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NSF Education Chief Quietly Steps Down

10 August 1999 7:00 pm

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Luther Williams, head of the education and human resources directorate at the National Science Foundation (NSF), is stepping down after 9 years on the job. But the circumstances surrounding his departure are as murky as the results of his ambitious efforts to reform the way that U.S. children are taught math and science.

Yesterday NSF announced that veteran administrator Judith Sunley has been named interim head of the $689 million directorate, the keystone of the government's effort to improve U.S. rankings on international measures of student achievement in science and math. The two-paragraph "personnel announcement" said that Sunley, trained as a mathematician, would take over in 6 days. It made no mention of Williams, prompting widespread puzzlement over his status and future plans.

NSF director Rita Colwell told ScienceNOW that Williams, a former biology professor, is taking a position with a 1-year-old program at Tulane University called the Payson Center for International Development and Technology Transfer. The center is beginning an effort to train university teachers in French-speaking Africa and is heavily involved in using information technology to improve education in the developing world. Williams has instituted several programs at NSF aimed at using technology to broaden education opportunities for underserved populations.

Williams spearheaded NSF's campaign for "systemic reform" of the nation's elementary and secondary school science and math, a high-profile effort whose impact on student achievement has been hard to measure (Science, 4 December 1998, p. 1800).

Asked about the impact of his departure, Colwell replied, "He can leave with a sense of accomplishment. But it seemed like a good time for him to go," Colwell said. "I think that 5-6 years is a good length of time in that job, and he's been doing it for 9. Even the director serves a fixed term of 6 years." Williams, whose secretary said he was traveling, was not available for comment.

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