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Leadership in action
USC Gould School of Law

Friday, August 14, 2020

Triple Trojan Michael L. Williams has built a legacy as a pioneering public servant.

By Ben Dimapindan

Michael Williams (JD 1979) calls being a federal prosecutor the proudest moment of his career.
Throughout his nearly four-decade career in public service, USC Gould School of Law alumnus Michael L. Williams (JD 1979) has never been shy about stepping into new roles and tackling new challenges. 
In the 1980s, after roles at the state and county levels, Williams practiced as a federal prosecutor, litigating hate crime and other notable cases. He went on to hold federal leadership posts throughout the 1990s – in the departments of Justice, Treasury and Education – including Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights, appointed by President George H. W. Bush. In 2000, Williams made Texas history, becoming the first and only African American elected to a statewide executive position as a member of the Railroad Commission, the critically important body that regulates the oil and gas industries. In 2012, he shifted his focused to education, helping bridge Texas’ academic K-12 achievement gap as head of the state’s education agency.
“That whole mix of law, politics and social justice has always been part of my nature,” Williams says, recalling how, at eight or nine years old, he would lie down in front of the television and write down election returns from races around the country.
Early Influences

For Williams, pursuing a career in public service was inspired largely by “the period of time in which I was born and raised.” Growing up in West Texas in the 1950s, Williams noted that some schools were still segregated. His parents were educators who taught at an all-Black school.
“I grew up at the maturation of the Civil Rights movement,” he says. 
“I remember the theater, when Black folks had to sit in the balcony, and white folks sat down below. I’m old enough that there were certain stores where you couldn’t try on clothes in Midland, Tex. And I’m not that old,” says Williams, who is 66. “The need for social change, I didn’t need to go far to see it because it was right there in front of me.”
Proud Prosecutor

After earning his BA and Master of Public Administration from USC, Williams continued on to Gould for his law degree. “I was home at USC. There was no other place I wanted to go to law school,” he says.
Of all the positions he held in law, his time in the Department of Justice stands out.  
“At DOJ, the criminal section of the civil rights division was a small, very close-knit group of about 18, prosecuting cases all around the country,” he explains. “You felt part of the team, and the last thing you would want to do is let the team down. We worked extremely hard and relied on each other.”
Even now, Williams calls being a federal prosecutor his proudest moment.
“I am still proud of the prosecution of cross burning cases, the prosecution of hate crime cases, the prosecution of police misconduct cases. When I look back on those four-plus years, I knew that I was on the side of the gods,” he says.
According to Williams, the analytical skills he developed at Gould proved instrumental in his legal career. 
“Law school prepared me how to think through difficult matters, how to assess the strengths and weaknesses of not only legal cases, but political issues that I had,” he says. “It gave me a paradigm to analyze political situations, policy questions that were posed before me.”
Major Milestone

Following his work in Washington, Williams returned to Texas for a pivotal leadership position as a railroad commissioner. The commission’s regulatory impacts – from environmental efforts to pipeline safety to reliable delivery of gas to homes and business – are far reaching in a state that is the nation’s top producer of oil and natural gas and one of the largest producers of coal. As the first and only African American to hold an elected executive position in Texas history, the role carried added personal meaning.  
“At my swearing in, obviously, I was extremely proud and humbled, but I realized that I stood on the shoulders of some great people. African Americans who came before me like [Congress members and fellow Texans] Barbara Jordan, Mickey Leland and Craig Washington,” he says. “It came with an enormous amount of humility, but it came with some serious responsibility as well.”
Educational Reform
Michael Williams, here reading to schoolchildren, has worked to change systems and structures to close educational achievement gaps.

This sense of responsibility extended into the educational sphere, where Williams served as Texas Education Agency commissioner from 2012-2016. “It’s rewarding because you’re dealing with the future of the state and country in our young people,” he says.

In that role, his No. 1 priority was “closing the achievement gap between our Brown and Black and poor students, and their white and middle- and upper-income counterparts. Texas is a state where our students statewide are about 60% Brown and Black, and 65% economically disadvantaged.”
To narrow the gap, he focused on systems, structures, resources and incentives. He also sought to make advanced classwork for college preparation more accessible to Texas students. 
One of his toughest challenges was as “enforcer” — which includes making the difficult decision to close down campuses and districts and merge them with better-performing ones.
“There did come times when you gave underperforming campuses or districts resources, assistance and support to turn around, and they were still unable to do it. Rather than require those youngsters to continue going to schools in districts that were underperforming, we changed leadership and sometimes we changed the entire operation,” he says.
Today, Williams is the inaugural Distinguished Leader-in-Residence at the University of North Texas-Dallas, where he teaches courses ranging from constitutional law to public leadership, as well as work on other university presidential projects.
USC remains a prominent part of Williams’ life. As an undergrad, he ran track and field for the Trojans, and many of his teammates become lifelong friends. “[As a runner], I was mediocre at best, but I had a great time.” To this day, he enjoys supporting the team and travels to watch track meets.
Reflecting on almost 40 years in public service, Williams acknowledges that the work wasn’t always easy, but it was fulfilling.
“I’ve never had a bad day in my life,” he says. “Some are better than others, but I’ve never had a bad day.”



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