When a 13-year-old boy died after delays in his emergency care at Hill Country Memorial Hospital in Fredericksburg, Dr. Michael R. Williams made a request of the boy’s parents: Partner with the hospital to make it better.
This was 2009, and Williams had taken the helm as the hospital’s chief executive officer the year before. Back then, the hospital’s metrics were consistently low: low patient satisfaction, low employee satisfaction, a budget operating in the red. Williams had been an anesthesiologist in Fredericksburg and “didn’t know a thing” about running a hospital, he said. “I went to the team and said, ‘We’re going to make this about the patients.’”
Williams cut across industries to improve the hospital: He asked an executive from Southwest Airlines to train his staff in the company’s all-hands-on-deck culture. He asked a trainer from The Ritz-Carlton to up his staff’s customer service standards. And, he asked a Toyota employee to show his team how to cut costs. The boy’s parents agreed to share their story, too.
Williams will replace the outgoing chancellor of the University of North Texas System, Lesa Roe, in the coming months, the System announced Nov. 8. His plans for the System mimic his ventures at Hill Country Memorial Hospital: Disrupt outdated norms to put people first.
Williams’ method worked. Nearly every year since 2012, Hill Country Memorial Hospital has been named a ‘Top 100’ hospital by IBM Watson Health based on measures like inpatient deaths and readmission rates.
“That’s an example of taking a staid business model and infusing innovation and putting a vision into action,” Williams said. “And that’s what we’ve done at the Health Science Center, and that’s what I would hope to do with the (UNT System).”
Williams’ professional career has long intersected with the University of North Texas System. A Fort Worth native who grew up in the north side of the city and graduated from Richland High School, Williams earned his doctor of osteopathic medicine at the Health Science Center in 1981. When he became president of the same center over 30 years later, in December 2012, he was the first Health Science Center alumnus to do so.
Dr. Michael R. Williams
Hometown: Fort Worth
Texas Wesleyan University, bachelor’s in biology, 1977
University of North Texas Health Science Center, D.O., 1981
Ross University, M.D., 1984
Duke University, M.B.A., 2003
Harvard University, master’s in health care management, 2011
Two daughters and two grandchildren
By then, he’d amassed a swath of degrees that defied industry. He’d earned a doctor of medicine, a master’s in business administration and, finally, a master’s in health care management. His cross-sectional resume reflected his priorities as president.
Years before the TCU and UNTHSC School of Medicine formed in 2015, for example, Williams approached TCU with the vision of a medical school, one that centered empathy in patient care. The school, whose inaugural cohort of students began in 2019, is the first public-private medical school in Texas.
The partnership reflects Williams’ ability to “move big institutions,” according to Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker. Parker befriended Williams after she and her husband moved across the street from Williams in the Ridglea North neighborhood in Fort Worth. When she first became involved in politics, she said, she was young — but Williams never treated her that way. He was a “class act,” she said: “Supportive, treated me as an equal, wanted me at the table … and I’m really indebted to him for that.”
The medical school, which she describes as Williams’ “brainchild,” required him to gather buy-in from the business community and state leaders, she said. “It’s truly phenomenal, and it will have long-lasting positive impacts on our medical infrastructure, as well as the community at large.”
This year, Williams launched HSC Next, an entrepreneurship program typically common in business schools, he said. The program challenges students and staff to create solutions to specific problems in health care and public health, like health literacy and animal research. Entrepreneurs can pitch ideas, receive feedback and coaching, then compete for prizes, including seed money to launch and assess their project.
The program led to a recent partnership between the Health Science Center and Techstars, an investment program in Colorado that helps accelerate businesses from idea to product. With Techstars’ help, the Health Science Center formed its own accelerator focused on physical therapy — an estimated $8.4 million collaboration between the county, city, Health Science Center and Goff Capital. The project has the potential to create 25-30 new physical therapy start-ups in Fort Worth over the next few years, Williams said.
These workforce opportunities stem from Williams’ desire to make higher education as customer-focused as possible, he said. He defines customers as students and their families, as well as the industries that will ultimately employ the students.
That’s meant treating students “honestly, transparently and fairly, at the same time giving them opportunity,” he said. For example, the Health Science Center hasn’t raised tuition for any student since 2013. “I have a real issue with continuing to put the cost increases on the backs of students and families,” he said. It’s also meant preparing students to meet the workforce needs of local industries.
When he becomes chancellor of the UNT System, he plans to strengthen and forge partnerships between the system and local business communities. In Fort Worth, that might mean Bell Helicopter, Lockheed Martin and many others, he said.
“My job is to be able to help our universities turn out students that are ready to work, but also have enough of a futuristic mindset to where they can adapt to what changes come along the way,” he said.
His own ability to lead during great change shone through when the pandemic began, Parker said. She was chief of staff to former mayor Betsy Price and City Council at the time, and in his role as president of the Health Science Center, Williams helped the city anticipate large-scale public health needs like contact tracing and testing centers. “It was really Dr. Williams and his staff that helped us put the pieces in place to triage a very difficult situation,” she said.
Williams was present in the pandemic not only as a public figure, but as a private person, according to Rosa Navejar, president of The Rios Group in Fort Worth. Navejar met Williams nearly a decade ago, when she served as president of the Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. They’ve been friends ever since, she said.
In the first year of the pandemic, she called him to ask questions about what felt like an ever-shifting landscape of COVID-19. “You hear one thing one day, you hear something else the next day,” she said. “And he was a phone call away for me.” His willingness to share his medical knowledge equipped her to make safe decisions for herself and her staff, she said.
Williams’ joy in his work comes from the “sacred opportunities” that working in health care presents, he said. The profession offers spaces, many of them difficult, to connect with people who might be experiencing the worst moments in their life. “None of that’s pleasant — it’s nothing anybody wants to sign up for,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s a special place where you are interacting with people at the most core level of heart and emotion.”
His people-first emphasis stems from his family, he said. His grandpa was a farmer. His dad was a pastor. His mom was a teacher. His brother was a police officer. Their core values became his core values and, in turn, became the Health Science Center’s core values. “This is something I try to express to students,” he said. “I’m a big believer in clearly defining your personal core values. And then defining the values of an organization.”
Williams’ expansion of responsibilities — he’ll remain president of the Health Science Center for six months to help search for his replacement — means only good things for Fort Worth, Parker said.
“He has not been in his silo or head down,” she said. “He’s really taken the time to recognize that he wants to be a changemaker in Fort Worth and how to make that happen.”
Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.