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Willie Maxwell Alumni Awards_Charles Willie

Maxwell Advocate Award Posthumously Honors Sociologist, Champion of Equity

March 25, 2022

The work of the late sociologist extended well beyond academia, as he applied his scholarship to issues of equity and social justice.

Over the course of 25 years, Charles V. Willie created an enduring legacy at the Maxwell School—first as a graduate student, earning a Ph.D. in sociology in 1957, and then as a faculty member, becoming Syracuse University’s first Black tenured professor and serving as chair of the Sociology Department. In 1974, he left Syracuse to join the faculty of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, where he remained until his retirement in 1999.

Willie’s work and impact extended far beyond academia, as he applied his scholarship to issues of equity and social justice. A committed activist on campus and beyond, he twice brought his college friend Martin Luther King Jr. to speak on campus in the 1960s. Among Willie’s accomplishments were successfully advocating for equal treatment of Black college football players, the ordination of women priests in the Episcopal church, and the desegregation of schools through an innovative approach he called “controlled choice.” 

“He never just looked at existing structures,” says his son James Willie. “He was always asking, ‘What do we need? What could we do better? What is the most equitable thing to do?’ And then he’d work toward that.”

Charles Willie passed away in January of this year at the age of 94. He will be honored, posthumously, with the Maxwell Advocate Award, created to recognize individuals who reflect Maxwell’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in their professional and volunteer pursuits. The award will be presented April 7 in Washington, D.C., as part of the inaugural Maxwell Awards of Excellence. 

James Willie and his wife, Susan Willie, will accept the award. They met while completing their M.P.A. degrees at Maxwell—both graduated in 1998 and have continued in public service careers in the Washington, D.C., area. James currently works in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Susan in the Congressional Budget Office. James is one of three children of Charles and Mary Sue Willie; they were married for 59 years.

In an obituary for Charles Willie in the New York Times, Clay Risen noted that Willie’s ideas were often influential in the long term. In discussing Willie’s book, “A New Look at Black Families,” published in 1976, Risen wrote, “The problems that others deemed endemic were, to Dr. Willie, the result of ongoing discrimination and social inequities—a view that, in subsequent decades, has come to be held by many sociologists and policymakers.”

Willie earned many accolades for his contributions as a scholar and activist. But his son notes that an award from the school where he began his career is particularly meaningful.

“Syracuse was definitely his home when he was getting his Ph.D. and working there, and that’s when he met my mother as well,” says James. “He received a dozen honorary degrees in his lifetime, but it’s always special when those closest to you recognize you for what you’ve achieved.”

By Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers

Communications and Media Relations Office
200 Eggers Hall