Skip to main content

By the numbers: Williford excels in mining data for meaning

Lynn Williford received her Massey Award  for crunching numbers that help make key decisions.
Lynn Williford received her Massey Award for crunching numbers that help make key decisions.

Sometimes, the numbers confirm widely held opinions. Other times, the numbers may reveal hidden, even uncomfortable truths. But in all cases, University policymakers know they can count on the numbers being right — and seeing them clearly expressed in eloquent charts, graphs and tables.

A big reason why is Lynn Williford, the master storyteller of those numbers, whose valued skills earned her a 2006 C. Knox Massey Award.

As assistant provost and director of Institutional Research and Assessment, Williford and her staff are called upon again and again to supply and interpret data for University decision-makers. The many people who have come to rely on her describe her as unselfish, generous with her time and talent, and extremely good at what she does.

A statistician’s story of dumb luck

The worst thing anybody can say about Williford is that she is a workaholic.

It is a charge Williford has heard enough over the years to plead guilty to without much complaint. But there are mitigating circumstances that should be considered before anyone renders too harsh a judgment against her.

The first circumstance is the way she was raised back on her father’s tobacco farm in Person County.

“Some people I know at the University came from tobacco farming families and we all say the same thing — it was highly motivational because you wanted to do anything other than that. It fuels all kinds of ambitions to go to college.”

And even to stay.

After graduating from Carolina with a journalism degree in spring of 1978, she took a job as a receptionist for the dean of the School of Education for no better reason than to keep from going home to work in her daddy’s tobacco field that summer. “That is the honest truth,” Williford said. “I wanted to work in air conditioning.”

While doing this job, she happened to be typing an exam paper for a statistics professor when the professor happened by. When she asked him a question about what she was typing, he responding by suggesting she take the course herself.

“That course changed everything for me,” Williford said. “I marvel at the irony of this because the foundation of statistics is probability — the laws of chance. It would have never occurred to me to take a graduate course, much less one in statistics, had I not had that chance conversation with that professor.”

She kept working at the University, serving for nearly 10 years as an academic adviser, while taking a statistics course at night until she finished her master’ degree and then her doctorate.

She joined the Office of Institutional Research in 1994 as a senior research associate and was named director in 2000. And for a final twist of irony, the School of Education gave her an adjunct faculty appointment — a position that enables her to teach the same graduate course in statistics for which she typed the exams so many years ago.

An indispensable, inexhaustible resource

The second circumstance driving Williford’s relentless work ethic is the unending demands of the job itself. If she didn’t work hard, the work would bury her. As she put it, “Some of my motivation is from fear.”

The fear, she will tell you, is about letting people down who are doing all they can to make this University a better place for professors to teach, for students to study, for employees to work. It’s the kind of pressure she relishes, a pressure that she feels deep down as a privilege.

People count on her to get the numbers right, and then to assemble those numbers in a way that can sometimes tell a story better than words.

Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Bernadette Gray-Little said there are few major University projects that do not bear Williford’s imprint.

“Lynn does not push herself forward, but her work is the platform on which many of us stand,” Gray-Little said.

When the Chancellor’s Task Force for a Better Workplace and the Faculty Retention Study were pressing campus issues, she was called upon in both instances to work with individuals from across campus with diverse backgrounds and interests to help craft appropriate survey instruments.

“Her skill in helping people discern the important questions, and how to ask them, is remarkable,” said Steve Allred, associate provost for academic initiatives, who worked with Williford on both projects.

When the University needed a carefully constructed analysis to assess and address difficult gender equity issues, it turned again to Williford. “She handled the analytical and the public relations aspects of this with competence, grace and a great deal of hard work,” Gray-Little said.

When the idea emerged to create a grant program, now known as the Carolina Covenant, that would allow the neediest students to pursue their degrees without incurring debt, Williford provided the critical research.

When the Enrollment Policy Advisory Committee sought to understand the gaps in retention and graduate rates among different student populations, it was Williford who was called to lead the team investigating the complex issue.

When the University underwent re-accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Williford was the driving force behind almost everything done in preparation, said Bobbi Owen, the senior associate dean for undergraduate education who led the campus-wide effort with Williford.

Williford was responsible for compliance and led the preparation of more than 80 reports ranging from finance to student affairs to the evaluation of 4,000 instructors teaching nearly 7,500 course sections. This kind of reporting is bureaucratic, Owen said, but Williford is a master at making what seems dry to most people both accessible and understandable.

“She is not only dedicated to the University and the minutiae of institutional research, she is a workaholic and inspires those around her to work equally hard and be equally committed,” Owen said.

A marriage made in heaven

When Williford talked to her husband about the interview she did for this story, she wondered and worried aloud how unimaginative her life might sound.

“I live near campus because I don’t like to drive on highways, having grown up on a dirt road,” Williford wrote in a later e-mail recounting that talk.

“I moved every bit of 60 miles from home to go to college and then never left. I had offers to take jobs in faraway places such as Raleigh and turned them down because I didn’t want to give up my basketball tickets.”

Her connection to Carolina basketball started as a baby. She was 9 months old in 1957 when Carolina won the national championship. Ever since, she takes it very personally when they lose and readily admits that her entire social life consists of attending Carolina sporting events. She drives a 14-year-old car because it is Carolina blue and nobody makes a car in that color anymore.

An unimaginative life? Perhaps, her husband told her, but at least it has been consistent as far as her love for Carolina goes. Maybe that is why he went along eight years ago when she insisted that their wedding be held at the Old Well, with the associate provost she worked for at the time presiding.

It was her first marriage so, of course, she wanted a formal ceremony, but with the entire wedding party decked out not in white but light blue.

“I put on my wedding gown up in my own office and just walked across the street and got married,” Williford said. “After we were declared husband and wife, a group of students from the Carolina Pep Band played ‘Hark the Sound’ and the Carolina fight song while the guests clapped.”

It all seemed natural to her, me, although some guests found it a little odd. Closet Duke fans, no doubt.

Amazed by her good fortune

The University is a big, complex place, too big for any one person to see it whole, and from points of view outside of their own narrow experience.

Williford, though, may be the exception.

Her work, she believes, allows her to better understand the experience of others, allows her to gauge why faculty members choose to stay or leave, or why some students graduate and others don’t, or why some employees are satisfied with their jobs and others are not.

If she need be reminded why she stays at her job, Williford turns to the poster she keeps in her office. “The poster is of a tobacco field, looking down the rows in a way that make them seem to go on forever,” Williford said.

The poster reminds her of her dad, who worked two or three jobs to support his wife, his two daughters and son. They all worked the tobacco fields together, then in the curing barn where the leaves were tied on sticks to cure.

“Sometimes, I ask myself, ‘Which is better?’ This job may be a little cleaner, but it is all hard work.”

At the end of the e-mail, she came up with a more circumspect answer to that same question.

“The more I think about it, the more I am just so amazed at my good fortune,” Williford said. “I have had the opportunity to be a student, a staff member and a faculty member (sort of) here. I get to observe some of the greatest minds at work as well as some of the most dedicated people who work so hard to make this place what it is.

“I get to hear the fears and concerns of the Carolina students and to celebrate their achievements.

“I’ve gotten to be a tiny part of so many projects that are really making a difference. It is so easy to get caught up in this work and forget to go home, which I realize I’ve done once again, looking at the clock.”

Originally published by University Gazette: Dec. 13, 2006

Comments are closed.