Former PACME recipient’s student activism led to a career pursuing equity in higher education

“The experiences and mentors I had really spurred me into the career trajectory that I’ve taken,” said Eric Williams.

Eric Williams
Eric Williams. (Courtesy of Eric Williams)

When Eric Williams enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University in the 1980s, he had a burgeoning interest in racial justice issues. That interest only grew after he arrived at VCU, where he recognized an academic culture that at times seemed stacked against Black students.

Williams and a host of his classmates bonded to pursue change. Those efforts took a variety of forms — from protests and organizing to meeting with top administrators. Most memorably, Williams played a central role in one success that has made an enduring impact at the university during the past 30-plus years — the founding in 1988 of the Office of Minority Student Affairs. Today, that department is called the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, known throughout VCU as OMSA.

The opening of that office not only shaped VCU’s future, but it also started Williams down a professional path that he has followed ever since. He now serves as the assistant vice provost for student diversity and scholarship programs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and has spent his career in a variety of positions dedicated to improving equity, inclusion and diversity in higher education. Williams, who was the student recipient of the Presidential Award for Community Multicultural Enrichment in 1996, says it all started with the collaborative effort to open a department dedicated to diversity at VCU.

“It was extremely rewarding,” Williams said. “One of the things that I am very proud of is the actions that we took as students to establish this office at VCU. It was the work of a lot of people. A lot of students and faculty and staff at VCU were involved, and it was a proud moment for us. It was definitely a launching point for me in this field.”

In those days, Williams said, many Black students were interested in VCU opening the office and met frequently to strategize how to advocate for the project to university leadership. Working with his roommate, Edwin McBeth, the president of the Black Caucus at VCU, Williams reached out to Roger Gregory, a member of the VCU Board of Visitors at the time, to seek his support for the establishment of the office. Williams, who was vice president of the Black Caucus, knew Gregory from growing up in Petersburg, Virginia, where they attended the same church.

Gregory, who today is chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, agreed to support the students’ efforts, and his subsequent advocacy played a key part in VCU opening the department that would become the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs.

Williams ultimately stepped away from his studies at VCU for a few years, before returning in the 1990s to complete his degree. After his return, he fittingly took a work-study position at OMSA, giving him an opportunity to dive deeper into an array of issues in higher education. Williams had mentors at VCU who taught him about the student affairs component of higher education, and he learned to bridge academic issues with equity ones.

“The experiences and mentors I had really spurred me into the career trajectory that I’ve taken.”

It was extremely rewarding. One of the things that I am very proud of is the actions that we took as students to establish this office at VCU. … It was a proud moment for us. It was definitely a launching point for me in this field.

Williams said he was interested in diversity, equity and inclusion work in large part because of the challenges that he and his fellow Black students faced at VCU.

“My experiences hadn't been at the time the greatest at VCU,” Williams said. “Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time at VCU and it was very important for me, but going to classes and being the only African American or one of the few African Americans in the class wasn’t easy. And there were so many of my friends, including me, who got into academic trouble not because we couldn’t do the work but because the classes weren’t geared toward us the same way they were to white students.”

Although his interest initially was in the Black student experience, Williams said the more time he spent learning about issues of equity in higher education the more he learned about issues other students were facing, such as his Latinx friends.

Williams said he was stunned when he was notified that he’d been named the student PACME recipient. The PACMEs are awarded every spring to a student, faculty member, staff member and academic or administrative leader. Williams remembers the invitation from then-VCU President Eugene Trani, Ph.D., to the ceremony recognizing the honorees. Sitting in the auditorium with the other award winners on the day of the event, Williams recalls looking around the crowd and thinking, “Wow, this is a big deal.”

“It was a great experience to receive that award,” Williams said. “I’m still very thankful and very appreciative that I was recognized like that for the work that I did as a student at VCU, and I knew there were a lot of other students who deserved it, too. It meant a lot to me. It showed that the work I was doing was not in vain.”

Following his graduation from VCU with a bachelor’s degree in African American Community and Cultural Studies, Williams earned a master’s degree in Higher Education and College Student Personnel at Kent State University and a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Virginia Tech. He received awards for his work in diversity issues at each university. While studying for his doctorate at Virginia Tech, he became the first graduate assistant in the office of that university’s first vice president for multicultural affairs.

In addition to his role at Wisconsin, Williams has served in positions related to equity, inclusion and diversity at Radford University, Virginia Tech and Marquette University.

In his career, Williams said he is proudest of improvements in the retention and admission of students of color at the universities where he has worked and improved hiring practices of faculty and staff. In addition, he believes the establishment of affinity groups at those schools has not only helped students, faculty and staff navigate challenges together but also led to better institutional practices.

Williams said he’s witnessed important — if sometimes halting — steps toward equity, inclusion and diversity in higher education during his career.

“When we first started these offices, their main focus really was African American students,” Williams said. “One of the great things to see is that outreach has expanded to include other students, too — from Native American students to students in the LGBTQ community. There’s been an expansion of outreach and understanding that everyone deserves a chance to get a quality education, and these offices really exist to help make that possible. There’s also been expansion of working with issues that faculty and staff members face as well. So, one of the things that I’m very optimistic about is that universities have established and grown these offices. And now universities have leaders who are in cabinet-level positions for these issues, and they have a lot more influence and have a direct line to a university’s president or chancellor.”

Still, Williams said higher education remains a field with a great deal of room for improvement. The pace of change often is too slow, and “the culture of institutions can make change more difficult,” Williams said. “There are always going to be people who are very resistant to change.

“Despite the setbacks, though, we continue to carry on with this work because we know that we are doing good for the people that we serve,” Williams said. “I get the opportunity to work with students and to work with faculty and administrators on campus to look at the climate of an institution and try to make it better.”

As someone who has helped drive positive change both as a student and an administrator, Williams said students should understand that they have power. He recommends working with other students to pursue improvements, just as he did at VCU, and to recognize that there are faculty and staff who have faced similar challenges and will be eager to listen and help.

“Always remember that as a student, you have a voice,” Williams said. “And it is a very, very strong voice. You might think because you are a student that your voice is not strong, but it is. People will listen to you.”

Nominations for the 2021 Presidential Awards for Community Multicultural Enrichment are due on March 10. Instructions and PACME nomination forms can be found at president.vcu.edu/nominations/pacme/. Please help to recognize those who create a more inclusive community by nominating a deserving individual or organization at VCU for the PACME award. The creation of a more diverse and inclusive educational public can only be achieved through a concerted effort that engages the participation of a broad and diverse community of people.

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