No single event led Andy Williams, the University of Minnesota Rochester's new assistant vice chancellor, on his life's work addressing racial inequities and working toward social justice in higher education.
Rather, there was a series of them.
One of the earliest occurred at a young age. Every Labor Day, his grandfather, who raised Williams, would drive him from their Indianapolis home to Pulaski, Tenn., and show him the tree where Williams' great-grandfather was lynched by the Klu Klux Klan. Pulaski was the birthplace of the KKK.
Williams' grandfather never told his grandson why he took him on these pilgrimages. He was a taciturn man. But Williams suspects one reason was to give his grandfather an "extra set of eyes" in reading the highway signs. His grandfather was functionally illiterate and didn't know how to read and write.
Another reason for these trips, Williams suspects, was his grandfather's desire to "sustain the memory of our ancestors."
His grandfather never went into the details of why grandfather was lynched. He learned that his great-grandfather was a landowner, not a sharecropper. And living in the epicenter of Southern racial terrorism, his great-grandfather likely was seen as transgressing the political and economic boundaries of the white elite, Williams says.
His great-grandfather was hanged for the reasons that other black men and women were hanged from the early post-emancipation to the 1930s and 1940s: To enforce white supremacy and racial hierarchy.
"It was his way to offer me a more critical perspective on American democracy than I was learning in the schools," Williams said. "And I think it was an effort to help me cultivate the strength and resilience I would need as a black man to be successful in the United States."
Another turning point came in college. Williams attended Earlham College, a predominantly white liberal arts college in Richmond, Ind. Williams had never heard of the Quaker-run school until he was recruited to play basketball there.
His sophomore year, Williams, then the team's captain, quit the team in protest over the school's investments in South Africa, which was then run by a white-only apartheid regime.
Williams calls the moment a "deeply transformative experience" for him, a time when he became more interested in African-American history and culture than basketball.
Fast forward three decades. Today, as UMR's assistant vice chancellor for student success, engagement and equity, Williams' job is to help UMR's students of all ethnicities and races succeed in school.
UMR is a school that draws many students who typically struggle in college, but has found a way to close the achievement gap through the use of best practices. Nearly 40 percent of its student population are students of color. About 50 percent of incoming students are the first in their families to go to college.
A first-generation student himself, Williams sees himself in many of the UMR students he sees on a daily basis. A 20-year educator, Williams started his education career as a teacher of cultural anthropology and African American studies.
Previously, he was the executive director at Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs in the Twin Cities. A consortium of 20 schools around the country, HECUA provides undergraduate students with off-campus study opportunities to promote social justice.
Williams said he was drawn to the UMR job because of the school's "spirit of innovation."
"In the history of higher ed, this is a baby of an institution," said Williams about the 13-year-old branch campus.
"I think Chancellor (Lori) Carrell and other UMR leaders have really taken full advantage of that: To pursue innovation in ways that not only benefit students' learning and development, but also can be an example to the rest of the higher education landscape."
Time of transition
Williams said it's clear today to many educators that higher education is in need of a new paradigm. Today, higher ed is in a "betwixt and between" place. Many colleges and universities are still grounded in a 19th century, brick-and-mortar model that doesn't serve students very well.
That's what makes UMR an interesting place to be. It is helping drive the conversation about innovation in higher education. With its flipped classrooms, integrated curriculum, JustASK areas, and living learning communities, UMR is bidding to be a force for change in higher ed, he said. Williams wanted to be part of such an institution.
"The research is very clear: Those high impact practices not only benefit historically underrepresented students but benefit all students," Williams said.
Williams, 56, is one of four members to make up the chancellor's leadership team. His title, a mouthful in itself, represents the fusion of several different duties. One of his core responsibilities, he said, is to make sure UMR is a "equity-minded and culturally attentive" school.
A campus community where all students feel welcome and valued -- no matter their ethnicity or gender identity -- is one where students are going to be successful.
"UMR is somewhat unique in that it has achieved such a high level of diversity within a predominantly white institution," he said.
Williams said one thing that drew him to the job was a line in the job description. It said UMR was looking for someone who would bring "joy and purpose" to his work.
Given his life experiences, Williams felt that described him to a T.
"Often people will say, 'higher education is not the real world.' They talk about it being an ivory tower, isolated," Williams said. "I really believe that higher education -- and the drive and movement toward greater equity and inclusivity -- is a really critical issue in the evolution in our democracy. I find tremendous purpose in this work."