Williams posses with students after participating in a Black Lives Matter march in September 2016. Photo courtesy of Randy Williams.
Williams’ life experiences primed him to support minority students at a predominantly white institution
By Emmanuel Morgan
Many people don’t realize that there are decades of struggle and grit behind Randy Williams’ iconic bowtie and suit.
Some don’t even know that the bowtie and his credentials may have played a factor in preventing a violent police encounter.
Not even a full year into his tenure at Elon University, Williams, then a presidential fellow and dean of Multicultural Affairs in 2014, was stopped by a police officer and questioned during a traffic stop after a robbery of a nearby bank. Confused and dazed, Williams did something he normally doesn’t do. He used his full name.
“This was during a time where a number of reports of black men were actually being pulled over and killed by police officers,” Williams said. “I just wanted to do everything possible to put these white police officer at ease to not see me as a threat. Normally, I am called Randy, but I introduced myself as Dr. Randolph Williams, Jr. thinking that the title of doctor or the official name as Randolph would put this officer at ease.”
Elon’s culture is a polar opposite compared to the Virginia neighborhood Williams was bred in. Williams, now associate vice president for Campus Engagement at Elon, said the police encounter was a simple reminder that even though he has ascended from broken family, he still may be perceived in a negative light. Now, as one of only two black members on Elon’s senior staff, Williams said he strives to do everything in his power to make his institution as inclusive as possible.
Elon’s ethnic minority population has grown to over 1,000 students in 2017, but they are still vastly outnumbered.
“The students that I interact with now will one day be the leaders in our community that my daughters will look up to,” Williams said. “I feel a responsibility and a desire to be a role model for black students, especially at a predominantly white institution. There is this theory that says people need to see others in positions that they would like to be in and that reflect them. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of pride in food services, but that is not what everyone should dream of doing. By being a black face and wearing a suit every day, for students to see that, I carry a sense of pride and obligation when I wake up for work.”
Associate Vice President for Campus Engagement
The haves and the have nots
Before he earned his doctorate in higher education, Williams was simply an African-American boy primed for a life in the streets. At times, Williams voice cracked when he reminisced on his past.
Currently, Williams office in the Center for Race, Ethnicity and Diversity Education (CREDE) is barren, with a naked bookshelf only housing a picture of his wife and children. Last year, his workplace was engulfed with books and decorations. After his promotion, Williams was given a second office across campus.
But while growing up, Williams didn’t have indoor plumbing.
“It blows my mind to think of where I come from,” Williams said. “I never imagined this. Overcoming adversity has helped develop me.”
Williams’ native ground of Lawrenceville, Virginia, has an average income just above $12,000. Washington Park, the neighborhood he was raised in, was notorious for its prevalent drug dealing and criminal activity.
“Not only was I hearing [former First Lady] Nancy Reagan talk about the war on drugs, but I was seeing this stuff in the neighborhood,” Williams said. “It was something that was seen on television that was right outside of my doorway as well.”
Summertime was where Williams and his friends created their tightest bonds. They didn’t have much, but they made the most of what they had. Playing basketball with his friends and splashing in the neighborhood pool characterized most of his days.
Williams said they were broke, but they were broke together.
“It was a sense of community for sure in Washington Park, but there were some hard times,” Williams said. “We were dirt poor and we knew it, but we were still resilient. Being raised in that environment forced me to learn how to make the most of every situation.”
Accompanied with Williams’ outside struggles was his unstable family life. He has one younger brother and was thrusted into “playing daddy,” for him in the second grade after their parents divorced. His father was a functioning alcoholic and eventually, his mother had enough. Williams and his brother stayed with her. At times, he said he didn’t understand, but has grown to accept it.
“My mom was really getting out of a bad situation,” Williams said. “Can’t fault her for that. They had two young boys and were struggling financially. Add all of that stress in and that was a bad combination.”
But while Williams said his home life was hard, it motivated him to be different. Now, as the father of two girls, he said his past has motivated him to be the father he never had.
“It taught me how I wanted to be,” Williams said. “It gave me two goals of wanting to be a better man than him. I felt that I gained that by the experience of my father. I don’t drink today because of him and I based hat decision on who my father was.
“It shaped me. Because of what he wasn’t as a father, it made me want to be that much more for my kids and my wife.”
Associate Vice President for Campus Engagement
“A long shot in the dark with your weak arm”
The reason why Williams is a father is because of Chiquita Williams, his wife. They met in middle school and then carried their relationship to Brunswick High School. She said the thing that attracted her to him was his confidence and swagger. He was the president of the physics club, a captain on the football team and Homecoming king. When they went to college, she said they were determined to make their long-distance relationship work.
“We just made our relationship a priority,” she said.
After all of the struggles Williams endured, he was awarded a football scholarship at Hampton-Sydney College. As he did when he was a kid, Williams immersed himself in as many activities as possible. He was a resident assistant, a teacher’s assistant and also pledged into a historically black fraternity — Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Incorperated. Williams said he tried to be as involved as possible because he didn’t want to let this opportunity go to waste.
“Going to college wasn’t even in my realm of thought,” Williams said. “I sort of equate it to a long shot in the dark using your weak arm. “There is always a way to optimize your resources. “We all are blessed in so many ways and there are so many opportunities that we have at our disposal.”
Finding his career
Williams was one of 15 black students at Hampton-Sydney, which helped curate his love for diversity education. He advocated for more diverse curriculum and faculty of color, but when he graduated, nothing changed. It wasn’t until three years after he graduated that the Board of Trustees voted to create a diversity program. Williams was unanimously picked to lead the charge. At first, Williams said no, but the president hand selected him because he felt he was the right person for the job.
“I didn’t have any experience in this realm,” Williams said. “At this time, I was simply a high school physics teacher. But when the president called me, he said he needed me because of my passion. He said they would get me the proper training, but they couldn’t teach passion, and that’s what I had.”
Williams rose up the ranks from being a program director to a dean at Hampton-Sydney. Shortly afterwards, he earned his master’s degree at Longwood University. Shortly afterwards, he enrolled at The College William and Marry, where he worked in the dean of students’ office while pursuing his doctorate in higher education. Soon after that, he applied for vice president of student affairs at North Carolina Wesleyan College. But he wanted more.
“I knew sooner or later that I would be leaving North Carolina Wesleyan for a bigger and better school, and Elon was on the list,” Williams said.
Instantly fitting in
Williams poses after receiving an award from Elon University’s Black Alumni Network. Photo courtesy of University Communications.
Once Williams arrived to Elon, he immediately found his groove. Chiquita said Elon has made him excel in his field because it has presented him with more opportunities to learn as well as teach.
“At N.C. Wesleyan, Randy was the person that everyone had to look up to for advice,” she said. “Now at Elon, he has had the chance to be a mentor as well as a mentee. It has been great for everyone.”
One of those mentors is Jon Dooley, vice president for student life and dean of students at Elon. Dooley played an integral role in the hiring process for Williams and the two continue to work closely together. The thing that Dooley finds the most useful in Williams personality is his calmness under pressure.
“Randy is definitely an analyzer,” Dooley said. “I normally think big picture and he likes to sit back and go over the details. In our work environment, we complement each other well.”
Chiquita echoed that same sentiment and said that even in their home life, he keeps that same mantra.
“He is always that calming voice in the room,” she said. “He always knows what to do and how to go about it. When I’m frazzled, I always know I can lean on him”
Wife of Randy Williams
Since his arrival, Elon has done just that — rely on his guidance and expertise to move the institution forward. Setting up a meeting with Williams can be a hectic process because of his busy schedule. The school wants to use him in any way it can. To date, Williams has been a member of the following initiatives: co-chairing a presidential task force for black student experiences and implementation of it, a leader freshman advisory committee, a Fraternity and Sorority Life advisor, he co-chaired the implementation of thePresidential task force for social climate and out of class experiences, was on the search committee for vice president of Student Life and dean of students and many other organizations.
“You can imagine how many meetings I go to because I am involved with these roles,” Williams said. “But this is what I love to do. For me, this is a what I’ve been conditioned to do.”
Not leaving any time soon
Williams said the main reason why he loves his job is because of the students. Sophomore Kenneth Brown is one of the many students who have nurtured a mentoring relationship with Williams and said he is one of the reason why he feels comfortable at Elon.
“He is an example for me and every other black student on this campus about what it means to excel in life,” Brown said. “Dr. Randy is a role model to me and I hope to be half of the man he is when I graduate.”
Williams said that he is looking forward to continuing to work at Elon, especially as it gears itself toward transitioning. President Leo Lambert announced plans to step down in February and along with that comes the presidential search for his successor. With all of his life experiences that have led him to Elon, Williams said it will be his mission to aid the new president in any way he can.
“I believe in a higher power and God put me here at the right place at the right time,” Williams said. “Everything that I have gone through and the process has equipped me to help the new president in any way I can. Elon is growing, it is thriving, and I am glad to be a small force in making it a little bit better every day.”