By Shawn Joseph, Ed.D.
Director of Metro Nashville Public Schools
When I first arrived in Nashville just a little over two years ago, I met dozens of people. Of the many wonderful people I have had the pleasure of meeting and building relationships with, there is no one I admired and respected more than David Williams II, former vice chancellor and athletics director at Vanderbilt University. On Friday, Feb. 8, 2018, we unfortunately lost David, but not the enduring legacy he leaves behind.
During my first few months of living in Nashville, I knew I had a big task in moving the needle to make our school system the best it could be. With the support of the Board of Education, I assembled a Transition Team to gather information, to delve deep and craft recommendations with complete honesty and urgency, on how we could improve the work of MNPS. David Williams II, along with 47 other community stakeholders, parents, higher education professionals, union leadership, business, industry and non-profit representatives, school staff, as well as nationally-recognized leaders in the education field, did not hesitate to answer the call. David also graciously agreed to lead this dynamic group as one of the Transition Team co-chairs.
David proved himself to be a strong advocate and supporter from the very beginning – and he did not hesitate to let me know how important he felt public education was to this city. As a former middle school teacher in Detroit Public Schools, David had a passion for students, which he carried throughout his career and never wavered on – even at the collegiate level. He was once quoted as saying, “I believe in my soul there is no issue more important to a community’s success than public education. I saw what happened in Detroit and Columbus when the public lost faith and confidence in its public schools. It had a devastating effect on those cities. I want to do whatever it takes to ensure Nashville never falls victim to that.”
Over the course of several months of research and deliberations, the Transition Team presented a total of 121 recommendations, focused on four critical areas: Student Achievement; School Choice; Communications and Community Engagement; and Human Resources and Talent Management. David and the team were clear that these recommendations were necessary steps the district needed to take in expanding opportunities for the students served by the system, provide them with the best educators daily, ensure continuous achievement, and to reach out effectively to key stakeholders and partners. I am proud that out of those 121 recommendations, MNPS has successfully met 91 of them to-date – and David, who was a major influence in this work – was able to see that progress made.
Certainly, while David is lauded for his amazing work and trailblazing achievements as the first African-American to serve as athletics director in the Southeastern Conference, his greatest influence was how he touched the lives of students – not just at the collegiate level but in K-12 education. In addition to chairing the MNPS Transition Team, he devoted much time helping to raise funds and elevate the profile of what a great public education provides to a city – and, more importantly, to students. He was chairman of the Nashville Public Education Foundation and the United Way of Middle Tennessee, both key MNPS partners in providing services and supports to students and families. David was a huge proponent of equity and excellence in public schools – and was a noted researcher and activist on social justice issues. He also focused on empowering teachers, engaging students, and broadening an understanding of law and civics in K-12 education through his work on the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Education.
David was a mentor and a friend who I will miss tremendously. When the going got tough – and it often still does – he was among the many compassionate and sincere Nashvillians who never hesitated to call with an encouraging word and to remind me to stay focused on what drives me daily – ensuring every single student in every corner of this county receive a great public education, every day.
I extend condolences to his wife, Gail, his children, and the entire family. Nashville has lost a true champion of public education – but thanks to his enormous leadership – we have not lost sight of his vision for it. Thank you, David for caring and demonstrating your commitment not just with words, but action. Rest well, my friend. Your legacy lives on.