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Meet the Senior Tutor: Professor Toni Williams

Toni Williams

After a professional career in academia outside the collegiate universities, I am delighted that my first year as Girton College’s Senior Tutor has been so much more stimulating, entertaining and inspiring than I had ever imagined. Girton’s proud history of pioneering women’s access to higher education, its steadfast striving for inclusiveness, the seriousness of its reflexive engagement with cultural, social and economic legacies of its past and the beauty of its buildings and grounds were among the factors that drew me to the College. This year I have learned about aspects of the College that are every bit as important but are known only through experience: the caring professionalism of the College’s staff teams, the enthusiastic creativity of Girton students and alumni, and the warm affability of the Fellowship. 

Cambridge is a long way from the place of my birth – Port Maria, Jamaica, a small town that was a key site of Tacky’s Revolt, one of the most significant conflicts in the long fight for freedom by enslaved people on Caribbean islands. By the time I was born, some 200 years after that rebellion, Port Maria was better known for its location between Goldeneye and Firefly Hill, the homes respectively of Ian Fleming and Noel Coward. Seeking education and opportunity that were not available in the British West Indies, my parents, Lascelles and Claudette Williams, moved to London shortly before Jamaican independence in 1962. 

Cabarita Island from Toni's grandmother's house in Port Maria, Jamaica

Cabarita Island from Toni's grandmother's house in Port Maria, Jamaica (Credit: Scott Family)

Life during the 1960s (and 70s, 80s and 90s!) was as challenging, and at times frustrating, for them, as it was for so many ambitious British citizens of West Indian islands who left behind the people and places that they loved to make their homes in the UK. Driven by aspirations of social mobility, particularly for their four children, my parents tested out different English cities before settling in Manchester in the mid-1970s, where I completed O-levels, the University of Oxford entrance examination, and A-levels, and where members of my family continue to live. 

The Oxford jurisprudence degree was interesting even as the experience affirmed to my 21-year old self that the practice of law was probably not for me! Instead, I embarked on PhD studies in Law and Economics at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. In 1984, I was fortunate to be appointed to a lectureship at the Faculty of Laws at University College London and then, with my partner Professor Iain Ramsay, moved to another great faculty for academic law at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, Canada. In 2007, Iain and I returned to the UK to take up Chairs in Law at the University of Kent where I continued to teach, supervise postgraduate students and engage with a variety of research projects.

Toni and her partner Iain Ramsay at the Fellows' Christmas Party in 2022

Toni and her partner Iain Ramsay at the Fellows' Christmas Party in 2022

My research draws on diverse analytical frameworks, including critical and institutional economic analyses of law, socio-legal theory, feminist theory and critical race theory, and over a long career I have published in the fields of consumer finance regulation, social and financial inclusion, economic development and gambling regulation, contract law, criminal justice and sentencing law. The practice of academic research endures as a passion; I love working on my own projects, and these days probably am even more enthusiastic about taking opportunities to engage with, and support, other researchers – from undergraduate dissertation students through to emeritus scholars. 

Academic life has been exciting and stimulating in so many ways. I have had the privilege of teaching thousands of students, mostly law, and usually in English-speaking law schools, but I have also given classes to planners, sociologists, historians, criminologists, bankers, high school students and postal workers, and to students learning in French, Cantonese, Japanese and Portuguese. In Ontario I served on a Royal Commission charged with investigating systemic racism in criminal justice, where I led much of the Commission’s research and the writing of its reports. I have designed and delivered judicial training in Canada and academic researcher training in Hong Kong, conducted collaborative research in Brazil on themes such as social inclusion, gambling regulation, gender and the law, and consumer law and presented my work at law schools, academic conferences and industry or professional meetings in cities across Canada, Brazil and Europe, in Peru, Colombia, South Africa, Hong Kong, Ireland, the US and the UK. 

Toni speaking at the Brazilian Congress of Consumer Law in 2016

Toni speaking at the Brazilian Congress of Consumer Law in 2016

At Kent I had the opportunity to lead Kent Law School, one of the world’s pre-eminent law schools for critical socio-legal research, for five amazing years, during which (with the assistance of Lady Hale) we opened new premises for the School’s renowned Kent Law Clinic, a major provider of free legal services and clinical legal education in East Kent; expanded and strengthened our international partnerships; and in 2019 celebrated the School’s 50th birthday. Towards the end of my term as Head of Kent Law School I was honoured to be recognised as one of just 35 Black female professors in the UK (out of 23,000 professors) through the Phenomenal Women exhibition curated by Professor Rollock after her empirical study into the career experiences of Black female professors in the UK. Professor Rollock commissioned Bill Knight to take the photographs for the exhibition that opened in London on the eve of the Covid lockdown, the portraits were exhibited in Cambridge at the end of 2021.

My final two years at Kent were spent as Director of the Division for the Study of Law, Society and Social Justice, one of the University’s six main academic divisions, working with students, educators, researchers and practitioners in journalism, law, sociology, social work, social policy, criminology, and health and social care research. Most of that period was consumed by the exigencies of keeping everyone safe and sustaining as much of our working and learning lives as possible during a global pandemic, but the experience of working under difficult conditions with such an engaged and dedicated group of interdisciplinary scholars and students was inspirational and a great transition to the multidisciplinary community of Girton College. 

Beyond work, I enjoy great food (preferably vegan), good wine, the company of dogs, the craft of crochet, the writing of Toni Morrison, the art of Jacob Lawrence and Paula Rego, the sport of tennis and the city of Porto.

This article was originally published in The Year 2022-23.