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Philly DA Seeks Penn State Board of Trustees Seat

by on March 05, 2014 1:00 PM

Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams is one of 32 candidates seeking three open seats on the Penn State Board of Trustees.

Williams, district attorney for the largest city in Pennsylvania and first black district attorney elected in Pennsylvania, is head of an office with 600 employees who prosecute 75,000 cases a year. Williams, a 1989 Penn State graduate, served as president of the Undergraduate Student Government and Black Caucus.

If elected as trustee, Williams says he wants to see the board focus on the Land Grant Act of 1862, which he says requires Penn State "to provide a quality and affordable education for the sons and daughters of the working class."

"It's not to be a boutique, specialty place, but a place where its mission is really to uplift the working class so that next generations can live the American dream," Williams says. "Who's speaking up for the little guy, for the sons and daughters of the working class? I want to make sure my daughters can go there and I can pay the tuition."

Williams says he's had interest in serving as trustee since the days he served as student body president.

"I think now the school is at a critical juncture and we need ... committed, reasonable people to be about resolving problems and helping move the school forward," he says.

After graduating from Penn State, Williams attended Georgetown University Law Center and went on to serve for 10 years as a Philadelphia assistant district attorney.

In 2005, Williams was appointed as Philadelphia inspector general. In January 2008, Williams joined Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young, LLP in its litigation practice group. In 2009, he was elected as Philadelphia's district attorney.

"There are a lot of people who want what's best but really have never accomplished anything," he says. "From being a student to being an assistant district attorney to inspector general of the city to a major in the Army to teaching to consolidating Catholic churches in the city – I have a wide range of experiences and proven accomplishments."

A Catholic man, Williams has prosecuted Catholic clergy for child abuse in Philadelphia, making him all too familiar with the type of crimes committed at Penn State by former football coach Jerry Sandusky.

He notes that such crimes are not uncommon, saying 1 of 4 women and 1 of 6 men are victims of child sexual abuse.

"It doesn't surprise me, but the numbers can be very disturbing and shocking. It's very prevalent in our society," Williams says. "Thankfully, Jerry Sandusky is behind bars where he should be, but 90 percent of the perpetrators are known to the family members, they're not some clown at the mall, they're someone in a position of authority of respect - a teacher, a member of clergy, a coach, a day care director ... so we have to really be vigilant. Ultimately, I'm hoping this can be a teachable moment."

As president of USG, Williams pushed for a transparent university budget, an elected student representative on the board of trustees, mandated women's and African American studies for all students, and an increase in the recruitment of black students, faculty, and staff.

Williams also followed in his father's footsteps by becoming a Penn State student activist. In 1987, he marched to Harrisburg to oppose apartheid and Penn State's investments in South Africa. Ultimately, Penn State did divest from South Africa. He also challenged Penn State for inappropriately disposing of low-level radioactive waste, and was twice arrested for demanding racial equality on campus.

During his terms as Black Caucus and USG president, Williams received multiple death threats.

Williams' father, Rufus Williams, earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from Penn State. During World War II, he left Penn State to serve in the U.S. Army, but later returned to complete his education. While at Penn State, he was a member of the varsity track team and NCAA national championship cross country team.

Despite serving in the Army and being a varsity athlete, Rufus Williams was forced to live off campus because he was black. Frustrated by the restrictions, Rufus Williams started an NAACP chapter and led protests to end segregation at Penn State.

"He didn't allow those things to make him bitter, he channeled that energy into solving problems," Seth Williams says. "My father would always say 'unless you're willing to be part of the solution, you forfeit your right to complain,'" Seth Williams says.

There are 32 candidates vying for three open seats on the Board of Trustees. Voting opens April 10. Winners will be announced May 9.

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Jennifer Miller is a reporter for She has worked in journalism since 2005. She's covered news at the local, state and national level with an emphasis on crime and local government.
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