Education policy and leadership scholar Sheneka Williams became the chairperson of the Department of Educational Administration at Michigan State University on July 1, 2020.
She assumed the role from Professor Marilyn Amey, who is stepping down after 13 years in the position and will remain on the faculty.
“Everyone that I connected with in the college made we feel so welcome. That, coupled with the quality of the units, made it almost a no-brainer to accept this job,” said Williams, an expert on rural education and desegregation policy. She was selected after a national search, including multiple virtual interactions. “I could feel the energy of the people from the other side of the screen, and that spoke volumes to me.”
Williams comes from the University of Georgia, where she has been on the faculty since 2007. Her research centers around educational opportunity for students of color, primarily African Americans, in various contexts.
She is particularly interested in educational issues facing Black students in the rural south, a passion that pulls from her roots.
Williams remembers when they paved the road in front of her own house in Alabama, growing up among a family of educators. She became a high school teacher, teaching government, economics and history for six years.
“I remember the day I was sitting in my classroom and I thought that what I needed to do for education was larger than within those walls,” she said.
Williams applied to graduate school and earned her Ed.D. from the Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University. That was where she started to learn about policy development and “where the real power to make change happens.”
“I learned a lot about myself and my ability to compete in that context, because I didn’t even know that I could until I had to,” she said.
Leading the way
Since then, Williams has made her mark in the field and with students as a sought-after instructor and mentor. Coming to MSU marks her first time leaving the South.
“In her own scholarship, Sheneka had productive collaborations with researchers from a variety of traditions,” said Robert Floden, dean of the College of Education. “That will serve her well as chair of a department whose faculty do cutting-edge work within a range of methodological paradigms. Her commitment to research on issues of equity and inclusion fits with department and college missions, and her work with rural populations complements existing strengths in our college.”
Williams plans to first learn and listen, and focus on how she can support the continued growth of students, faculty and staff in the department. She also hopes to identify areas for change.
“I’ll be looking at things that we have become comfortable with and maybe become a little uncomfortable to make some shifts,” she said.
Williams previously led the Program of Educational Administration and Policy program at UGA, and was selected to participate in a women’s leadership program both at UGA and at Harvard University. She hasn’t yet been a department chair, but she is leading conversations—in her teaching, her public scholarship and in the news media—about changes needed to disrupt racism, divisiveness and discrimination in our world. This is specially critical amid the recent incidents of racial violence, and the turmoil associated with COVID-19.
“Now I am ready to do the work of what others think I am capable of doing,” Williams said of becoming chairperson. “I wouldn’t trade this opportunity, at this time, for anything. Given what’s happening, I would argue that maybe I am a leader for this time.”
More about Williams
Williams spoke with CNN’s Don Lemon in July 2020 about the state of American schools. “How far have we really come since Brown v. Board of Education, and how can we all take part in fixing the system?” Listen to the podcast.
Williams was a featured speaker on WBUR’s series: Closing the Achievement Gap. She spoke with other educational leaders in “Part IV: School Integration and the Achievement Gap.”