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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Williford honored for contributions to the lives of women at Carolina

williford_lynn_400If you want to understand more about life at Carolina, odds are that Lynn Williford has the relevant data at her fingertips.

And if it happens to be an area she hasn’t already examined, Williford and her staff in the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment can devise the best way to gather that information.

People count on Williford, assistant provost for institutional research and assessment, to get the numbers right, of course, but her acumen goes much deeper than that. Part of what makes her so successful is the way she discerns and asks the questions that get at the heart of the matter.

In recognition of her longtime dedication to examining gender equity in faculty salaries, campus diversity and faculty retention, Williford is the recipient of the 2014 Mary Turner Lane Award, to be presented April 30 at the Association for Women Faculty and Professionals’ annual meeting and spring luncheon.

Established in 1986, the award recognizes people who make outstanding contributions to the lives of women students, faculty, staff and administrators at Carolina. It is named after the late Mary Turner Lane, founding director of the Curriculum in Women’s Studies and the first recipient of the award.

“Williford’s tireless combing, analysis and explanation of University records, both paper and electronic, have provided the foundation for studies of the curriculum, student success, faculty diversity, academic planning and many other important policy issues,” the award citation said.

Forever true blue

Her entire life, Williford has been a diehard Carolina fan. From an early age, she knew this was the only place she wanted to attend college, and after she arrived, she knew she didn’t want to leave. Years later, Williford even got married in a ceremony at the Old Well, with everyone – including the bride – wearing Carolina Blue.

Following her 1978 graduation, armed with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, Williford remained on campus to work as a receptionist in the School of Education – mainly because that air-conditioned office offered a welcomed alternative to the hot, back-breaking work of her father’s tobacco fields in Person County, where she had spent summer after summer.

While typing an exam for a statistics professor, she had a question about something on the test. In response to her question, he suggested that she take the statistics course herself. And that set her future career path.

For the next 10 years, she continued to work at Carolina as an academic adviser while taking a statistics course at night until she finished her master’ degree and then her doctorate. She taught and held various educational outreach positions in the School of Education and in 1994 joined what was then called the Office of Institutional Research as a senior research associate. She was named director six years later.

For the past 20 years, Williford has led the University’s key quantitative and qualitative studies of campus life. She has gauged, among other topics, why faculty members choose to stay or leave, why some students graduate and others do not, what the current working climate towards women is, and what leads to employees’ satisfaction with their jobs.

A workaholic nature

A consummate professional, Williford has been described as the person every committee, task force and administrative office turns to with confidence to provide the institutional data that underpins their studies.

Her patient, calm demeanor belies a relentless work ethic – no doubt the product of childhood summers spent toiling in the tobacco fields. And that workaholic nature benefits the University in countless ways.

“In her work, Lynn has surveyed practically every permutation of our 3,000 faculty members,” said Abigail Panter, professor of psychology. As one example, she cited Williford’s recent work with a task force that examined faculty salaries across units in Academic Affairs and Health Affairs.

“Lynn has gone far beyond the call of duty to ensure that these data are perfectly clean, that she understands the nuances of every case and condition, and that the data are presented in a way that will be understood by all,” Panter said. “She is driven to get every bit right, and nothing can stop her from tracking down a missing data point, wherever it may be hiding!”

That study called for acquiring and assimilating data from a variety of sources across campus, as well as Williford’s analytical expertise and her vast institutional knowledge.

“When we started this work, I naively assumed that UNC held all personnel-related data in a single, well-organized database,” said Amy Herring, professor and associate chair of the biostatistics department in the Gillings School of Global Public Health. “Working with Lynn, I learned that indeed this is true, but the single, well-organized version of the database is not digital, existing rather in Lynn’s exceedingly sharp mind!”

The Mary Turner Lane Award recognizes Williford for her longtime dedication to faculty salary issues, particularly the ongoing Gender Equity in Faculty Salaries project that she initiated and secured external funding for in 1997. And her recent work leading studies that focus on campus diversity and faculty retention has helped shed light on issues that directly affect the lives of women faculty and professionals at Carolina.