Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


UW diversity official shares experiences

After taking office as the vice provost for diversity and climate at the University of Wisconsin in 2008, Damon Williams has seen a lot of issues and initiatives related to campus diversity and climate. Williams says his background in multi-cultural studies and activist experience equipped him for the challenges and goals he sees at UW on a day-to-day basis.

The following is an edited and condensed version of an interview Williams conducted with The Badger Herald.

Badger Herald: How did you become the vice provost for diversity and climate at UW?


Damon Williams: Tupac Shakur will talk about thug-life hitting him like the Holy Ghost. Well, when I was in boarding school issues of power and privilege hit me like the Holy Ghost.

As I was completing my undergraduate degree at Miami I desired some additional tools to become an agent of change with all the theory I had learned. Then when I was in grad school at the University of Michigan, issues of strategic planning and leadership development hit me like the Holy Ghost.

It was something that deeply spoke to me because it was about how do we make change from an organizational, leadership perspective.

BH: What kinds of experiences did you have as an activist?

Williams: I was doing my PhD at Michigan and I had just finished a paper on the Black Action Movement, which was a major social movement at Michigan that helped move diversity efforts forward, and I get this phone call. “Damon, it’s poppin’ off here in Oxford. The Ku Klux Klan left a phone message telling the president of the Black Student Union that they’re going to string him up.”

Klan members from Indiana had marched through campus in ’87, three years before I arrived as an undergrad. So this wasn’t just rumors.

I threw the material from the paper I had just written in my car and headed down to Oxford. I distributed the material to leaders in the BSU; we held workshops and developed a whole game plan over the weekend, and then I left to be back in class on Monday.

On Monday, several hundred students showed up at the administration building and presented them the Miami University Black Action Movement.

The demands that were presented at Michigan in the late ’70s were the same demands that students wanted at Miami in the ’90s, which are the same things that students want regarding space and issues today. What it shows is that even though we’ve made some tremendous progress, there’s still a lot of terrain yet to go through.

BH: What about the New Badger Partnership? How will it impact the goals of your office?

Willams: There’s a lot of complexity here. I think students need to trust the administrative team. We’ve made it very clear we’re committed to protecting diversity initiatives and need-based aid.

Look at the Chancellor’s track record, look at my track record, look at the track record of the Vice Chancellor for Administration, look at the provost – I mean look at the leadership’s track record and their commitments!

Why would we want to do something that would erode access? Why would we want to be supporting something that’s not in the best interest of diversity? There’s nothing in any of our backgrounds that would suggest such a thing.

BH: Associated Students of Madison control a lot of money on campus. How do you think that affects diversity efforts at UW?

Williams: One of the things I love about this university is the voice that students get through ASM. That being said, I wish there were more diversity within ASM.

I also question whether a 19- or 20-year-old is equipped to make big decision about allocating funds. Diverse student organizations come to me saying their goals and missions are not adequately understood and supported by ASM and consequently are not equally valued in their budgeting process.

We saw the Campus Women’s Center lose their funding, and other diversity initiative groups have had their funding reduced. Those decisions come at the hand of ASM.

BH: What’s frustrating about this job?

Williams: I don’t complain about it but, whether you go left, or go right, you’re wrong. It’s hard to convince people that the glass is a third full, not two-thirds empty.

There’s only one of me – and this is true for lots of people in the administration – but 60,000 students and faculty. Every time a student comes to me saying that their TA is racist, that’s time that I’m not spending on initiative or meetings that have a broader institutional.

It’s difficult because I honestly want to meet with everyone, and I usually do but it takes time. This hallway that I work in, everyone here is doing 60-hour weeks, and there is still not enough time. I respect when people are frustrated, I am too.

BH: And lastly, what about the budget for your office? What kind of funds does the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Climate have and what does it do with those funds?

Williams: Firstly, the budget we have is not nearly enough. We helped fund over 65 student organizations this year. We fund Posse, we fund First Wave, we fund PEOPLE.

The budget for this office is into the millions of dollars, but that also includes a healthy amount for scholarships. We’re expanding programs in times of economic hardship.

BH: What is the diversity climate at UW?

Williams: I sat on a dissertation committee today. The student was defending his research on African-American student activism. Did I look at it and say, “Wow, we’ve come a long way”? Absolutely. But there were also some aspects that I felt like I could erase 1970 and write in 2011.

This notion of living in a post-racialized world – let alone existing beyond issues of homophobia and sexuality – that’s just not reality, and we see it play out everyday on campus. People should remember change is slow.

The Department of Afro-American Studies just turned 40. At times it feels like nothing is happening, but I look at all the new programs like First Wave and MCSC and remind myself and others that the glass is a third full.

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