An Interesting Career in Psychology: The Wise Counsel of Serendipity!

E. Belvin Williams
Executive Director, Turrell Fund

The bottom line is that I have been an administrator all of my professional life. This is a startling realization for someone who imagined his career to be classroom teaching. My early interest in psychology had a somewhat traditional determinant. Namely, my mother who was pursuing a graduate degree in psychology at UCLA at the time of her death. My early memories include family conversations of my mother expounding (somewhat inaccurately, I was later to learn) on the leverage that psychology gave one in understanding other people. I anchor my early feelings for and curiosity in psychology in those conversations.

I was taken at the age of two to Roswell, New Mexico. My neighborhood environment was a small mosaic of demographic diversity comprised of African-Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, Spaniards and Anglo-Americans. For various family reasons, education being one of them, I attended grades seven through twelve in Denver, which was integrated years before the 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka. I was fortunate in having a high school counselor who argued with me about the career options of psychology and the law. Psychology won out and I decided while I was in high school that I should pursue a PhD in psychology.

My college experience opened up new vistas and both psychology and philosophy seemed equally attractive. I intended to major in psychology and philosophy and then enter a seminary to teach philosophy, but a three-months stay in Europe pushed the pendulum back to psychology.

Graduating from Denver University, and changing graduate direction from seminary in Evanston, Ill. to the doctoral program in clinical psychology at Teachers College of Columbia University, I thought my path was set. Undergraduate college teaching was still a viable goal even though the content had shifted. Psychology offered the promise that matters pertaining to intra- and inter-group conflict would be investigated with a focus on amelioration.

But the quiet cerebral life on a Mid-western campus was not to be. New York City is a beguiling metropolis where opportunities and challenges abound, and argument is spirited. Becoming a research associate prior to the official award of the doctorate was the beginning of being side tracked. My interpersonal skills were reasonably well honed. And the invitation to become the first director of the computer center at Teachers College arrived. The faculty job description was clearly labeled that the director needed to have a background in statistics, computers and an ability to relate to graduate students, professors and administrative officials. My mentor, a statistician (Professor Rosedith Sitgreaves) felt that I had the requisite qualifications.

The teaching faculty and graduate students rapidly became aware of the computer’s advantages. In the meantime, my contentious discussions with the controller impressed upon me the importance of a business administration background, whereupon I enrolled the master’s degree program at Columbia Business School for formal exposure. Upon completion, I was invited to become associate dean for administration.

After two years as associate dean, I was invited to consider the position of vice president for operations at Educational Testing Service. Internal movement from operations to vice president of the College Board Testing Program resulted in my final position of senior vice president for all testing programs at ETS. With a change of the presidency at ETS, my decision was to seek a change of venue. While being senior vice president, I had joined the Board of Trustees of the Turrell Fund, an independent philanthropic foundation in New Jersey. Philanthropy was, indeed, a new area and marked a new professional path, giving and problem solving in the real world. Although my first exposure to philanthropy on the decision making side was through the Turrell Fund, my first employment was with the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation in the area of increasing minority representation in the health sciences.

Philanthropy is a different world from that of academe, business or public service. It is one that is seldom mentioned in either undergraduate or graduate studies, unless there is a grant request to fund demonstration or research projects. It is an undertaking more visible in the United States than in most other countries, but one of considerable importance to which psychologists can and should aspire to make a contribution. Only John Gardner (psychologist), Bill Bevan (psychologist) and Paul Ylvisaker (educator) come to mind as being major contributors to the field of philanthropy.

The monotonically increasing growth of the number of foundations (currently estimated to be 65,000), their asset base (1999 estimate was $449 billion) and their total giving (1999 estimate was $23 billion) are not to be ignored. It is one of the few human endeavors for good where the power of money, thought and action can serve to mitigate and alleviate human suffering and conflict. It is one where it can be seen that a little money can make a large difference. It is one where the need for psychological input can make a measurable difference. The opportunity to affect lives of children in positive ways is rewarding. The need for the combination of benevolent concern and charitable giving grows exponentially.

(Originally published in the Summer 2002 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)