The Williams Effect

Tom and Carol Williams gave a modest donation during the 1980s that was meant to cover small but urgent needs—such as a sewing machine for award-winning costume designer Alexandra Bonds.

Gratified by the difference their first gift was making, the Williams gave again in 1995—$1 million that qualified for state matching funds—for grants allowing faculty members to test innovative course ideas. “We believe it’s vital to engage undergraduate students,” says Tom, who developed a theory that private funding can quickly leverage good ideas during his year as a White House Fellow under President Lyndon Johnson.

Twenty years later, the Tom and Carol Williams Fund for Undergraduate Education has incubated 88 projects and awarded 30 Williams Fellowships to the university’s most exceptional teachers. Many projects have become regular course offerings, and some have evolved into certificate programs. Without the Williams’ gift, most would have died in the daydream stage.

Proposals are reviewed by the Williams Council, originally established by Dave Frohnmayer. “The voting members are all award-winning teachers, so they are by definition committed to good teaching, and they’re actively teaching while on the council,” Carol says. “They are a fabulous group.”

The feeling is mutual.

“The Williamses inspire the council about great teaching,” says Karen Ford, an English professor and senior associate dean for the humanities.

In 1999, at Ford’s suggestion, the council began awarding what she calls “lightning bolts of appreciation”: $10,000 Williams Fellowships. “The calls for proposals tended to focus on innovation when we started out,” she explains, “and I was a little grumpy about this requirement because there are so many fabulous teachers who operate in more traditional ways.”

Williams Fellows are nominated by peers, in keeping with the UO’s tradition of bestowing awards for teaching excellence out of the blue. “I can’t tell you how special and unusual that is,” Ford says. “It’s such a buoying feeling to find out that someone noticed that you’re working hard and being a good mentor to your students.” 

As former UO Foundation trustees, Tom and Carol are aware that the reward system in academia is geared to research. “That’s important,” Tom says, “but we felt that honoring good teaching deserves more emphasis. We wanted to tip the scales a bit.”

Carol is still elated by the success of an early grant that totally changed how calculus is taught at the UO. “I took a year of calculus and I never understood why,” she says. “They needed software to teach it differently, so that kids could see the purpose of calculus.”

In a few cases, multi-year grants have resulted in major changes (revising the honors college’s focus from Western civilization to world history, for example). Most support topical ideas for immersing students in the life of the mind—a course about the feast in medieval history allows students to time travel through food; a class introducing mediation from a legal perspective; or varied creative approaches aimed at getting students to go beyond facts by revealing how scholars discover and examine them.

David Frank, PhD ’83, an honors college professor who served as dean from 2008 to 2013, says the Williams gift has led to “truly creative breakthroughs” including restoration of the rhetoric program lost during a period of extreme budget cutbacks. “We were able to put together a coalition of faculty members to think through a set of courses in public speaking and critical reasoning,” he says. “Normally, we don’t really have enough time to talk seriously and thoroughly about how we might create new and exciting courses and programs.” 

Political scientist Dan Tichenor, a Philip H. Knight Professor, used his Williams grant to launch the Wayne Morse Scholars program for academically gifted undergraduates who are passionate about public affairs. It gives sophomores and juniors a deep-dive opportunity of the sort usually reserved for graduate students. “We’ve created a comfortable space for people with a variety of political perspectives,” he says. “Students develop really strong friendships across ideological divides, which is great to watch.”

Now in its fourth year, the program selects 25-30 Morse Scholars each fall and provides special courses and opportunities ranging from working with the homeless locally to interning with a US Supreme Court justice. “They’re also winning major national scholarships,” Tichenor says. “The UO’s first Truman Scholar in decades came straight from our program.”

Tom says the ongoing peer-tutoring program in chemistry shows how supporting a good idea can have far-reaching impact. “The funds that we provided paid for a grad student to supervise undergraduate peer tutors, and the experience led some to decide they wanted to be chemistry teachers,” he says. “Chemistry is a gateway course for so many students. It’s rewarding to think about how many undergrads benefit from this program.”

He and Carol share great satisfaction in seeing people try things that “aren’t frozen in the past.” Three outstanding examples include the Inside Out Program, where honors college students go behind prison walls to study with incarcerated men and women; the journalism school’s “Science and Memory” reporting initiative on climate change; and DesignBILD, in which architecture students find clients, design projects, get permits, and build them.

“We want to institutionalize the council so that award recipients will continue to be chosen by a group of outstanding faculty members who are recognized for excellence as teachers,” Tom says.

He met Carol Belknap (as in the hot springs east of Springfield) at their alma mater, Stanford University. They settled in Eugene, where Tom was president and chief executive officer of the Eugene bakery founded by his grandfather in 1902. “He moved it to the 13th Avenue site in 1908, specifically so that Tom’s dad, aunt, and uncle could get a good education,” Carol notes.

Carol was a cofounder of Eugene’s NBC affiliate, KMTR-TV, and a mainstay of many civic groups. Tom served on the airport commission, the YMCA board, and the Eugene City Council.

In 1991, they sold Williams’ Bakery to Portland-based Franz Family Bakeries and retired. The aroma of fresh bread, savored by generations of UO students, continued to waft across campus until 2006, when the university purchased the factory site to make way for Matthew Knight Arena.

“The family has longstanding ties with the University of Oregon even though we didn’t go there,” Carol says. “I think you begin to bleed green and yellow no matter where you’re from. We feel very fortunate that we’re able to help create a culture of great teaching at the university.”

—By Melody Ward Leslie, University Communications 

See a list of proposals made possible by the Williams Fund at: