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James Williams, assistant professor of retail, hospitality, and tourism management, has been chosen by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education as one of its top 15 emerging scholars for 2019.

Scholars were selected based on a number of criteria, including research, educational background, publishing and teaching record, competitiveness of field of study, and broad impact on the academy. Williams is the first UT faculty member to be honored by the magazine, which has published its list annually since 2001.

“This is both a great honor for James and for the University of Tennessee,” said Tyvi Small, interim vice chancellor for diversity and engagement.

“James is a mentor and role model to students and a champion of diversity and inclusion on our campus,” Small said. “He is a great example of how our university seeks to be an environment that is welcoming and supportive to all people.”

For Williams, the emerging scholar accolade is affirmation of a 20-year journey toward becoming an academic leader.

As a youth, he was affiliated with gangs as a means to feel valued. After dropping out during his first stint in college, Williams joined the US Air Force Academy. In 2001, he was named Airman of the Year at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, and mentors urged him to return to school.

Williams listened. He has since earned two doctorates and he began his career as a professor in 2012.

Now Williams is a prominent teacher, speaker, and author who has published two books, including the autobiographical From Thug to Scholar: An Odyssey to Unmask My True Potential, and more than a dozen research articles about leadership and mentorship in the hospitality industry.
In light of his own trajectory, Williams, who was a first-generation college student, understands that individuals on a college campus come from all different backgrounds. For him, it is not enough to prepare students for life in professional careers after college by teaching them the language of the industry.

“There are students who need to develop soft skills—such as confidence, teamwork, public speaking—that they may not have learned previously,” Williams said. “It is my job to connect these two areas, the worlds students know and don’t know, to prepare them to go out there and succeed as industry professionals and as people.”

Williams blends these two worlds in classes he teaches outside his department, such as the special topics counselor education course Entering the Real World: Making the Transition from Collegiate Athletics and the university honors course Keeping It Real: Improving Soft Skills and Moving Toward Mindfulness.

Outside of teaching, Williams is an incessant reader and writer. He is currently working on two publications, including “Finding Your Voice: An Autoethnography of My Odyssey in the Hospitality Academy,” to be published in The Journal of Negro Education. He is also heavily involved in service on campus, serving as the chair of athletics for the Faculty Senate and as vice president of the Commission for Blacks. He was named Faculty Member of the Year by UT’s NAACP chapter in 2018.

Williams said he hopes to serve as a role model for the importance of on-campus diversity, no matter how much of his time it takes.

“When you do something you love you don’t count up the hours,” he said.


 Brian Canever (865-974-0937,

Jules Morris (865-719-7072,