A Gatekeeper Relinquishes the Keys
Dr. Luther Williams, lauded director of the National Science Foundation’s minority programs, steps down.
WASHINGTON — Dr. Luther S. Williams has stepped down as head of the National Science Foundation’s education division after nine years as the chief architect of a wide range of NSF programs aimed at creating opportunities for African Americans in science and technology.Williams will be a visiting scholar at the Payson Center for International Development and Technology Transfer at Tulane University.According to news reports, NSF Director Rita Cowell says the controversy that erupted last year following a lawsuit over perceived conflicts of interest played no role in Williams’ departure.Williams, assistant director of education and human resources at the NSF, was the target of a Justice Department probe last year stemming from charges that he had accepted honoraria for speeches that were a part of his official duties. Williams settled the lawsuit against him in August 1998, agreeing to pay $24,000. In the suit, the government said only that Williams had broken the law, not that he had done so intentionally.The lawsuit stemmed from an Inspector General report which also charged that he broke federal conflict-of-interest laws when he participated in a decision to award a grant to an organization with which he was negotiating for a job (see Black Issues, August 6, 1998). Those charges were later thrown out when the Justice Department concluded that there was not substantial evidence against him.Earlier this month, science educators and university presidents were praising Williams’ role in expanding research opportunities for Black universities. “Luther Williams did more than anyone else in government to move the agenda forward in science and engineering,” says Dr. Walter E. Massey, president of Morehouse College, who worked with Williams when he was director of the NSF.Massey says Williams put special emphasis on increasing the representation of minorities in science and engineering. Williams created pre-college programs to increase the numbers of minority students who could major in science in college and also created the Centers of Research Excellence in Science and technology. The centers promote the development of outstanding research centers at minority institutions and increase the number of minorities with Ph.Ds in science. “Luther has done a superb job of highlighting the importance of producing more minority scientists, across this nation,” says Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. But some educators are concerned whether the programs he put in place will be threatened. “The test will be whether the partnerships that [Williams] put in place will endure,” says Dr. N. Joyce Payne, director of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant College’s Office of the Advancement of Public Black Colleges. “The [historically Black college and university] community must remain vigilant to see that those partnerships remain.”Judith Sunley, an NSF administrator, will serve as interim assistant director for education and human resources. Science and research administrators hope Williams’ replacement will have the same commitment to minorities. “You can’t replace Luther,” Massey says. “The press may refer to the allegations, but in the long run, his reputation will survive. His accomplishments are very well known among those who know him.”
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