Van Williams, vice chancellor of information technology, talks diversity

In recognition of Black History Month, I interviewed Van Williams, a UC thought leader on diversity and inclusion initiatives

Photo of Van Williams
Van Williams (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

As you know, this is Black History Month. Who in the black community, in higher ed, inspires you?

Peter Blair Henry. He is the Dean Emeritus of New York University's Stern School of Business and was dean for much of the time that I worked at NYU. He graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with a degree in Economics earned with distinction and highest honors. A Rhodes Scholar, he graduated from Oxford with a degree in mathematics and earned his PhD in economics from MIT. He was on President Obama’s Transition Council for Economics and the first black dean at NYU’s Business School. Most important, Peter is a devoted husband and a father of four boys. Because he was born in Jamaica, I suspect Peter’s perspective was not just influenced by the racism evident in the US, but also by the remnants of colonialism still at play in the Carribean.  

Peter inspires me because when I think of an inclusive leader, I think of him. Business schools are still largely homogenous places and their leadership team and boards typically reflect that homogeneity. During his time at NYU he built a very gender diverse leadership team and cultivated a more diverse board. He handled every situation with a sense of humor, a sense of humility, and a sense of welcomeness that allowed people the space to be human and make mistakes. For someone who has accomplished so much, I’ve found this to be incredibly inspiring. In practicing this approach, I’ve found that it allows people to feel comfortable and it helps me to establish relationships built on shared humanity. Peter has inspired me to be a better leader who is purposeful about inclusivity, intentional about creating diversity and thoughtful in my flexibility and judgment. I am in admiration of the positive impact he has made on so many people and I aspire to pay it forward.

As an African American, what has been your experience throughout your career, working in the IT field?

My experience has been one that’s full of connections and relationships. I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by friends and professionals who have mentored and sponsored me at a very young age within the technology field. They’ve taught me not just how to navigate the field of technology but also the fields of business and higher ed. I’ve learned that leadership and followership are both situational. In order to affect change you need to be flexible and to embrace and leverage your intersectionality to build bridges out rather than walls up. It was really a benefit for me working in higher ed in New York City because not only is there a large black caribbean community, there is every community imaginable. Despite the huge amount of diversity and dynamism in NYC, I always felt like I belonged. Working there for over 18 years gave me the opportunity to work closely with and interact daily with people from all different socioeconomic classes, races, ages and educational strata. That helped to dramatically build both my technical and people skills because I had things to learn from everyone. Without the confidence and the inspiration of being around the amazing people that I saw everyday, I don’t think I would have aspired for more in my career. The experience, skillset and confidence has been incredibly helpful in adjusting to my current role as vice chancellor of information technology at UC Santa Cruz.

You’ve been a Banana Slug for a year and a half now. Compared to other places you’ve worked and lived, what are some key differences?

I think the obvious one is that Santa Cruz has a very different demographic makeup than New York City. In all honesty, there are not yet a whole lot of people here that look like me, especially in leadership roles. However, there is still the same shared community built around excellence and passion for learning. The sense of intellectual curiosity has been a bridge-builder for me as I am surrounded by a group of fascinating colleagues who have been very willing to share their knowledge and experiences. At UCSC, there is a much greater commitment to global social impact than any other organization I’ve been a part of. We care about social justice, the environment, health, social entrepreneurship, diversity, equity and inclusion. UCSC is the type of place in which every day I think, “What does our campus need to do in order to create the level of diversity our students need?” and I look around and realize there are a whole bunch of colleagues thinking the exact same thing. We all care a lot about having the campus reflect the population that we are part of, whether that be Women, Latinx, Black, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders or something else. At the forefront of my divisional leadership conversations is ensuring that our ITS organization contributes to moving the needle in every way we can. We are willing to experiment, whether it’s through how we think about and support our student employees, how we recruit our staff, or looking for ways to make space to have meaningful impacts. What’s different about UCSC and very exciting, is just how much these things are a part of every conversation throughout our campus.

As the UC Santa Cruz Chief Information Officer, you lead a big IT organization. What are you doing for diversity?

I just came from a workshop with other ITS colleagues about implicit bias and microaggressions in the workplace, so this is fresh on my mind right now. I spent much of winter break reading and trying to understand diversity in all senses. My book of the month is by a former colleague of mine, Dolly Chugh. It’s called, The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. I’ve gifted it to my leadership team so we all spend some time identifying and understanding our own biases to better support diversity and inclusiveness within our ITS organization.

Recently I wrote a recap for my weekly newsletter to ITS staff of all the things we’ve done thus far to support diversity, equity and inclusion: Everything from discussions, workshops, trying to change business processes, to making sure our hiring managers have the opportunity to obtain a diverse pool of candidates. In addition, I’ve reinstated the Diversity & Inclusion Group for ITS (DIG-IT) that aims to build and foster a diverse and inclusive culture within ITS by advocating and cultivating deeper appreciation of our diverse community.

But I recognize there is so much more we still need to do. One of the big ones I am focusing on now is looking at how we build into our processes ways to account for our own biases and bring those to the surface so we can start having conversations to help counter the negative impacts bias can have. 

What do you think UC Santa Cruz, or the University of California, can do to attract potential Black students or employees to come here? 

I think the first thing we need to do is build out a better support network for students to be successful. That means access to people that are like them, and in some cases it’s being able to provide funding. We’re pulling in first-generation students who, many times, have a lot of challenges and need financial aid. They need access to resources to be successful, but need to be given access to them in a way that is not stigmatizing. 

The second thing we need to do is share our student stories. We need to highlight their successes, either as students or alumni. If they are able to share their UC experience, then maybe more potential students will say, “Hey, it is possible for me to be successful in that role too.” 

Once the above is in place, the third thing is being really conscious about targeting the places where these students are and getting the right role models in front of them. We also need to make sure that when we get them to our campus they have the right level of resources and community support. 

Do you have a comment for the UC IT community, in general, about diversity and the future? 

I think all of us, whether we are underrepresented minorities or not, need to look for opportunities to serve as sponsors and mentors. Individual relationships are a huge breaker of barriers across groups of all sorts. If we are able to sponsor and mentor people that are not like us and start advocating for them, then we can begin to stop othering different groups. Instead we start seeing them as a collection of individuals. I’d love to see that systematized across UC. I’d love to build a way where individual performance reviews, unit performance reviews, and incentives are actually aligned with participating in these types of relationships and network building. I’d like to see all chancellors asking their leadership teams, “What kind of system do you have in place to support that?” and “What are you doing to make those systems better?”. I think from a faculty, staff and student perspective, that will make a profound difference. Just being able to have one meaningful relationship gives a person a much greater sense of belonging. I strongly believe that a sense of belonging is critical to our students ability to be successful and our colleagues ability to be engaged in their jobs.