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Interview with Michael Steven Williams, Ph.D. from the University of Missouri on Educational Socialization and Belonging in Higher Education and its Connections with Racial, Gender, and Economic Equity

About Michael Steven Williams, Ph.D. : Michael Steven Williams is Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis at the University of Missouri (Mizzou). Dr. Williams’ research on educational equity focuses on the importance of socialization and institutional engagement toward cultivating belonging and achievement for students marginalized at the intersections of race, gender, and class.

Dr. Williams’ publications have appeared in leading journals concerned with educational equity like the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education and the Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice. His work has also been published as chapters in edited collections, including Black Men in the Academy: Narratives of Resiliency, Achievement, and Success. He also serves on the editorial board for the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education and the College Student Affairs Journal, among other publications. At the University of Missouri, Dr. Williams is Faculty Fellow within the Division of Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity; Faculty Affiliate in the Black Studies Department; and Faculty Scholar at the Michael A. Middleton Center for Race, Citizenship, and Justice. He is also Faculty Affiliate at the Rutgers Center for Minority Serving Institutions at Rutgers University.

Prior to joining the faculty at the University of Missouri, Dr. Williams was Assistant Professor in the Austin W. Marxe School of Public & International Affairs at Baruch College, City University of New York. Dr. Williams received his Ph.D. in Educational Policy & Leadership from The Ohio State University, his M.S.Ed. in Higher Education from the University of Pennsylvania, and his B.S. from Villanova University in Management Information Systems. He is cohost of the podcast Parents and Professors with Dr. Marjorie Dorimé-Williams.

Interview Questions

[] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in higher education research and pursuing educational equity with respect to race, gender, and ethnicity?

[Dr. Michael Steven Williams] I took a somewhat circuitous route to higher education and student affairs. My undergraduate training is in what they were calling Decision and Information Technologies at Villanova University when I graduated, which is what most people would call Management and Information Systems. I had my eye on jobs in finance and jobs in computer-related fields like database administration.

When I graduated from undergrad, I started working for Accenture, but I always had the echo of my mom’s voice in the back of my head telling me to go back to school to get a terminal degree. My mother is a registered nurse, but one of the things she regrets is that she could have been a doctor or a nurse practitioner but she had me and my brothers and never got back to school. She was very invested in me getting a terminal degree earlier in my life because it would open doors.

I went to begin a Master’s degree in Computer and Information Technology at the University of Pennsylvania. I took an elective in higher education about college and university teaching and learning. That changed my trajectory completely. Marybeth Gasman was the teacher in that class. She became my advisor and a trusted mentor when I was making the transition from business-focused information systems to higher education. She remains a mentor to this day.

She encouraged me to look at the higher education program if I was serious about changing majors, and that is what I did. I ended up changing majors as a Master’s student, which is not something people do very often. [laughs]. It was a bit of an expensive decision because the University of Pennsylvania is not a place you want to be wasting semesters if you are paying for it. But I never looked back. I enjoyed everything about the coursework.

That was my entry point, and I just loved it. I loved colleges and universities. I knew after I took that course that I wanted to be a professor of something, but I did not know what. I thought I might do my doctoral work in computer engineering or information systems, but the call of education was great. I much prefer figuring out how to get a statistical model to run to trying to prove that the number two is even. [laughs].

The transition was relatively smooth for me. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about how people who are trained in STEM think in these types of spaces. My brain works from a logic and systems perspective, and I think my background in information systems helps me think clearly about many problems related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

In terms of my specific expertise, I have always been attracted to the way that people interact. Part of management information systems that people often forget is the management part. It is not just about the systems themselves, but how people interact with them to be productive. That is how I think about education systems. What are the mechanisms that are in place to facilitate people taking advantage of everything that is available to them in a college or university? Who are the people involved, how do you train them, and how do you help them think critically about what they can achieve individually and collectively?

These are ideas that are always bouncing around in my head. I tell people all the time that if I was not a college professor, I would probably be a high-school teacher and a coach. The idea of teaching and learning — of watching people grow and develop — has always been a pressing interest for me.

With respect to my interest in race, gender, and ethnicity, I come from a very diverse and nontraditional family. In some ways I have continued that, both on purpose and by accident. I was raised by a single mother who was in the Navy and then in the Air Force. My younger brothers and I moved around all the time because of my mother’s different duty stations. I have an older brother from my mom’s first marriage, I have an older sister from my father’s first marriage. I am the only product of my mom and my dad. My two younger brothers have a different father.

My older sister married a Jewish woman, converted to Judaism, and changed her name. My next youngest brother was in and out of the criminal justice system from when I left for college, may he rest in peace. Some of the ideas and issues and problems that people are facing as they relate to equity and diversity are not just abstract to me. This is my lived experience. This is my life.

My ability to take perspective from and to draw from that experience has always served me. I do not approach the work in an accusatory way. I do not say, “Why don’t you understand this?” or “How could you be so ignorant?” It is pretty easy to be ignorant when you have no exposure to things. I am very aware that, in many cases, I have been exposed to things that some people will be lucky to never be exposed to in their entire lives. I would not want to be judged if I have a gap in my understanding or knowledge. I would want to be taught. I would want to be connected. I would want people to care enough about me knowing things to help me do better — to be a better citizen and a better contributor to my communities.

That is the way I approach teaching and learning about diversity, which is connected to the fact that I hate complaining without solutions. The way people talk about equity and diversity today often undervalues this work and turns it into buzzwords. People do not see the larger connection between these initiatives and all the things we really want as human beings. I feel like my ability to translate, to teach, and to be patient has helped me communicate that. I have had many excellent mentors, and they have taught me to pay it forward.

[] Would you introduce us to how you define educational equity in your research and practice? Are there ways in which your scholarly emphasis on the importance of educational socialization and information systems perspectives nuances how you see educational equity?

[Dr. Michael Steven Williams] I do not think you can think critically about equity without recognizing that we are all operating in systems that advantage some people and disadvantage other people. To give people an opportunity to reach their fullest potential, we have to put systems in place to support them.

For me, equity is about giving everybody an opportunity to maximize their potential. This might mean different things in different contexts. For some people it may mean fiscal support. I want you to learn things in my class, but if you cannot afford the books, I am going to have to figure out a way to get those books into your hands. I teach a lot of graduate and professional students, and issues related to childcare are very important to them. Their concern is not about the course content, it is how to find competent childcare so that they can go to class or do their work.

I think of equity as problem-solving. How do we solve the problems preventing people from reaching their potential? How do we provide resources they need to be successful in the different spaces they navigate? And how do we meaningfully and necessarily differentiate this from equality? It is an argument I have with my son and two daughters. My older daughter is a high achiever in school but she has a narrow conception of equity and fairness. She is very much, “How come that person got to get out of class early? Why doesn’t the teacher call on me when I raise my hand first?” I try to teach her that these people might need something a little bit different from her and that her teachers need to make sure they are reaching each student and customize their approach to make sure everyone is meeting the learning objectives.

I think about equity in terms of customization as well. How do we customize the physical environment, the emotional environment, the political environment to maximize participation and sense of belonging — to make people believe that they matter within a space, whatever that space may be.

[] One major focus of your research is on socialization processes like mentoring and campus engagement, which you have explored in articles like “Predicting the Quality of Black Women Collegians’ Relationships with Faculty at a Public Historically Black University,” and “Thwarting the Temptation to Leave College: An Examination of Engagement’s Impact on College Sense of Belonging Among Black and Latinx Students.” Would you discuss how socialization is an important site for pursuing equity for both students and faculty and the types of initiatives you see as helpful in cultivating belonging for minoritized students?

[Dr. Michael Steven Williams] I am a firm believer that social cognitive theory explains the world. I draw from Albert Bandura’s work on the development of efficacy and goal-directed behavior in thinking about socialization processes and the interpersonal relationships that are part and parcel of any socialization process. People will talk about socialization and forget about the social part. Socialization always takes place in community. Good mentoring cannot happen unless the mentee feels a mentor cares about them. Even from a theoretical and conceptual standpoint, mentoring is about psychosocial and career support.

The psychosocial aspect is the, “I believe in you, I see you, you’re someone that belongs in my space, that’s worth investing in and pouring into.” If we think of socialization as preparation to achieve within a certain domain, it is very difficult to socialize someone if they do not feel like they belong in the space you are socializing them to achieve in.

When I think about mentoring, I think about belonging, inclusion, and equity. Each of those concepts are deeply intertwined with each other. They all connect to how we give people information about whether and how they belong in social spaces. Can they connect? Can they learn the skills and abilities to achieve things? Can they develop confidence? The answer to these questions depends on mentors and other socializing agents like peers.

A real mentoring network would consist of people at different levels of expertise with different roles. Sometimes an important mentor is just a friend who thinks the world of you and reminds you they believe in you. Sometimes it is a senior scholar who sees that you are doing good work and is willing to invest in you by collaborating with you, sending you to a conference, or sponsoring your place in a professional development program. All of those are socialization actions. They are connected to helping people understand their place in larger systems.

Whether it is our internal, mental-emotional systems, our family systems, our neighborhood systems, or our classroom systems, in each one of those spaces we need different signals to suggest we are on the right track and that we belong. Connecting back to equity, these have to be customized, too. In the same way that you need to know what people need to ensure equity, you need to know what they need to ensure belonging, inclusion, and that they are being socialized appropriately. That piece — knowledge of self, knowledge of community, knowledge of people you are trying to support — is the connecting thread across everything.

[] Another of your publications on socialization is, “Mentoring, Managing, and Helping: A Critical Race Analysis of Socialization in Doctoral Education.” Would you describe what your research as described in this work found about the relationship between race, gender, and graduate socialization? What does critical race theory help us understand about educational socialization in this context we might not otherwise see?

[Dr. Michael Steven Williams] One of the ways I was taught to think about theory is as glasses you put on to look at your data. If you think about rose-colored glass or 3D glasses, each different type of lens you put on will change how you view the world around you, influencing what you can see and what you cannot. When you think about socialization through a critical race theory lens, it turns your attention to specific ideas. What are the threats to socialization based on race, class, gender, and ethnicity?

For example, I am a Black male professor. I know from scholarship and my lived experience that there are not a whole lot of Black male professors. What are the explanations for that? Some of them are systemic. It is because of racism, exclusion, and differential opportunities to engage in the educational system. It is because of the limits on people seeing people who look like them and come from similar backgrounds in the roles and positions they want to attain.

What we found in that piece is that people need a sense of connection. People are aware of the impact of racism and exclusion on the way they navigate the academy. To overcome these barriers, we have to be very careful in our training of mentors as well as the students. The mutuality of support and protection is one of the main takeaways of this article, and something I am continuing to build on in my work.

Another important aspect of this piece is that faculty serve as role models in ways they may not understand or be aware of. If a student is watching you deal with a flagrantly racist situation and you deal with it with class and patience and end up finding the “win” in that space, the student is going to remember that. If you lose your cool, curse everybody out, and leave the university, they are going to remember that too, but it will also detract from the network of people who could support and socialize them.

When you combine critical theories like critical race theory and intersectionality — any theory that forces you to look at what’s happening systemically and its relationship to the individual level – it is an opportunity to reimagine the way we think about these core ideas. What is mentoring if you think about race, class, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, ability status, and the geographic regions of the country or the world your students grew up in? It forces you to ask different and potentially better questions so you can get closer to the root of what a student needs to be successful. Ultimately, that is the question we are always answering. How do we define success, and how can we put the appropriate scaffolding in place so as many people can be as successful as possible?

[] Your research has also been invested in identifying institutional barriers for Black and Latinx participation in STEM fields, as well as exploring the benefits of racial and gender diversity in these fields. Would you discuss some of the barriers to equity in STEM that your work identifies and the unique importance of diversity within these disciplines? Are there ways you believe STEM requires unique interventions when compared to other disciplines?

[Dr. Michael Steven Williams] To take the last part of your question first, I think the answer is no. A good intervention that supports connection, belonging, and efficacy is going to be a good intervention no matter where you apply it. I will use an exploratory example. If I am trying to teach you how to play basketball, I am going to connect you to a social unit that values and appreciates you, which is the team and coaches. I am going to teach you in ways that are appropriate for your level of comprehension and raise the difficulty level slowly and consistently. As you demonstrate mastery of the fundamentals, I am going to build in more complex opportunities for you to demonstrate expertise.

When you make a mistake, I am going to show you how to fix that mistake and put you in community with peers and other people who care about you being successful. In basketball, nobody says, “Hey, you missed a shot, don’t ever shoot again.” That is the same way it should be in academics. No one should say, “You didn’t do well on this test; you shouldn’t be in STEM.” There are many ways that if we took the best practices of how we teach across disciplines and applied them, we would be able to do a great job anywhere. I do not think how you teach someone who is an English major, a computer science major, or wants to be great at fencing fundamentally differs. There is a connection across all of them with respect to the social component, the role modeling component, the efficacy component, and the scaffolding component.

Things get messier and trickier because we live in a capitalist society that cares about money and the bottom line. The largest market cap companies in the world are technology companies. Apple by itself has more money than many countries across the world. Part of my own socialization into STEM was being told that was where the money is. In a capitalist society, money is equated with freedom, happiness, and creating opportunities for your children to do what they love. That piece complicates things. If we were competing for jobs in English rhetoric like we do with jobs at Google, we would see many similar issues emerge in these fields.

These fields have the same problems; there are too few people of difference in positions of power, there is not enough of a focus on pedagogy and the development of mentorship relationships and networks. The type of money and funding that goes into medicine, engineering, and computer programming raises the stakes. An unfortunate upshot of that is that, when something is valuable, the barriers to get to it are greater. There are more exclusionary tactics used and fewer people are told they can be successful.

I also think that part of the barriers come with the difficulty we assign to STEM, and whom we say it is too difficult for. I have never met anyone in college who says they are bad at reading and so they cannot major in a particular field. People do that very quickly with a math identity. They say, “Oh, I’m not good at math, it’s just not my thing.” I would suggest that is simply not true, but you have been taught that as a protective, maladaptive coping mechanism, or you have never had a teacher that made math accessible, exciting, and worth working to understand.

We get taught to work hard in so many different spaces. We do not walk away from marriages, for example, after one argument. People who are successful in marriage are those who can take constructive feedback and mobilize their networks of support to get back on the horse and be resilient when things are not going so well. That is the same way you are successful in any endeavor, so why would it be different in STEM? That is where I think STEM is treated differently and I have concerns. Why are we not teaching the same resilience? Why are we not focusing on the fundamentals?

There are still colleges and universities that have weed-out courses. There is one frame of mind that says there should be no such thing as a weed-out course. I take my offense to this in a different direction in asking why there are not weed-out courses in education. What is more important than educating the youth? Why is the barrier for entry so much lower for a teacher than for a computer scientist?

Part of this has to do with our socialization to think about pathways and professions along racialized and gendered lines. If you ask people to draw a picture of a scientist, a vast majority of those people are going to draw a picture of a white man with gray hair and a lab coat like Doc from Back to the Future or Rick from Rick & Morty. Nurses, on the other hand, are gender coded. When you say nurse, most people’s immediate image is of a woman. At a systemic level, we have to pay attention to this and it testifies to the importance of representation. If you have a broad swath of society represented in these spaces, it is much easier to disconnect people from these traditional notions of who is allowed to do these jobs.

The other side of that is, even in spaces without compositional diversity, there are many ways to signal that representation within these fields is important. There may not be other Black professors on the faculty, but we have Zoom, and can invite professors from other universities in to talk about their experiences and how they persisted. We can push back against majoritized notions of students’ success paths.

It is really important to do this with white students, for example. Sometimes when we think about diversity, equity, and inclusion, we can forget that being white does not automatically mean being privileged in every aspect of your life. I know plenty of lower socioeconomic status white people who had to fight through similar things that I had to fight through, they just did not have to deal with racism. They still had to deal with classism, with socioeconomic status, with bad schools. In rural America, the poverty of schools and their materials present profound obstacles. To me, equity is about advancing access to everybody. If we provide pathways for everybody, we are going to live in a world that is much closer to the one we want.

[] Your work has examined issues of equity and the experiences of students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), predominately white institutions, and religiously affiliated institutions. Could you discuss how the struggle for equity looks different between these institutional contexts, and ways in which it may be similar?

[Dr. Michael Steven Williams] In equity, belonging, and inclusion, context matters. HBCUs, for example, are seeing amazing yields in their classes because people are more actively leaving some of the racism on display in public institutions. People are attending HBCUs in ways they have not in years right now.

That does not mean that HBCUs do not have their own issues they have to attend to. For example, many Historically Black Colleges and Universities are in the American South because the legislation that led to the creation of HBCUs was built around the separate but equal doctrine. Students would be denied admission to state’s flagship institutions because there were HBCUs down the road that were “separate but equal.” We know in practice that was not the case, but it was the raison d’etre for many of these institutions existing in the first place.

Another thing many people do not know about HBCUs is that a lot of them are religiously affiliated. Missionary and Christian organizations have a big hand in these spaces. A consequence of this is that HBCUs are far behind in their support of marginalized populations like LGBTQ+ individuals. In that context, you may be Black, but if you are Black and gay that HBCU may not be any more welcoming to you than your local predominately white institution. Understanding the context, history, and the systems in these spaces is really important.

In my work, I tend to focus on the positive aspects of the psychological experience of students in educational institutions. I am interested in the conditions, or the things I can change, to make you feel happier to be here. I want to focus on happiness, well-being, and flourishing. I do not want to focus on sadness, alienation, and discrimination. I ask, “What does flourishing look like in this space? Who are the people who have made the most of this experience, and what can we learn from how they went about it?”

In the same way that, from a business standpoint, we look for best practices, we ought to be looking for best practices in higher education. How are institutions doing a great job getting students in the door, making them feel excited and happy, getting them out the door with a degree, and keeping them involved as donors, service providers, and engaged alumni? If we are doing our jobs right as post-secondary educators, people should feel a lifelong connection to their institutions. That means understanding what the contextual differences in our institutions are and the levers we can pull to facilitate higher level achievement in those spaces.

[] You are currently a Faculty Scholar at the Michael A. Middleton Center for Race, Citizenship, and Justice. Would you tell us a little bit about the Middleton Center and your work there?

[Dr. Michael Steven Williams] I look up to Michael Middleton. He happens to be my fraternity brother, and he is an active law professor. There are paintings of him hanging in the library at Mizzou [laughs]. He and his wife have remained committed to the Mizzou community and to providing space to the topics of racial and social justice despite some of the larger state level politics in Missouri.

I love my affiliation, first, because the Middleton Center brings in amazing speakers and I get to have conversations with other concerned scholars focused on race and justice. It also gives me the opportunity to serve. We have an interview series we are doing with local faculty and we collaborate on scholarly projects to try to spotlight the work of the Center’s affiliates. The aim of our work is very much what it sounds like. We are committed to improving race relations, increasing inclusion, and supporting scholarship that is going to lead to the creation of programs that support difference with a particular focus on race and social justice.

[] You also co-host the podcast Parents & Professors. Would you tell us a bit more about this project and how it aims to serve parent educators?

[Dr. Michael Steven Williams] I host Parents & Professors with my co-parent and colleague Dr. Marjorie Dorimé-Williams. I married my best friend from my Master’s program. We were married for about 10 years before we ended up going our separate ways, but we still co-parent. To a certain extent we have been an academic couple, perhaps even more so after the divorce. In our podcast, we talk about our roles. When I moved to Mizzou, they hired my co-parent as a tenure track faculty member, which was lucky for them because she is amazing. We both were navigating the experience of being parents and professors.

In the podcast, we draw from our educational expertise and our perspective based on our experiences as parents to talk about current events. Some episodes will be about how my son lost his soccer jersey again, while others will be about thinking critically about the threats to and costs of belonging in professional spaces. We have discussed how to organize politically to resist some of the unfortunate work being done in contexts like Florida to eliminate or defund DEI. It is a pretty wide-ranging conversation that blends perspectives on parenting with our vantage point as education experts and education researchers.

[] Based on your research and experience, do you have advice you would give to scholars, educators, or administrators seeking to advance educational equity through their own work?

[Dr. Michael Steven Williams] I am a firm believer in three major principles. One is community, two is support, and three is accountability. Developing interpersonal relationships and finding groups that support your sense of community and your connection to the work is very important. You need people who will remind you that this is goal-oriented work, and that the goal is for a better, more equitable world for everybody, including you and yours.

You need people who will support you when you are down because this work can be draining. I am lucky because I am an extrovert and I like to argue, so I feel drawn to this work and well-equipped to get back into the fight. But there are definitely times when frustration or incredulity can silence me or turn my brain off. Having people you can process with, and will help you rest, breathe, relax, and get back into the fight, is crucial.

Accountability starts with yourself. Are you doing what you say you are going to do? Are you showing up for the groups you say you are going to show up for? Is your life a testament to the type of life you want to live and the things you are fighting for? I think it is disconcerting when I hear people stand up for equity and diversity in colleges but then they turn around and do not treat their families, coworkers, or the people in their spaces kindly. Is your life a model for the type of world you want to create?

That is not a call for anyone to be perfect. But are you being accountable to yourself and do you have the appropriate accountability mechanisms and people around you to make sure that is the case? I am held accountable by my wife. I am held accountable by my co-parent. I am held accountable by my children, coworkers, and colleagues. We need people to care about our work.

I am a firm believer that if you have community, support, and accountability you can achieve anything. That applies to pretty much any form of endeavor, but is especially important to equity work. We are not only trying to hold ourselves accountable. We are trying to hold schools, leaders, politicians, and people who develop the rules, practices, and policies, accountable. How are we doing to do that if we are not holding ourselves accountable and promoting accountability in the spaces we navigate?

Thank you, Dr. Williams, for sharing your insight on fostering equity through socialization and belonging, your work on HBCUs and students of color in STEM education, and much more!