David Williams became the first African American Vice Chancellor at Vanderbilt University in 2000 when he joined the Law faculty and the university administration as Vice Chancellor, General Counsel, and Secretary. Williams’ responsibilities expanded to oversight of student affairs in 2002 and athletics in 2003.
He was officially given the title of Vice Chancellor for Athletics and University Affairs and Athletics Director in 2012. He stepped down from that role on Jan. 31, 2019, having rejoined the Law School faculty after 18 years leading Vanderbilt’s athletic program, and died unexpectedly a week later.
“David Williams: Lawyer, Professor, Mentor, and Leader,” a symposium in Williams’ honor, was organized by the Dean’s Office and hosted by Dean Chris Guthrie and Associate Dean for Research Rebecca Allensworth. The daylong event featured public officials, lawyers, Williams’ former students and colleagues, and his daughter and son, Samantha Williams JD’17 and Nicholas Williams; along with Candice Storey Lee, Vanderbilt’s current Athletic Director and Vice Chancellor for Athletics and University Affairs; and former Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos, who stepped down from his position as Vanderbilt’s Chancellor in 2019. Williams’ wife, Gail Williams, was a guest of honor.
“David Williams stood tall on this campus, in this city, and in college athletics nationally as an incomparable leader, role model, and dear friend to me and many others,” Zeppos said.
Judge Waverly Crenshaw, JD’81, BA’78, of the Middle District of Tennessee delivered the keynote address, which he based on Williams’ 2002 Vanderbilt Law Review article, “We Still Have a Ways to Go—Equality and Civil Rights Over Four Decades,” in which Williams assessed the progress made since the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. That decision required public schools nationwide to integrate, and Williams wrote a candid analysis that acknowledged the years that passed as governors in Southern states resisted integration, but also charted strides in admission of minority students to universities, graduate, and professional programs. Williams also credited the decision with increasing the numbers of minorities in leadership roles and professional positions in both the public and private sector.
“The demands of segregation are enforceable demands, while integration is unenforceable, because it concerns attitudes, person to person relations, and expressions of compassion that the law cannot regulate,” Crenshaw said. “David’s mantra was, “I can’t always do what I want to do, but I can always do what I can, and I will.’”
Concluding that, more than 20 years after Williams’ frank assessment of the impact of Brown, “we still have a ways to go,” Judge Crenshaw urged attendees to keep “doing what you can.”
Assistant Professor of Law Matthew Shaw started the day with a panel focusing on Equity in Education, featuring former U.S. Secretary of State Deputy Counsel General Godfrey J. Dillard Sr., Yovi co-founder Nicholas Williams, and Cornelius Vanderbilt Distinguished Professor of Education H. Richard Milner IV. Their discussion highlighted Williams’ contributions to higher education as an administrator, policy expert, and advocate for equity.
Allensworth moderated a panel focusing on the NCAA and the Battle Over Amateurism, featuring Tennessee Titans Chief External and League Affairs Officer Adolpho Birch III JD’91, who sits on the Vanderbilt Board of Trustees; Vanderbilt Vice Chancellor for Athletics and University Affairs and Athletic Director Candice Storey Lee; and University of Illinois Assistant Athletic Director for Strategic Initiatives Kamron Cox JD’17.
Vanderbilt Research Professor of Political Science and Law Samar Ali, JD’06, BA’03, moderated a panel of former students Williams mentored, including Trey Ellis BA’18, a recent graduate of North Carolina Law who is a law clerk to Judge Loretta C. Biggs of the Middle District of North Carolina; Nationwide Insurance Associate Vice President of Mergers and Acquisitions John Jackson; Cars.com Chief Legal Office Angelique Strong Marks; and Sony Music Entertainment Associate Director of M&A and Strategic Investments Samantha Williams JD’17. Each spoke movingly of how Williams had shaped their careers.
The David Williams II Scholarship has been created at the Law School to recognize Williams’ contributions as a member of the Law faculty and as Vice Chancellor and Athletic Director of Vanderbilt University, and donors are invited to contribute to the new scholarship’s endowment fund. “We are deeply grateful to the Williams family for allowing us to honor David’s legacy through the symposium and this new scholarship,” Guthrie said.