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Williams eyes leadership in higher education

When Talithia Williams ’08 became the first African-American to earn tenure at Harvey Mudd College, she knew it was both a tremendous personal accomplishment, as well as great step for diversity for the school. As an associate professor there, she’s been excited to see an increase in underrepresented minorities on campus.

Now she’s getting an up close look at how diversity—achieving it, working with it, bringing voices and experiences together—happens. This year Williams, who earned a Ph.D. in Statistics at Rice, is on sabbatical from Harvey Mudd, serving as an American Council on Education Fellow at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. The program is designed to strengthen institutions and leadership in American higher education by identifying and preparing emerging leaders for senior positions in college and university administration. She is one of 47 Fellows at universities throughout the country. “I was interested in looking at leadership in higher education, specifically in STEM fields,” she explained. “And, more than that, I wanted to see how that leadership worked when the leader was a person of color at a predominately white institution.”

Williams has spent the year shadowing and working with Freeman Hrabowski III, UMBC’s president, who’s been lauded for his long tenure with the school and transforming not only the campus student body, but the university itself.
“To watch how he’s transformed that institution, from what was known as a commuter school to a great research university—that’s been wonderful. And those kinds of models are what we need in higher education.”

Williams is interested in how the STEM pipeline works for students of color. She recognizes that as students progress through their education, many fall out of STEM studies. Perhaps the coursework is  too challenging and they think STEM is something they can’t do. Perhaps a girl is alone in a classroom full of boys and feels left out. 

“We have to provide more access to science, math, technology and engineering,” she said. “And we need to work harder to get more people excited about STEM.”

As a professor, she tries to help her students see that they can succeed, and she helps them analyze their potential and interests, so they’re not dropping out of a major because they’re frustrated by a setback and instead, may be selecting a different focus that is better suited for them.

As an ACE Fellow, she’s spent time in meetings with Hrabowski, discussed issues with UMBC’s provost, connected with various vice presidents and deans, and observed how policies and practices go from ideas to implementation.
“It’s been amazing to be at the table,” she said. “And to watch how really engaged the whole campus is. These are policies that are supported by the faculty, and there’s a culture of shared governance here. That’s a model a lot of schools can learn from.”

And modeling is something Williams knows a lot about. She is bringing her modeling expertise to collaborate with the Rice Environmental Statistics and Health research group led by statistics Professor Kathy Ensor and Faculty Fellow Loren Raun. A focus of the group’s work is researching occurrences of asthma and heart attacks during days of high air pollution.

“What we want to know is how we can take action. How can we help people recognize that if the city is having a high air pollution day, they should be more vigilant about their health? It’s exciting research because I love using statistics for social justice issues and to help people.”
It’s a safe bet she’ll continue doing just that.

— Holly Beretto, Engineering Communications