Change Makers

Dean Dana Williams: A Face of Women Leadership

Dana Williams standing in her office

Dana Williams (MA ’95, PhD ’98), dean of the Graduate School and professor of English, never felt limited by glass ceilings. 

“Competition with boys was not something that ever made sense to me,” says the dean, who grew up one of four girls. “You were judged on the basis of talent and skills much more than you were judged on the basis of gender.” 

So when she became the first permanent female dean of the Graduate School, the gravity of the moment didn’t sink in until she gazed upon a wall where portraits hung of all of her predecessors. All except one — Esther Ottley, who served as interim dean from 1986 to 1988 — were men. 

It was then that Williams asked herself, “How am I going to live up to the expectations of this position?” 

Women of color make up only 9 percent of administrators in higher education, according to a 2021 report by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.   

Competition with boys was not something that ever made sense to me.” 

That means Black women who are pursuing careers in academia have very few role models at the highest levels.  

Yet at Howard, “The young ladies who are in masters and PhD programs who see me as dean can say, ‘I can do that.’ The notion of leadership being inaccessible to them because they are women is blown out of the water,” Williams says. 

She adds that male students can also benefit from seeing women as leaders. “I think Howard is unique in the sense that most of our students come out of communities where they have seen women in leadership, even if it’s in the home.”    

The advantages of having women leaders in higher education are immeasurable. “I do think women lead differently,” Williams says. Having women serving in administrative positions creates a diversity of voices so you end up with your best minds coming up with unique approaches to global problems, she adds. 

Prior to joining Howard’s faculty in 2003, Williams taught at Louisiana State University. She also served as a faculty fellow at the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University from 2008 to 2009. In 2009, she became chair of Howard’s department of English, and in 2019, she was named interim dean of the Graduate School. 

In addition to her roles at Howard, Williams served as the past president of the College Language Association, the oldest professional organization for faculty of color who teach languages and literature. She was also recently named the first female African American president of the Modern Language Association, an organization that advocates for the teaching of languages and literature. Her term will begin in 2024. She is the first person to have served as president of both organizations.  

When it comes to Howard’s role in preparing women leaders to follow in her footsteps, Williams believes no institution does it better. Howard students come away with cultural sensitivities that drive them to be open to other people’s perspectives and to value diverse experiences. Those are the hallmarks of great leaders, she says. 

“I would put our top women students who are aspirational leaders up against any student in the country.”