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D. Alan Williams: June 14, 1928–August 3, 2021

Former VP of student affairs held many other key roles at University

D. Alan Williams

D. Alan Williams, the former UVA vice president of student affairs who died August 3 at age 93, cut a classic academic figure on Grounds in his trademark tweed.

Williams also wore many hats, figuratively speaking, and it’s the variety and number of leadership roles that he played over four decades that define his UVA career. From 1957 to 1998, he left a mark on numerous facets of University life, as a history professor and undergraduate program chair, as a founding dean of the Echols Scholar program, as assistant provost, as VP of student affairs in the tumultuous Vietnam era, as leader of a blue-ribbon panel charged with implementing co-education at the University, and as faculty athletics representative to the ACC and NCAA, a job he held for 30 years.

Williams also was a founding member of the College Football Association, four-time president of the ACC, and chairman of both the NCAA’s Long Range Planning Committee and the powerful Committee on Infractions.

“Dad was something of a Swiss Army knife at the University,” says Scott Williams, the oldest of his three sons. “Although that may not have been uncommon back in that era, it is not likely to be repeated today.”

No matter the job or issue, no one had to guess where Williams stood, says Ernest H. Ern, who succeeded Williams as VP of student affairs in 1973. “Quite frankly, with Alan, there was no second opinion,” Ern says. “He was straightforward and confident.”

Scott Williams says his father brought a strong sense of duty and service to his various roles, as well as a well-honed sense of right and wrong formed by his Presbyterian upbringing and his service in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

In a 1989 interview, the elder Williams provided a glimpse of his worldview. He was in his fifth year as chairman of the NCAA Committee on Infractions, and the scandal-ridden Southern Methodist University football program had received the “death penalty” the year before. After dealing with a spate of cases involving major rule violations, the committee was enjoying a period of relative calm. Williams cautioned that it didn’t mean such cases would not crop up again.

“I’m an old Calvinist Presbyterian, and I don’t believe that we’re all inherently good,” he said.

The article was headlined “Williams Carries the Paddle for NCAA.”

Williams grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, the son of a steel worker. He went to work in a mill himself at age 16, for 59½ cents per hour, during World War II.

After leaving the Navy, Williams enrolled at Westminster College, a Presbyterian-affiliated school in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, with thoughts of becoming a minister, Scott Williams says.

Williams met his wife, Lou, at Westminster and earned a degree in history in 1952. He came to UVA as a junior instructor in 1957 after teaching for a year at Queens College.

By current standards, the University was understaffed, with a far skinnier administration.

“It was amazing how few faculty we had,” Williams said in an interview with Virginia Magazine in 2020. “Everybody taught. I mean, you were in charge of gosh knows whatever, and you still had two classes you taught.”

In 1963, Williams was charged with revamping the Echols Scholars, which had launched in 1960 as an honors program in the College of Arts & Sciences. He visited Princeton, Yale and Duke, among other campuses, to gather ideas.

“And I came back, and I wrote it up, went to the faculty meeting—and I’m still not a tenured faculty member—and presented it to them, and they said, ‘Okay,’” he recalled in 2020. “You know, now, if we were doing that again, we’d have 35 different committees meeting.”

As assistant provost, Williams shepherded George Mason College and Clinch Valley College from two-year branches of UVA to independent four-year status in 1966. In 1968, he became UVA’s first vice president of student affairs.

It was the Vietnam era, which Williams later recalled as a “hectic and stimulating time.”

To put it mildly. Anti-war protests erupted on Grounds in May 1970, after the shootings at Kent State University. Charged with helping police keep a lid on things, Williams became “the symbol of repressive administration,” Rory Little (Col ’78) wrote in his book Strike! A Study of Protest at the University of Virginia in May 1970.

On the final night of protests, it fell to Williams to read the riot act to students, from the loudspeaker of a police car, warning them they had three minutes to disperse. The message was inaudible or garbled to many in the crowd, and they moved forward to hear it.

“Three short minutes later, the police charged,” Little wrote.

Police fanned out, chasing down and rounding up 68 people and loading them into a Mayflower moving van. Among those swept up were a man delivering pizza, the assistant director of buildings and grounds, and one student who had been at a fraternity formal and spent the night in jail in a tuxedo, Little wrote.

Scott Williams says his father was “furious” over the police reaction.

“Dad went down to jail and bailed out people he knew had been wrongly arrested,” he says.

Two days later, UVA President Edgar F. Shannon addressed a crowd of 4,000 on the Lawn. He declared his opposition to the war but maintained his determination to keep the University open despite student demands for a strike. He sent a letter to Virginia’s U.S. senators criticizing the Nixon administration’s response to the Kent State killings and decrying attacks on universities, students and the press. Some 5,000 students and faculty signed the letter, which was delivered to Washington.

Shannon was roundly criticized by state politicians, including Gov. Linwood Holton. Editorial writers and alumni blasted him as well. There were calls for his resignation.

Williams also took considerable heat for the administration’s handling of student protests.

“At one point he was going around with a police guard,” says Scott Williams, who was 12 years old in May 1970. “We had people calling our house in the middle of the night. That was not a good time.”

Williams felt conflicted about his role in the May unrest. He told Little in an interview that Vietnam was different from his war, in which the enemy had been clear.

“I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same thing,” he said of the students who protested.

Williams resigned as vice president of student affairs in 1973. He’d been determined to go out on his own terms, his son says. Shannon stepped down in 1974.

Williams handed the reins to Ern without ceremony. “He said, ‘It’s yours. I’m finished, I have other things to do.’ And that was it,” Ern says.

Williams continued to teach, as he’d done all along, and became a national figure in athletics through his roles with the NCAA. The unpaid work took him away from home an average of 100 days per year, he said in 1989. 

“It’s a public service kind of thing,” he said.

The Z Society saluted Williams upon his retirement as VP of student affairs in 1973. Scott Williams read from a scroll on a wall in his father’s Charlottesville office while sorting through his effects. (That same day, a trove of tweed jackets hit the local thrift store market, he says).

The scroll reads, in part:

“You have dedicated your life to the improvement of the quality of our University. You dreamed and not all the dreams were fulfilled. You fought and at times lost. But you taught us to become responsible leaders and we believe you succeeded. Thank you for the long hours, for the numerous headaches and ultimately for caring. You have served the University honorably.”

Williams is survived by his wife, Lou; three sons, Scott and his wife Amy, Todd, and Kevin and his wife Jennifer; four granddaughters; and one great-granddaughter.

Ed Miller is Associate Editor of Virginia Magazine.