Improving people’s work experiences and sense of belonging has always been Dr. Tina Williams’ passion, be it in the business setting or in academic research.

That’s also the approach she’s taking in her latest role, as chairperson of the Department of Management and Quantitative Methods (MQM) in Illinois State University’s College of Business (COB).

“Even when I was not in a leadership role, I always tried to do what I could to make people’s work lives better. So, when this position became available, I thought, ‘Wow, this would really give me a platform in order to do that on a different level.’”

Williams started the position July 1, fresh off a year as acting director of Illinois State’s Honors Program. An MQM faculty member since 2013, she also brings corporate experience, with previous work in information systems and information technology at the global consulting firm Accenture.

Williams has taught courses in organizational behavior; diversity, equity, and inclusion; cross-cultural management; and business in multicultural environments.

Having oversight of Illinois State’s Honors Program during 2020–2021 brought challenges and lessons, with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic mitigations pushing much of academic life to a remote format. But time there also gave Williams the chance to engage with people from all over campus.

During that same year, the College of Business was searching for its next MQM chairperson. “Being a person who studies management, and a person who’s worked in corporate America—and as someone who wanted to give back, I just thought that I would be a good choice for the job,” Williams said.

Williams grew up in a small town in eastern Alabama. Her educational journey took her to Auburn University for a B.S. and the University of West Georgia for an MBA. She then earned her Ph.D. in organizational behavior and human resource management at Florida State University.

Although she didn’t originally envision herself working in administration, Williams did know she wanted to build her career at Illinois State. “I knew I would be at Illinois State for a while because I had a fourth-grader and a sixth-grader at that time. I was looking to stay put,” she said. Now, her son, Micah, is a senior at Normal Community West High School while her daughter, Gabby, is a junior at Illinois State, majoring in physics engineering.

As MQM chairperson, Williams will connect university and COB leadership to her department. She also advocates on behalf of fellow management faculty and staff members to those administrators. “It’s my job to make sure they understand the faculty’s and staff’s perspective,” she said.

She has a special interest in equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) workplace issues, as well as how to best support students of color and first-generation college students. Those both will be priorities during her tenure, she said.

Equity, diversity, and inclusion are already important to Illinois State and the College of Business. In fact, they are among the core values of the University, which has established a Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council to the president.

But U.S. culture, including the business world, is stepping up a focus on improving those areas. That’s been developing over the past decade, but it really has come into focus this past year. That’s partly because of the events of 2020, including a massive racial justice movement sparked in part by the police killing of Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd and other similar events.

Corporate America is acknowledging this cultural shift that’s moving beyond simply not being racist into expecting people to be proactively anti-racist, she said. Williams looks at the growing attention to these issues as a good thing.

“Most Fortune 500 businesses, and most places, you see increase inclusion and access. So you need to know how to recognize that. You need to know how to understand where you fit into that,” she said.

As these changes unfold, employers will expect graduates to arrive with an understanding of equity, diversity, and inclusion. So, Williams is making these a focus—both as a workplace administrator and as a professor teaching management. As department head, she’ll begin having staff incorporate more EDI tenets into what the department already does.

Recruiting and retaining a more diverse group of students, faculty, and staff are among her top goals. In particular, she wants to help bring more Black faculty members onboard. There’s a long way to go, she said. Of the roughly 2,700 faculty members teaching at Illinois State, less than 7 percent are Black. Williams’ presence as MQM chairperson is a small step in a more diverse direction.

“Knowing I’m here in the College of Business can promote and encourage people of color to apply for faculty positions,” she said. And she said across Illinois State’s campus affinity groups, such as ones focused on Black culture and Latino culture, can help minoritized groups find grounding on a predominantly white campus.

“Until we have a critical mass of different ethnicities in departments and ISU colleges, we can use the campus affinity groups to help people connect to each other, and develop that sense of community,” she said.

“There is room for everyone,” she said. People from diverse backgrounds—be it racial or otherwise —should feel like they belong in Illinois State’s College of Business, whether as a faculty or staff member, or a student. “We want them to feel like they belong here, like they are supported, and can find a community in which to learn and grow,” she said.

In the classroom, Williams also will continue to incorporate EDI into the department’s offerings. This spring she’ll be teaching a new general education elective, which she helped design, MQM 120: DEI in the Workplace. The course, which satisfies Illinois State’s social science requirement, is important to both business majors, and non-business majors alike, she said.

That’s because no matter a person’s major, these topics will be key to a successful professional experience. Whether someone’s future job is in a chemistry lab, on a theater set, or anywhere in between, achieving professional goals is easier for employees and managers who understand how to interact with other people, said Williams.

Williams said while the role of policing and race in America has received a lot of attention, other interactions among ordinary people also are starting to affect people’s jobs and lives. “It’s becoming important. Someone calls the police on people or uses a racial slur, and they end up on TV.  Businesses are looking at that, and people are losing their jobs over that,” she said.

For people heading into today’s professional world, there’s no getting around EDI. “You need to know what those terms mean. You need to know the history behind why it’s so important to the workplace. Of course, it extends into society as well,” she said. “It just highlights the important job we have in the College of Business, and the management department, in particular, to prepare our students for the evolving workplace.”

The actual workforce in the United States is very diverse. It does not matter what your personal views are, there’s a certain expectation on how you interact with people in a workplace, she said.

One unique way Williams shares lessons in EDI is through a study abroad course, where she takes a group of students to the Caribbean. In Barbados, students encounter an immersive experience that offers a demographic flip—about 95 percent of the island’s inhabitants are of African and Caribbean descent.

“They get to see how businesses approach equity, diversity, and inclusion,” she said. “They also have to work at it, but in the opposite direction we do—to include people of European descent,” she said.

The Caribbean study abroad courses stalled this summer, due to the pandemic, but she’s hoping it’ll be offered in summer 2022. 

Williams’ other areas of research include the effects of underemployment, volition, and economic stressors on individuals and organizations. Her recent publications include a co-authored article in this year’s issue of the Labor Studies Journal, looking at younger workers’ attitudes toward labor unions; as well as two chapters in 2018’s “Teaching Human Resource Management: An Experiential Approach.”

Besides her academic work, Williams is an active community member. Currently, she serves on the board of directors for YWCA McLean County. Part of the national YWCA organization, the local chapter began in 1907 through then-Illinois State Normal University.