UW-Madison Vice-Provost Dr. Damon Williams
Seeding Inclusive Excellence
By Jonathan Gramling

Part 2 of 3

      When Dr. Damon Williams came to the UW-Madison in July 2008 as vice provost
for diversity and equity, he took the first year to become intimately knowledgeable
about the university before he began to act. What he found was a small city of
approximately 50,000 people composed of semi-independent schools and colleges and
special interest and advocacy groups for just about every cause imaginable.
      As a nationally-renown expert on diversity issues in higher education, Williams
had the wisdom to listen first before acting during his first year. Now it is time to act.
The UW Board of Regents has adopted “inclusive excellence” as one of its priority
values and gave the UW a year to define it and plan how to make it a
      According to Williams, UW Chancellor Biddy Martin has set some clear direction in
how she feels inclusive excellence should be implemented. “First, diversity needs to
be a focused priority of that plan,” Williams said. “But she was also very clear in
saying that diversity and the conversation and work need to be infused across each
and every dimension of that plan, not just in isolation. ‘Oh we have the diversity
plank.’ It needs to be that and infused. The question of how you actually accomplish that goal of infusion and how you actually make these ideas
of diversity be more woven into the fabric of everything that we do institutionally, that is where the challenge is. That’s where the rubber meets
the road.”
      One of the prerequisites for implementing that plan, in Williams’ view, is to get the disparate interests with a stake in equity and diversity
issues to better understand their common interests while retaining the unique qualities of their own histories and perspectives.
      “We have to find a way to move beyond what I refer to as these ‘yellow flag moments’ where we are constantly looking to throw the yellow
flag of an ‘ism’ on someone, a racism, a sexism, a homophobiaism, a genderism, whatever the case may be,” Williams said. “At times, I think
that is absolutely, critically important. You have to have the ability to speak ‘truth to power’ and to authenticate a critique. But then there are other
times too where you have to find that common ground. You have to find a way to look beyond the differences to say ‘Are we saying something
that is actually quite similar, but maybe using some different languages. Is there a way that we can join agendas?’ I think if there was no more
powerful lesson that we learned from the presidential campaign of President Obama was that idea of coalition and folks being united around
something, although how those things continue to play forward in the first year of his administration have been an absolute challenge. The
principles hold the same that we have to find a way to come together and we have to find a way to find the common ground. In doing that, there is
always going to be a give and a take. It’s not in a vacuum. It’s always finding some places where you have to cede some issues to move some
others. But it is still asking the question at the end of the day ‘Are we still moving an agenda that skews toward inclusiveness?’ ‘Are we still
moving an agenda that skews toward supporting the most vulnerable? Are we still skewing toward an agenda that is about equity, difference
and change?’”
      While Williams sees his role as a facilitator of inclusive excellence efforts across the campus, he also realizes that he will also have to be a
protagonist at times to get things moving. “The job that I’m trying to do is going to take me into direct conversations with folks who think
differently about stuff,” Williams said. “I hope we find the place that we can make these situations easier to deal with and not make them hard.
That’s where we have to come to some overarching principles of what it means to engage around these issues. And I’m not just talking about
personal interaction. I’m talking about decision-making. I’m talking about how we put together committees. I’m talking about how we make
decisions on funding. I’m talking about how we acknowledge and value certain types of behaviors. I’m talking about we supervise. I’m talking
about how we evaluate talent when we make hiring decisions. I’m talking about how we construct the missions of our student organizations.
What are the core principles that we believe in around the issues of diversity, equity and inclusion?”
UW-Madison Vice-Provost Damon Williams is beginning the
task of seeding inclusive excellence among the UW-
Madison’s colleges, schools and departments