which flared during the last year and responding to the emotional and mental health needs of all community members, I think it was a perfect storm. You have a pandemic, economic and financial loss, and a rightful demand for justice. Even though that was incredibly difficult for people to process and live through, I think that one of the shining lights is how a lot of institutions and organizations responded. CU Denver placed racial equity and racial justice front and center in terms of strategic planning and priorities. I think that is very important and speaks a lot to what this institution is all about.
What are your top priorities coming into this role and how do you plan on achieving them?
I want to ensure that our work is as strategic as possible. The majority of work coming out of University Communications should support reputation, fundraising, and enrollment. I am currently doing an assessment of our team, our culture, our resources, and what we ultimately want to achieve as a unit. One of my biggest takeaways is that we need to be investing in and focusing more on the creative and strategic work coming out of the University Communications office.
What are you most looking forward to about your new role?
Many things were incredibly attractive and exciting to me about taking on the CU Denver role.
Part of it has to do with the essence and culture of CU Denver in general. The focus on students, and diverse students from many different backgrounds, is incredibly important and something that I relate to.
The focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion and racial justice was something that told me a lot about this institution. Much of that intertwines with the great leadership and ambition from Chancellor Marks. When I saw the output from her first 100 days, it spoke volumes about her vision for our institution, with a strong focus on access and the ability to have a great and affordable education on students’ terms. That, really, is the future of education.
In terms of being in Denver, I’m looking forward to the sunny weather! I’ve heard there are almost 300 days of sunshine. I’ve never been away from the East Coast, so I’m very much looking forward to a more temperate climate. And, the culture of the city, the restaurants, the tech scene, the entrepreneurs. It’s a city on the rise, which I find very intriguing.
What can the CU Denver community expect to see from University Communications in the upcoming months?
Immediately, there is going to be some strong creative campaigns coming out of University Communications, including the Lynx Together initiative for a safe return to in-person learning and activities this fall. This involves creating strong content and strategy that builds pride and community. We will be trying this campaign-based approach more and more often in the future.
Learn more: CU Denver used its resources, including marketing tools, social media channels, and news coverage, to promote and organize the first-ever Cross the Quad spring 2021 commencement activity. Read about the event in CU Denver News.
Over the summer and into fall, we will focus on bringing the 2030 Strategic Plan to life. We play an essential role in sharing the vision and goals in ways that people can understand and relate to. Our overarching goal is to ignite pride and a sense of purpose as the university moves forward.
What does it mean to you to be a Lynx?
Based on what I’m seeing, it means having grit and resilience, being a self-starter, working incredibly hard, and not taking success for granted.
Outside of work, what do you like to do for fun?
I’m a huge NBA fan—I love basketball. Growing up in Philly, I’ve always been a 76ers fan. And being so close to Broadway, seeing theatrical performances was another one of my family’s hobbies. I’m looking forward to exploring the arts and culture scene in Denver, and seeing a Nuggets game!