David Williams II, who made an extraordinary impact on Vanderbilt, college athletics and higher education during his 18-year tenure as a university vice chancellor, died Friday, Feb. 8.
Williams, who was 71, stepped down Jan. 31, 2019, as vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs and athletics director. He had returned to being a full-time tenured professor at Vanderbilt Law School. Williams was focusing his faculty efforts on the important role sports plays in society by establishing a new Sports, Law and Society Program at the Law School.
“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 so many others,” said Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos. “We are devastated by this loss. His impact on our community is immeasurable and will be felt for generations to come. We offer our deepest condolences to Gail, his children and the entire Williams family on this immense loss.”
Williams, the first African American vice chancellor at Vanderbilt, dramatically elevated the student-athlete experience while leading Vanderbilt Athletics. He succeeded in building a program where student-athletes can achieve remarkable academic success while competing in one of the toughest athletics conferences.
“The Vanderbilt family is saddened to learn of the passing of David Williams,” said Malcolm Turner, vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs and athletics director at Vanderbilt. “David authored a remarkable legacy at Vanderbilt, one defined by blazing trails and championing the student-athlete. In my short time at Vanderbilt, I was fortunate to have cultivated a friendship with David, who most proudly coveted his role as a husband and father. All of the Commodore Nation mourns the loss of David, and our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Gail, his four children, his six grandchildren, and his great-grandson.”
Vanderbilt athletics experienced unprecedented success on and off the field during Williams’ tenure. During his 15 seasons on West End, the Commodores won four national championships in bowling, baseball and women’s tennis. Vanderbilt also won more than 19 league titles and tournaments, including the men’s golf and women’s tennis Southeastern Conference championships and the Southland Conference Bowling Championship. The Vanderbilt football team played in six bowl games during Williams’ tenure, breaking a 26-year drought in 2008.
A hallmark of Williams’ tenure was the expansion of academic and experiential opportunities for student-athletes. Because of his leadership, the university now offers the nation’s most comprehensive summer internship program for student-athletes. In addition, the award-winning Summer Bridge program for incoming first-year athletes was introduced to provide workshops on life and study skills. Vanderbilt student-athletes have earned over a cumulative 3.0 GPA every year for the past 13 years.
Under Williams’ direction, the Student Recreation and Wellness Center underwent a major renovation and expansion designed to serve the entire Vanderbilt community. He also oversaw upgrades at Hawkins Field, Brownlee O. Currey Tennis Center and McGugin Center, among other facilities.
During his tenure as athletics director, Williams brought significant attention to sports’ impact on society, underscoring Vanderbilt’s rich and often troubled history during the civil rights movement. He was instrumental in leading efforts for recognition of and reconciliation with Vanderbilt pioneers, including Perry Wallace and Godfrey Dillard, and in educating current students, faculty and staff about the university’s past.
In January 2018, with the support of Zeppos and Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Susan R. Wente, he launched the Sports and Society Initiative to elevate awareness and understanding of the ways in which sports and society impact each other across a variety of disciplines. A hallmark of the initiative has been its 2018-19 lecture series, “A World of Possibilities: Examining the Olympics from Diverse Angles.”
Williams joined the law faculty in 2000, when he began working in Vanderbilt administration as a vice chancellor, general counsel and secretary of the university. His areas of expertise included sports law, law and education, and tax law. In 2002, student affairs was added to his responsibilities, then athletics the following year. In 2012, he was officially given the title of vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs and athletics director.
Prior to coming to Vanderbilt, Williams worked in student affairs administration at The Ohio State University, where he was also a law professor. He was a member of the state bars of Tennessee, Michigan, District of Columbia and the American Bar Association, where he served on the Bar Admissions Committee.
Williams held many professional and community leadership positions through the years as a prominent representative of Vanderbilt. He had been a member of the NCAA’s General Advisory Board, its Academic Council, the Enforcement Task Force and was chair of its Infractions Appeals Committee. He served on more than 10 nonprofit boards in the Nashville community, and chaired the boards of the United Way, Nashville Public Education Foundation, and the Nashville branch of the Atlanta Federal Reserve. He also served as treasurer of the Nashville Symphony.
Williams was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, where he worked as a middle school teacher and coach in Detroit public schools 1970-80. He earned his doctorate of jurisprudence from the University of Detroit Law School in 1982 and a master’s (taxation) from New York University Law School in 1984.
He is survived by his wife, Gail, his four children, Erika, David III, Samantha and Nicholas; his six grandchildren, David IV, Jazmin, Triffany, Dayon, Daiaha and Zoe; and his great grandson, Desmond.