St. Cloud State dean is determined to do the right thing

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“I think leadership at the top is very important,” says Williams, who has been at SCSU since 1999, of the university’s past diversity efforts that fell short. She adds of new school president Earl Potter, “I like the way the new leadership is recognizing and acknowledging racism.”

Williams is among 20 faculty members from the Colleges of Education and Social Sciences who make up the Racial Issues Colloquium, which meets regularly and provides courses for students to critically analyze the effects of racism, discrimination and oppression on people of color in the U.S. Eleven courses are now available in community studies (two), history (one), sociology (one), ethnic studies (five), human relations and multicultural education (two).

It was a “cumbersome” process getting the curriculum approved, Williams admits. “We still are having problems because some people still are leery about this requirement. [But] this is one of the best things for our students.”

Now that SCSU students are required to take these courses, they are making themselves “highly marketable” for future employment, says Williams. Many top corporations today have mandated that their employees take regular diversity training. “If our students go out and work for these companies, they will be ahead of the game because of our racial issues courses,” she adds.

A long-time nationally renowned educator, Williams originally is from the East Coast. Diversity has been a part of her world since day one. “That’s why I never have had any hang-ups about people and things, because I come from a very diverse family and community [in New Jersey],” she points out.

Her ancestral roots and family background are intertwined in African, Cherokee and Greek origins, and African-American history:

• Her maternal great grandmother is a Cherokee, which identifies Williams as a tribal member. “I have my own Cherokee enrollment number,” she says proudly.

• Her grandfather was Greek: “He came from the island of Crete. He married my grandmother here in America, who came out of slavery and brought three kids who all looked like they were White.”

• Her family got their “40 acres and a mule” that was promised to all Blacks after slavery; her grandmother received seven acres and a mule from her White slave owner. “We still own [the land, located in northern Alabama] today, but we have more than seven acres – we have over 200 acres,” says Williams.

• Williams’ mother once told her that her grandmother once cooked dinner for Abraham Lincoln, “and that was a shock to me.”

• Her mother, who died earlier this year, once served as a nurse for two New Jersey governors. “My mother [Lois Adell America Meriweather Armstrong] was named after my grandmother America. She always gave me good advice.”

• Her father once studied under Dr. W.E.B. DuBois.

• Her uncle, now in his eighties, was a Tuskegee Airman. She is working on a book on his memoirs.

• Williams has also studied abroad in England, Hong Kong and Italy, as well as at Cornell, Northwestern and Harvard. She has earned three master’s degrees and a doctorate in administration, law and social policy from Harvard, where she also did her post-doctorate work on affirmative action in higher education as a fellow in 1983, and also studied management and leadership at MIT.

“Ever since being a little girl, I always have been the one who wanted to go to school,” she says. Her work experiences include employment with the U.S. Secretary of the Navy at NASA as a research consultant, and as a special project assistant for former U.S. Senator Paul Tsongas.

Her collegiate administrative work includes stints as program director at Tennessee State University/Meharry Medical College, as an assistant dean and director of a biomedical engineering program at Vanderbilt University, as an assistant to the vice chancellor at North Carolina Central University, and as associate director at a women’s career center at Cornell.

Amidst the numerous awards and honors she has received, including being honored by the United Negro College Fund (1997), a three-time recipient of the National Society of Black Engineers Advisor of the Year, and listing in Who’s Who of American Blacks, Williams calls her marriage to James Williams, who also works at SCSU, “my greatest accomplishment.”

“He is an unusual Black man,” she says proudly of her husband. “He knew that I always wanted to go to school all the time throughout our marriage. He always encourages me.”

Ranking next is her work with students. “It isn’t about money,” notes Williams. “It’s about seeing students go on and do something with their lives.” Countless letters, cards and emails from former students help decorate her SCSU office. “All my students have gotten prestigious positions [after graduating from college].”

Earlier this year, Williams was honored for her mentoring work with area high school students of color. “These girls aren’t supposed to be successful” — so they are too often told according to Williams. “But when I have them, all of a sudden they want to be in college, and they do well.”

Williams says she agreed to be a mentor, but she wanted to work only with students of color. “Every single one of them goes on to college because they have this attention. All the kids are more focused in all areas, and that’s why I don’t mind being a mentor every year.”

Williams is a local DFL delegate, having learned how to be political from working in Tsongas’ office. “I learned how politicians operate,” she notes. “[It showed her] how I can get things when I need to get them.”

At SCSU, Williams has been the College of Social Sciences interim dean (2003); along with her current duties, she also teaches in the College of Education. She is also involved in planning a day-long diversity program on campus for later this fall and actively serves on several community boards.
But she hasn’t lost sight of her goal of one day becoming a top administrator: “I felt that I could really effect change [[as a college president].”

More importantly, whether she succeeds in becoming a president or not, Williams will pursue her goal the right way without compromising her values. “I want to go to bed and sleep at night knowing that I did the right thing,” she stresses. “If it’s about the right thing, I want to do it. If it’s not, forget it.”
Finally, Williams says that creating a diverse campus at SCSU will take some effort, but it can be achieved. She believes that now, with Potter’s support, other diversity issues may move forward more quickly.

“With the president’s leadership and support, we can make a difference both inside and outside the classroom,” says Williams. “We’ve got to build trust, and we’ve got to reflect on how we treat each other [as faculty, staff and students].”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com. Or, go his blog at www.challman.blogspot.com.