In memoriam: Dr. Jerome D. Williams, a giant in the fight against systemic racism

There are many different ways that people fight systemic racism. Over the past four years, I had the privilege to work closely with Dr. Jerome D. Williams, the former Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost of Rutgers-Newark. He passed away suddenly on January 29, 2021, leaving behind a tremendous legacy. Dr. Williams was not just a leader in the academic marketing field, but a giant. For the past 30 years, he spent his career working to change the system. He was a prolific author who mentored many people, including me. 

NCRC worked closely with Dr. Williams starting in 2017 to study the small business lending marketplace and better understand the barriers that entrepreneurs of color face when accessing credit. Earlier this year, the American Marketing Association (AMA) announced that they planned to honor Dr. Williams by inducting him as a 2021 AMA Fellow. I was touched when I read in the memorial below that Dr. Williams viewed the work we did together as his most impactful. I am so glad that I picked up the phone on a Friday in February 2017 and called him out of the blue to discuss a project that would have us working together from that day forward. Together we were able to study the small business marketplace in the middle of the pandemic and found that male testers received information about a potential lifeline for small businesses, the Paycheck Protection Program, at a statistically significant higher rate than female testers.  

— Anneliese Lederer, NCRC Director of Fair Lending

With permission, here is a tribute to Dr. Williams originally published by Rutgers University

Remembering Jerome Williams, a scholar and a champion for inclusion

Dr. Jerome D. Williams, a distinguished marketing professor who held the Prudential Chair in Business and formerly served as provost of Rutgers University-Newark, passed away Friday afternoon [Jan. 29, 2021] unexpectedly.

Williams, a scholar, mentor and sage, was remembered by colleagues for his combination of intelligence, leadership and kindness. He was both respected and beloved across Rutgers-Newark. Faculty, staff, students and alumni may post condolences here.

In addition to teaching and research, Williams served in many leadership positions at the American Marketing Association. He was serving as an associate editor of the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing at the time of his death. Williams earned his Ph.D. from the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 1986, and was dedicated to supporting Black professionals and Black students who had ambitions of entering academia. He was instrumental in the success of the Ph.D. Project, which he helped to start in 1993. In 2014, he was named to the Ph.D. Hall of Fame. Growing up in a segregated Pennsylvania community inspired a career in which he championed equity and inclusion.

The impact of his research on multicultural marketing and marketplace discrimination as well as his years of service led to his recent selection as an AMA fellow. He was to be inducted formally during the AMA Winter Academic Conference on Feb. 19.  

Four days before his death on Jan. 29, Professor Williams, 74, spoke with Susan Todd from the Rutgers Business School communications team about what the selection meant to him. During the conversation, he reflected on what led him into the field of marketing, the impact of his research on discriminatory banking and his work with the Ph.D. Project, which transcended the field marketing, influencing the diversity of business school faculty across the country. (See Bringing Professors of Color into the Classroom.) 

You’ve received many other honors. Why is this one significant to you?

“This is particularly significant to me because the AMA is the premier organization of marketing. I think of two areas where I’ve made a contribution which I think distinguishes me. I’ve played a major role in legitimizing the role of race in marketing research and in opening up the path for others.

What work makes you most proud?

The work I’ve done with the Ph.D. Project and seeing the field (of marketing) transform in terms of the number of faculty of color from underrepresented minority groups. I got my Ph.D. in 1986, and I was the only African American in the whole country who got a Ph.D. that year in marketing. When we started the Ph.D. Project in 1993, it became something near and dear to my heart. The first AMA Conference I attended was in 1980. I walked into a room of 1,200 people and I didn’t see anyone else who looked like me. To walk into an AMA conference now and see the room with so many people of color, it’s just really gratifying to feel like I’ve had a role in making that happen. I’m proud of my mentoring too. Not only do I think I’ve had an impact on the field in terms of my own work, but I think of all the people I’ve mentored over the years. I would like to think it’s had a significant impact. The people I’ve mentored and co-authored with are now scholars in their own right who have contributed to the field and helped to make it more accessible to folks of color. So, it’s not only my individual contribution but it’s the trickle-down effect of others who I’ve mentored including those here at Rutgers.”

Why did you choose the field of marketing?

“When I began studying marketing on the academic level, I started reading the literature and two things struck me. I could find very few papers on marketing as it affected people of color and the few that I did find I felt were not representative of what I felt could capture the potential of marketing on people of color. What I thought I could bring to the table was my lived experience growing up in a segregated community and achieving a level of scholarship that could help to explain not only the plight of many African Americans with a sensitivity that non-minority researchers might not have, but certainly with some Insight and understanding that would broaden the field, that would make it more appealing to other African Americans to study and make non-African Americans have a greater respect for the community and what the community represents.”

What research was the most impactful?

“I think our research on banking. It wasn’t one paper. It was a series of papers. One of the papers was in the Rutgers Business Review. That article (See “Profiting from Protecting Small Business Borrowers: Take that to the Bank”) talks about a stream of research on discrimination in banking, which I’ve become quite recognized for. It continues even to this day, with the pandemic where minority- owned small businesses are not getting their share of loans. (See the New York Times article, “Black businessowners Had a Harder Time Getting Federal Aid”) Our research was able to shine a light on that. I’ve been able to go to Washington and meet with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Our work has been cited in testimony before Congress. And it’s rigorous research too. It meets the standards of the most difficult journals to get into our field including the Journal of Consumer Research.”

Williams, who was on sabbatical this semester, wasn’t done with his work. He had plans to do a podcast on how to raise non-racist children. He expressed a hope that his career had helped change perceptions of race in the business world. “Not only through my research,” he said, “but hopefully, through being a professor of distinction and being in an administrative role like provost, not only in terms of the visibility but in being able to implement policy and change that was positive at the university in terms of diversity.”

Photo by Susan Todd at the Rutgers Business School.

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