Williams has been a passionate "freedom fighter" for inclusion and diversity at Lesley.
Only months before high school graduation, Provost Selase Williams’ guidance counselor encouraged him to pursue a vocational program because he was “not college material.”
Williams, who retires at the end of June after more than four decades in academia, knew better. “It just didn’t faze me,” he said. “Probably from the day I was born, both my father and mother told me I was going to go to college.”
It was the mid-1960s and Williams was an average student from a low-income, African-American, working-class Wisconsin family. His counselormight be forgiven for not realizing Williams had the potential to learn Latin, German, Swahili and Sierra Leonean Creole, to lead academic departments at universities from the West Coast to the East Coast and to establish programs that would help under-resourced first generation college students like himself to thrive.
Selase’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion...is something that’s going to resonate with the university for a long time.
Trustee and Lesley parent Juanita James
His extensive experience eventually brought him to Lesley in 2011, where former President Joseph Moore saw someone with vision and thoughtfulness. During their five years together as president and provost, Williams proved himself to be a quiet but effective force on campus.
“He’s very approachable, and he gives people space to do their work and be who they are. He’s in early, and he works late. Sometimes we overlook a simple thing like genuine hard work,” says Moore, who retired in 2016.
From community college to Sierra Leone
But let’s rewind to 1963 when Williams was simply a freshman at a local community college and an under-prepared one at that. Juggling a full-time job on the graveyard shift at the YMCA with dreams of visiting the moon, Williams’ plans to major in metallurgical chemistry were squashed when he ended his first semester with a 1.3 GPA.
Science and math turned out not to be his best subjects, but the young scholar had a strong aptitude for German (and other languages, as time would tell). And after two years at community college, his grades were just high enough to get into the University of Wisconsin Madison, where he pursued a bachelor’s degree in linguistics, then a master’s degree (with some begging, due to his early grades), and ultimately a Ph.D. Throughout his undergraduate years he worked full time, got married and started a family.
In 1973, a grant took the Williams family to a mountain village in Sierra Leone where the doctoral candidate studied the local language and culture. Williams remembers how the Sierra Leoneans would greet each other in the unlit night as soon as they heard another person approaching on the unpaved road.
“You would call out your name, they would call out their name, ask how is the family,” he recalls. “There’s a whole dialog going on in the dark as you’re approaching each other, and then you continue talking until you can’t hear each other anymore. It was like a ballet of sorts. It was just marvelous.”
Back in the United States, Williams began working on his dissertation while assuming his first job in higher education – first as a professor of African American Studies, international studies and linguistics at the University of Washington. He soon moved on to administrative roles that led him back to Wisconsin, and he has since served in California, Connecticut, and in 2011 came to Lesley.
A legacy of inclusion
Williams’ job title has changed over the years, but the thread of advocacy for students has been a constant, motivated by the opportunities he missed as a working-class, first-generation college student.
From failing several classes his freshman year to a summer study abroad program in Germany that he couldn’t afford, Williams says, “There have been all of these fits and starts (due to) not having enough guidance along the way.”
Throughout his career, Williams has always worked to meet the needs of underserved people.
Inspired by his experience as one of the only African Americans at the graduate level, he has always encouraged black undergraduates to pursue degrees in linguistics and fundraised for scholarship programs. As director of the Center for Educational and Cultural Advancement at the University of Wisconsin Parkside, he “got his feet wet” increasing underserved and minority students’ access to financial aid, tutoring and counseling.
As provost of Southern Connecticut State University, he led efforts to create a more inclusive environment, which also increased the freshmen retention rate by 10 percent through the First-Year Experience Program. Similarly, the programs he is most proud of at Lesley are those that have opened new avenues of education while also promoting diversity on campus.
Closing the resource gap
Provost Williams worked closely with President Moore to establish our Urban Scholars Initiative, a program that supports low-income, urban youth who want to pursue a college degree.
“Developing a program whereby students can come in with their dreams and you can help them realize their dreams is really very rewarding,” he says. “There’s really nothing better.”
So far, there has been a 100 percent graduation rate and a nearly 100 percent retention rate.
“It’s made it very clear to the campus that the gap is not an intellectual gap, it’s a resource gap,” Williams explains. “The supports provided by USI are the kinds of supports I would have benefited from.”
His awareness of students’ needs was one of the factors that led Moore to hire him. Before the Black Lives Matter movement, Williams already understood the dramatic change underway in race-related issues across the country. Working together, Williams and Moore established USI as well as a partnership with Bunker Hill Community College that effectively brings Lesley to the community college students, allowing them to parlay their associate’s degrees into a four-year Lesley degree at a reduced rate in their own neighborhood.
“Selase’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and how he went about doing that – and building support thoughtfully – is something that’s going to resonate with the university for a long time,” says Trustee and Lesley parent Juanita James, who has worked with Williams throughout his tenure.
She adds, “Selase cares extremely deeply about the institution, about the students, about where Lesley’s place is in terms of being a leader in solving societal problems.”
Those are qualities MASI Director Lilu Barbosa has also seen in Williams, who has mentored him since he started last year. Even with days to go until his retirement, the provost has continued to be a champion of MASI and inclusion efforts on campus.
“When I think about the future, we’ve lost a great advocate, ally, even freedom fighter,” Barbosa says.
Williams, who hired Barbosa and countless other staff and faculty during his six years at Lesley, says it will be bittersweet to leave so many great people behind.
His voice cracking, Williams says, “I’ve hired some really good people here – top flight.”
Still, he’s also ready for a “gap year.” Williams, who has three adult daughters, will move to California with his wife, Lesley alumna and artist Deborah McDuff, where the soon-to-be retiree plans on golfing and contemplating his next steps. He won’t be leaving his social activism roots behind, and he even has ideas to start a black think tank, work with African American youth, write a book on the Creole stories he heard in Sierra Leone or, perhaps, found a university in Ghana.
Although Williams never made it to the moon, he’s been a trailblazer in his own right, and at Lesley he leaves behind a legacy of inclusion, of academic excellence and of students who no longer doubt that they are college material.