On Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022, President Michael Roth ’78 announced the departure of former Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Alison Williams ’81 from the University in an all-campus email titled “Campus Update.”
“Dear friends,” Roth wrote. “It is with mixed emotions that I write to inform you that Alison Williams will no longer be serving as Vice President for Equity and Inclusion.”
In his email, Roth mentioned some of the accomplishments achieved by the Office of Equity and Inclusion (OEI) under Williams’ leadership.
“I am grateful for the contributions Alison has made during her tenure at Wesleyan, particularly her efforts at ensuring that our working and learning environments are as equitable and inclusive as possible,” Roth wrote. “Under Alison’s leadership, we launched the Diversity Summit, the Process Advocate program, and expanded First Things First which assists our first generation, low-income students in adapting to Wesleyan.”
The email also indicated that the OEI will be co-led by Assistant Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Deborah Colucci and Dean for Academic Equity, Inclusion, and Success April Ruiz until a new Vice President is chosen. The search for someone to fill the role will begin in early 2023.
Roth’s email was met with confusion and concern from students, faculty and staff, given the suddenness of the departure and lack of explanation.
In an interview with The Argus later that week, Roth declined to comment on the reason for Williams’ departure, citing the University’s policy not to share information about personnel matters. He also declined to elaborate on the “mixed emotions” mentioned in his email.
“I can’t because then I would be speaking about a personnel decision,” Roth said.
Roth outlined his intention to ensure that the OEI remains well-supported through this time of transition.
“We’ve been in conversation with April [Ruiz] and Debbie [Colucci] and with other members of the team to see how we can be helpful,” Roth said. “We are conscious of the fact that this is a really important sector of the University’s work and we want to provide all the necessary support. My office would be involved in making sure they have the personnel power they need as well as any financial resources.”
Williams, who sat down with The Argus for an interview last week, also declined to comment on the reasons for her departure from the University. However, she spoke fondly of her time at the University in various roles.
“I’ve seen Wesleyan from all different angles,” Williams said. “Each time I’ve done something different, I’ve just learned a tremendous amount about the institution.”
After teaching chemistry at Wesleyan and then working in administrative roles at other institutions, Williams returned to Wesleyan as Vice President for Equity and Inclusion in 2019. She said that when she began working in administration, she hoped to make institutional changes based on observations from her teaching experience.
“When I left the teaching realm, I really wanted to make changes at an institution that were more long-lasting,” Williams said. “I was seeing patterns repeated over and over [in the way faculty interact] with students that made it hard for students to succeed, and I wanted to try to do something about that.”
Williams is particularly proud of her work initiating the Process Advocate program, in which staff members are trained to identify and eliminate implicit bias on hiring committees, at the University and strengthening connections between the University and the wider Middletown community. She worked with the group of organizers who held Middletown’s first Juneteenth celebration, supported Middletown Pride activism, and worked with STEAM Train, an organization that provides IT training for low-income residents, especially people of color, and connects them with the Information Technology Services Department at the University.
“[Working at Wesleyan] I got to meet people in the community who were doing really good work and to support them,” Williams said. “I like trying to make connections between different community groups and the campus.”
During her time in the administration, Williams was known to balance her administrative duties with taking time to connect personally with students and staff. She is still impressed by the University’s level of openness toward the student body.
“I think it’s always been the case at Wesleyan much more so than other places I’ve worked—students are just more kept in the loop, more than [at] other schools,” Williams said.
While many students and staff are concerned about the unclear circumstances surrounding Williams’ recent departure, anxieties regarding recent departures of student-supporting staff have been present for several years. In the last six months, former Catholic Chaplain William J. Wallace, former Support, Healing, Activism, and Prevention Education (SHAPE) Director Johanna Debari, and former CAPS psychotherapist Alison Burge—three members of staff who were central in student support—have vacated their positions. The effects of their departures continue to ripple across the campus.
Roth acknowledged student confusion about these departures but said there was little cause for concern, as he and other administrators intend to fill several of these vacant roles as quickly as possible.
“It’s confusing [for students] because you can’t know all the details or the nature of these personnel decisions,” Roth said. “There are times when we get through the transition and we find that there’s renewal and re-energizing quickly. These are not going to be positions that remain vacant for long.”
Resource Center Director Demetrius Colvin explained that, for many students that he spoke with after Roth’s announcement, Williams’ departure deepened an existing sense of insecurity about the stability of important student-facing staff members’ positions at the University.
“[The announcement] created a sense of uncertainty and fear and insecurity,” Colvin said. “Why is this prominent Black woman, which we don’t have that many of at this place, gone all of a sudden?”
Colvin further explained that, even when student-supporting staff are replaced by capable and energetic individuals, high staff turnover interrupts the growth of long-term personal connections between students and staff and makes it difficult for departments to establish consistent patterns of supporting students.
“Wesleyan does well at attracting quality and diverse faculty and staff,” Colvin said. “It’s not too shocking that an adjunct that’s only here for two years can have so much impact on different students of color and marginalized folks here. But then that impact is narrowed because [a student] has to be here at the right time when these right combinations of folks are in a certain department.”
Additionally, Colvin expressed frustration at the setbacks that he and other staff members face when a staff member who was partnering with them on a project or initiative leaves.
“It’s frustrating for me because I’m trying to build stuff,” Colvin said. “So when I don’t have consistent partners in certain areas, it’s like, ‘We were able to do this last year, but we can’t do it because we ain’t got that partner no more.’”
The departure of various staff members has affected some students on an incredibly personal level. In a message to The Argus, Kay Dominguez ’25 shared her experience of learning that a key member of her support system at the University had departed and the impact of this news on her life.
Dominguez started working with Alison Burge as her therapist through CAPS in March 2022. Dominguez quickly felt a strong connection with Burge and was comfortable sharing her experiences as a Latina student at a predominantly white university.
“When I actually started going to therapy with [Burge], it was genuinely life-changing,” Dominguez explained. “Being at this school, it was hard to talk and have people understand. So it was really nice to finally feel like there was a space and a place I could go to talk through a lot of different issues. [Burge] is an amazing person. Immediately, the first time we met, it was such a safe space to be around.”
Dominguez was enthusiastic about continuing to work with Burge in her sophomore year, but, during the summer of 2022, she received an email from CAPS informing her of Burge’s departure. The email did not provide any additional resources or suggest personnel for Dominguez to reach out to for support. Dominguez was confused and disappointed.
“It just made me feel really lost and confused because one of the things that I was now looking forward to coming back to on campus was no longer there,” Dominguez wrote.
While Dominguez is confident that Burge’s move was for the best, the sudden notification affected her ability to make progress in therapy.
“Although I had been working with Alison [for a short period of time], it was some of the most [productive mental health] work I had done, so it felt like I was about to start taking a few steps back on the progress I had [made],” Dominguez said. “I know [Burge’s] decision was definitely not taken lightly and deciding to go to a different place was definitely for the best for her.”
WesWell Sexual Health Prevention interns Charissa Lee ’23 and Avanthi Chen ’25 were also recently affected by a sudden staffing change. After Johanna Debari’s departure, both interns, who worked closely with her in the SHAPE office, were given new positions in WesWell. They had to adjust to Debari’s responsibilities being split among multiple staff members. Chen explained how these changes caused some confusion within her role as a mandatory reporter of on-campus interpersonal violence.
“My concerns aren’t really about the stress on me, as an employee necessarily,” Chen explained. “It’s more about my ability to assist students looking for resources. Like any situation with turnover, it’s hard to maintain clarity when you’re directing students towards resources [and] those resources are constantly changing. I feel like getting disclosures [from students] and reporting them is…a little more complicated now because there’s different people that have taken on one person’s role.”
Lee also expressed concern about the burden that remaining staff members have had to take on as a result of abrupt departures throughout campus.
“[Sudden staff departures] put so much pressure on existing staff to fill in those gaps,” Lee said. “While a search committee is happening at the same time, [remaining staff members] are picking up the person’s jobs, and they’re also interviewing people to fill out that job. They’re not getting paid any more.”
Both interns also recognized the emotional toll of these exits.
“I find that specifically with supportive resources, like Johanna and people at CAPS, it’s a whole other set of issues because there’s so many students that had real trust and a real relationship with Johanna,” Chen said. “It’s not that they have no one after she leaves, but it’s just so disappointing. It leaves people in such a precarious, vulnerable position.”
Lee felt Debari’s departure on a personal level, citing Debari’s guidance as an influential factor in her own work at the University.
“When we lose someone, we lose a friend,” Lee said. “Johanna was my mentor, and she taught me how to set boundaries, take care of myself, and have passion to do the work that I do.”
While the aftermath of sudden staff departures can be confusing and even painful, it’s important to note that many students and staff members look forward to continued improvements in student support across all sectors of campus life. Lee and Chen are optimistic about working with WesWell’s new Associate Director for Sexual Violence Prevention Amanda Carrington, while also acknowledging the important work that Debari did while she was at the University.
“I think [an important thing is] now recognizing that we have Amanda,” Lee said. “I think she’s gonna be awesome. She’s not gonna replace Johanna, but she’s gonna occupy a new position and do very similar and important work.”
Similarly, Colvin remains optimistic about the work of the OEI in the coming transitional months.
“I will say I feel very lucky with this most recent departure that I haven’t had to fill the brunt of [the gap left by Williams’ departure], but Debbie Colucci and April Ruiz, who are the interim VPs—they are [filling the gap],” Colvin explained. “They’re givers, thinkers, and very sound people who really know the work [of the OEI] well…. The way that they’re [temporarily filling the position] with such humility and transparency, I could not have asked for a better interim situation.”
Ruiz and Colluci look forward to the OEI’s work moving forward.
“As we look ahead, we are celebrating our recent five-year grants for the Upward Bound and McNair Programs, which will take us to nearly 60 years of having federal TRIO programs at Wesleyan,” Ruiz wrote in an email to The Argus. “And we are continuing our strong partnerships with colleagues across campus and across the country as we prepare for new federal guidance around Title IX. And we also continue to grow our work with faculty and staff.”
Williams believes that the University’s greatest strength is the people who teach, learn and work here, and she wishes the best for the OEI going forward.
“One thing I would say is that I love the people at Wesleyan,” Williams said. “The people that work in OEI are just really amazing people, and they work tremendously hard and they’re very skilled, so I relied on them a lot for their knowledge and wisdom. I hope that the team stays strong, and I would love to see them expand [because] there’s so much work to be done.”
Anne Kiely contributed reporting.
Sulan Bailey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.