Magazine Feature / People

Dean credits faculty, students with GSSW success

As a survivor of poverty and discrimination, James Herbert Williams has lived through the perils and possibilities offered a black man in American society. A strong internal drive and a supportive network of family and friends have led to academic success that he refuses to take for granted.

“When you don’t grow up in privilege,” he says, “you never assume that you’ve arrived.”

Williams, who became dean of the Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) last summer, grew up in rural North Carolina. He was one of seven children of a sharecropper father and a mother who was one of the few black women at the time to earn a high school diploma. It was she who instilled in her children the importance of education. All seven went on to earn college degrees.

Williams’ parents died when he was 10 years old; his grandmother took over child-rearing duties and uncles and adult neighbors provided mentoring.

Williams began his college career as a chemistry major but soon gravitated to social work, which was a profession that was more accessible to blacks and more in line with his desire to help disadvantaged youths like those he had known growing up in the rural South.

“There was something about working with people that was a lot more interesting and fulfilling,” Williams says.

He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in sociology and social work from Grambling State University in Louisiana, followed by an MSW from Smith College in Massachusetts, an MPA from the University of Colorado and a PhD in social welfare from the University of Washington. His research and scholarship is focused on juvenile delinquency, youth violence and black families.

His natural leadership ability propelled him to positions of increasing responsibility in academia, including assistant to the chancellor for urban community initiatives and then associate dean for academic affairs at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis.

Before assuming the responsibilities of dean at GSSW, Williams was the Foundation Professor of Youth and Diversity at Arizona State University.

DU administrators expect Williams to provide the same level of leadership and scholarship he did in his previous positions.

“DU’s Graduate School of Social Work is poised to make great strides in social work during the next decade,” says Provost Gregg Kvistad. “GSSW is in the top quarter of all accredited graduate social work programs, and now it has an extraordinary new administrator and faculty member.”

Williams insists, however, that he is only part of the equation. A school of social work should be known for its faculty and students more than for its dean, he says. Toward that end, Williams is developing GSSW’s endowment to provide support for faculty and students.

He wants GSSW’s talented faculty to have the resources necessary to be leaders in research and scholarship. And he wants to increase financial assistance for students so that those embarking on a career in the relatively low-paying field of social work aren’t dissuaded from community service and social justice by the prospect of massive debt.

“Our students are passionate about helping others,” he says, “so we need to be passionate about helping them.”

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