For Linda Williams, the end of a 27-year UC journey

Announcing the impending retirement of Linda Williams, Berkeley’s associate chancellor since May 2008, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks called her “one of my, and my predecessor’s, most senior and trusted advisers,” and praised her “indispensable role as a strategist and an authoritative representative of the administration” with a wide range of constituencies.

Dirks also noted “her irreverence and wonderful sense of humor,” as well as “the bravery implicit in her insistence on always saying not what people want to hear, but what needs to be said. “

Linda Williams

Linda Williams (UC Berkeley photo)

The NewsCenter spoke recently with Williams, who joined the UC system in 1988 as an administrative assistant at UC San Diego. She retires from her UC career of 27 years at the end of June.

NewsCenter: Did you have any inkling, when you joined the UC system 27 years ago, that you’d be retiring as UC Berkeley’s associate chancellor?

Linda Williams: I could never have mapped this. There was never a time in my mind that I said, I’m coming in as an AA II, and then I’m going to be this, this, this. Never.

Describe how you went from being an administrative assistant at UC San Diego to associate chancellor at Berkeley.

When I applied for my job at UC San Diego, I had left the corporate world, where I’d been assistant manager of the trade book division for a major book publisher. It was quite an exciting job, in downtown San Diego. But then the division got moved to Duluth, Minnesota. I had no interest in moving to Minnesota.

By the time UCSD called me for the position — which was almost three months after I had applied for it — I was already working somewhere else. So I said I’m not interested. The lady called me back within an hour and said, “Our director really, really wants to know if you’d just consider coming in and thinking about it.”

And so you did.

Yes. To be honest, I did not understand that people were beating down the walls to get into UC at that time. But I went in and met with her and we hit it off.

Landing there was one of the first blessings in my life as far as UC is concerned.

How would you describe your career trajectory from that modest beginning through the ’90s?

I worked in the Office of Capital Planning and Budgeting for five years, during which I was promoted multiple times. Then a position opened up as a management services officer at IRPS, the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies. An MSO is what we call our academic business officers here at Berkeley. I’d been on the administrative side of the house, and that’s where I learned the special relationship [laughs] between the academic side and the administrative side — that’s an interesting push-pull. There used to be a joke: “Oh, you’re going to the dark side.” Either way that you went.

I was at IRPS for about five years. We had 200 students in the two-year program. At that time, it was not uncommon to have few minority students in the program; one year we only had one African American student. And we did not have a very diverse faculty. So, as the MSO of this enterprise, responsible for its finances, its space, its staff and all the administrative operations, I felt, as a woman of color, in an environment that was not particularly saturated with such, a bigger responsibility in my connections with the community, our students and the staff.

That was where I really began to branch out more on behalf of the enterprise.

Were you also beginning to think about still higher levels of leadership?

An announcement came out about a fellowship to be director of administration for the vice chancellor of academic affairs. I read it, but wasn’t interested.

Then I received a call from an employee I had met once or twice. She said, “I saw that fellowship, are you going to apply for it?” I said I did see it, and decided it wasn’t something I wanted to do right now. And she said, “Well, I just want you to know that when I woke up this morning I was spiritually led to call you and ask you this question.”

I’m a very spiritual person, Christian woman, and when things happen in my life I pay attention. And I literally went and got the memo out of the trash and applied for the job. And out of 200 applicants I became the person selected for the fellowship.

A year later I was appointed director of administration for academic affairs.

When did you first cross paths with Robert Dynes, who would later bring you with him to Oakland when he was named UC president?

Bob Dynes, who was chair of the physics department, was brought in to be senior vice chancellor for academic affairs. It was at that time that I began to work for him. It wasn’t a direct relationship. But I was involved in many of the administrative discussions and meetings, and things of that sort.

Dynes went on to become chancellor when Richard Atkinson moved up to UC president.

And you moved up to associate chancellor at UCSD.

I was offered the opportunity. I said I’d think about it. [Laughs.] I thought about it and received confirmation in my spirit that this was my intended journey.

You’re describing a spiritual journey as well as a professional one.

I’m always been very thoughtful about, is this what I’m supposed to be doing? And in a lot of talks that I’ve given about my journey — and that is what I consider it to be — I speak to the fact that a good 15 or more years ago is when I understood what my purpose on this earth is, and that’s to empower other people. And I think I’ve been put in places that have given me access and the ability to help empower other people through sharing my own experiences, but, more importantly, helping people to understand how to map a course forward for how they can be better empowered. And that has been very important to me.

You came to Berkeley as associate chancellor in 2008, a time of turmoil for higher education in general and this campus in particular. Some of that is captured in Frederick Wiseman’s film At Berkeley, which shows you in crisis-management mode in California Hall during student protests in 2010, including an occupation in Doe Library.

That was a very interesting experience for everyone who participated in it. And yes, certainly, that would be an accurate depiction. Wiseman said, “The camera loves you. You’re just so authentic. You’re just you.” And that’s really me. I’m authentic. I speak truth. I’m just like, “Come on, folks, we’ve got to do this. This is real. Let’s understand what’s the elephant in the room — it’s here, and we’ve got to talk about it, and we’ve got to deal with it.”

So, “speaking truth.” What does that mean to you?

Berkeley has been about being in the eye of the storm. Storms. I’m the first African American woman to ever serve in the cabinet at Berkeley in its entire history. That should be really scary to a lot of people! A hundred and forty-seven years before it happened. What does that mean in the context of having a conversation in a room, particularly at Berkeley?

Being able to call elephants in the room, being able to speak truth to power, being able to say “hell to the no” — those are valuable things to have to do. It may not have been the popular thing to do. Sometimes people don’t know what to do with it. But it had to be done.

You’ve also had to help manage a major, ongoing budget crisis during your time here.

The financial realities of what this campus has gone through — and I’ve been through multiple budget cycles — are like nothing I’ve ever seen. All of higher education is struggling with doing a lot more with a lot less. And the changes we have to undertake won’t happen in a year or two. When you have this magnitude of resource implications, getting from where you are to where you want to go will take much longer. And that’s hard, because in the process of getting from here to there you have to make tough choices.

Looking back over 27 years, do any accomplishments stand out for you?

When I was at the Office of the President, I developed the Systemwide Advisory Committee on the Status of Women. The work of this committee, both at the systemwide level and at the local campuses, has been a phenomenal thing. It has been very critical, I believe, in the discussions that we’re having about all the populations of our employees on the campuses.

I have spoken at countless staff events. And it’s always just been about sharing my story in a way that I hope has motivated people to see that there is opportunity in the University of California. I’ve partnered with various communities, and always tried to make sure that I created an open door for this office. I’ve built very strong relationships with our students and staff, and that is critical to me.

Why? Because we have to have mutual trust among ourselves. We have to have it. It takes work, it takes effort, it takes patience. But I don’t see how we can all be on the journey together toward what we have as mutual interests and not feel like we have to put the time into that.

And finally, as you prepare for the next phase of your own future, what’s your sense of the future of Berkeley and the UC system?

I’m optimistic. One thing about higher education, it will always be here. We have a lot of people interested in its success — students, staff, faculty, alumni, the community and the Legislature. Everybody is trying to get it right. We don’t always agree on what right looks like, and that’s what’s hard to do. But you have to be optimistic. If we’re not optimistic, our students lose. Our future loses.

You’re never going to go back to the budgets of the ’70s and ’80s. It’s just not going to happen. But our commitment to wanting to deliver the highest level of public education has not changed. It’s how to do that with shrinking resources and competing demands. That is going to be the university’s greatest challenge going forward.