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Before Passing The Baton, Spelman President Reflects On Tough Choices


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. As the show approaches its final broadcast on August 1, we've been checking in with some of the many fascinating guests we've had on the program over the last seven years, especially people who are making transitions of their own. One of them is Beverly Daniel Tatum, the president of Spelman College - the oldest historically black college for women in the country. President Tatum announced earlier this month that she will retire from the post she's held for the past 12 years. During her time there she has broken new ground and not just for a historically black college. She's raised more than $157 million in a decade-long fundraising campaign, started a groundbreaking fitness initiative and Spelman's graduation rate has risen to 79 percent - the highest among HBCUs. The school was also named one of the 100 best liberal arts colleges by U.S. News and World Report during her tenure. And Beverly Daniel Tatum joins us now to talk more about her career, as well as what lies ahead. Welcome back to the program. Congratulations, I guess, is in order.

BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: Thanks so much, Michel. So glad to be with you today.

MARTIN: Now you noted in one interview that 12 years is a long time to be a college president these days. Why is that?

TATUM: Well, you know, it's a very demanding job. It really is 24-7, 365, everyday. And so it takes a lot of energy, and it's hard to sustain that much stamina over a long time. I think the average tenure for a private college president is about six or seven years.

MARTIN: Well, why do you think you've been able to hang in there so long?

TATUM: Regularly scheduled vacations.


MARTIN: OK, well that's good advice. You know, we've talked a number of times on this program about the difficulties faced by institutions of higher education in general, but HBCUs in particular, particularly when it comes to things like fundraising and keeping graduation rates up. And I'm wondering what is it you think about Spelman that has allowed you - well, it's been a very difficult environment for many institutions to not only survive but thrive?

TATUM: Well, it's true it's been a tough time for higher education across the board. But I do think in tough times, donors get more selective. And there have been some characteristics for Spelman that have really helped us. One of those things is that our alumni have really rallied. And so when I've been speaking to donors at foundations or private philanthropists or corporate entities, it's a wonderful pride point to be able to say that our alumni support is so strong. Over the course of this campaign, 71 percent of our graduates made a contribution. But I also think that our donors recognize that it's a really good investment when they make a donation to Spelman. They know that the students they're investing in are very likely to graduate. We have the highest graduation rate for African-American women in the nation. And we take a great deal of pride in the fact that our cost is still relatively low, but we get a very high rate of return.

MARTIN: What I think I hear you saying is that success breeds success. But what's the foundation of that success? Is it that the experience is of such value that people have such warm feelings about it that they just can't help but continue to support the institution and the donors are attracted to that? What is the foundational experience you think or foundational issue you think that has - that is kind of the basis upon which these other successes have followed?

TATUM: Well, I think you're exactly right. Success breeds success. But your question is a great one. I think we have a very powerful and compelling mission. And that goes back to 1881, you know, when the founders of the institution said we are going to create a college or an institution where we're going to educate women who will be leaders and will go back to educate their own communities. That's a very compelling mission, and there's a long track record of success.

MARTIN: I want to ask about the fitness initiative. You closed the school's intercollegiate sports programs, right?


MARTIN: ...To refocus on wellness for the entire campus, not just for students but for also faculty and staff. And I just wanted to, ask how did you come to that decision and how hard of a decision was it?

TATUM: Well, it was initially a challenging decision, but it was one of those moments when I had a stroke of insight, if I might say. We realized that we had a program that was very expensive and benefiting a very small number of students. And there was a moment when I realized that if we reinvested those dollars in a wellness program, we could improve the quality of life for all of our students, particularly when the fact is that adult women - African-American women are not likely to continue in team sports after graduation. Why continue a high school activity when we can transition them into the kinds of things that adult women do - yoga, Pilates, fitness walking, jogging. These are the kinds of things that you can do for a lifetime that will help sustain good health.

MARTIN: Was it a difficult decision? I mean, were there tears? I know that you gathered the entire kind of student athlete population together to announce it. Was it hard?

TATUM: There were, indeed, tears. And it was hard. You know, it was hard to stand in front of 80 student athletes and tell them that something that they love was going to be phased out. They were angry with me. But at the same time, I knew it was in the best interest of the institution and, ultimately, in their best interest. They didn't see it that way immediately. But I'm pleased to say that now our student athletes are still engaged in physical activity, and they are enjoying the things that we offer.

MARTIN: Did any of them transfer as a consequence of it? I mean, if they were in Division III, you have to assume that if athletics was a priority of theirs, they would've gone somewhere else, like Stanford, for example. But did anybody transfer as a result of it?

TATUM: I'm not aware of any students transferring. There were a number of students who told me that they were thinking about it. But in the end, every student who said that to me returned the following year.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Beverly Daniel Tatum. She's the president of Spelman College. It's considered one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. And she's just announced that after 12 years in that position, she's going to retire at the end of next year. You know, to that end, I just - I wanted to ask you if you think that gender plays any role in why Spelman has been able to create this very unique and special place both, you know, in higher education - kind of the higher education firmament. I mean, on all these other markers - it's graduation rate, it's loyalty, the fact that the alumni are as devoted to the institution as they are. Do you think gender has something to do with it and, if so, what?

TATUM: I do think gender plays a role, in two ways. One - the uniqueness of the institution. There are only two historically black colleges for women in the nation. And so being in that unique position - Spelman being the largest of those two, the other being Bennett College for women in North Carolina. Spelman being the largest and oldest historically black college for women gives it a special place in higher education. But in terms of the experience of the students who come, that sense of being part of a sisterhood where their race, their ethnicity, their gender is taken off the table as barriers to their accomplishment - but really a sense of connection and source of pride really is, I think, an important part of the Spelman experience.

MARTIN: Why do you think, though, that, among the other markers for Spelman, is that the institution has graduated an extraordinarily large number of the African American women in STEM fields? A large number of them...


MARTIN: ...Have spent some time at Spelman - forgive me for bragging for a moment, but, you know, in the spirit of full disclosure, my beautiful and talented step-daughter is among them. I mean, after having attended Spelman, she is now an M.D.-Ph.D. - and so why do you think that is? No thanks to me, by the way. I'm just saying. (Laughing). I cannot take credit for that skill set.

TATUM: The women who come to Spelman who want to do science are at the center of that educational experience unlike in a co-ed environment or predominantly white environment. The students who are at the front of the room, in those experiments, hands-on in the labs, are, indeed, African-American women or women of African descent. So everywhere you turn, if you're a young woman interested in STEM, you see someone who looks like you who is having success. You see faculty members who look like you. You know graduates who have gone on to graduate schools and places that you might like to attend who can reach back and say, come to this place because you can be successful here as I was. I think the power of the role models and being at the center of the educational enterprise is very empowering.

MARTIN: Are there lessons that you have learned at Spelman that might be applicable to education leaders in other environments that are not as unique?

TATUM: I think setting high expectations and holding students accountable for meeting those expectations is tremendously important. I think, unfortunately, there are lots of environments where young people of color find themselves under expected - if that's a phrase, you know, where expectations are low, where people don't really expect them to achieve at a high level. But that's not the case HBCUs, and certainly not the case at Spelman.

MARTIN: But why do you think, though, that - for example, the graduation rate at Spelman is a full 20 percentage points higher than that at what you might call a brother institution, which is Morehouse College, which is a historically black, very prestigious and highly selective institution for men, which is right across the street. I mean, any thoughts about why that is?

TATUM: Well, I think there is a gender factor there, right. We know in general that women are graduating at a higher rate across the board whether you're talking about black women or white women. Women are graduating at higher rates than men do. So there is a factor built in there. But I also think that Spelman women have a very supportive environment. That's not to say that it's not very supportive at a men's college like Morehouse, but I think the bonding that occurs among the women is very important. That sisterhood carries young women far and wide. And, you know, there may be a gender factor there. The expectations, certainly the stereotypes, that surround black women success are different than those that face young, black men.

MARTIN: What's next for you? I mean, it's been reported that you want to update your famous 1997 book Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria? It's a book about, you know, having some tough conversations about race. Is that true? Is that part of your plan, and what else is in your future?

TATUM: Well, it's absolutely true that I'm very eager to think about how the question to that - the question of Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria? - how that question rings in 2014, or 2017, which will mark the twentieth anniversary of the publication of that book. And in general, thinking about race relations from the point of view of young people who were born, let's say, in the year 2000. What does it mean to have grown up in the era of the Obama administration, for example. But I'm also quite interested in writing about leadership and thinking about what I've learned as a leader over the course of the last 12, soon to be 13 years at Spelman.

MARTIN: Can you give us a hint? (Laughing). One of those lessons that you might want to pass on, about leadership? Or anything, for that matter?

TATUM: You know, well I've really been thinking a lot about what it means to feel a sense of calling. I felt called to Spelman and there was a tremendous amount of satisfaction in answering that call for the 12 years that I have. And now I feel a sense of time that it is time to pass the baton. I think, you know, being a good leader is knowing when to say it's time for someone else to lead.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, we have a series on our program called Wisdom Watch, and we ask people who have made a difference through their work and their lives to share some knowledge with us, some wisdom with us. Can - do you have some wisdom to share?

TATUM: If there's one piece of wisdom that I feel has been important to me, and that I would offer to anyone else, it's to listen to the still voice within.

MARTIN: OK. What does that mean?

TATUM: When you sit quietly and meditate on a question, or think about something. You know, you asked earlier about intercollegiate athletics. It was in a moment of quiet that I had the realization that we should do something different. And it was in a moment of quiet that I realized it was time for me to step down from Spelman. I was also in a moment of quiet that I realized it was time for me to go to Spelman, back in 2002. So I find that listening to that still, small voice within in moments of quiet will always steer you in the right direction.

MARTIN: Beverly Daniel Tatum is president of Spelman College. This upcoming academic year will be her last in that position.

I do also want to mention that another colleague at another Atlanta-based historically black college, Dr. Carlton E. Brown, of Clark Atlanta University, will also be stepping down next year. We want to wish him well as well.

President Tatum was kind enough to join us from our member station, WCLK in Atlanta. President Tatum, thank you so much for joining us, and best of luck to you.

TATUM: I wish the same to you. Thanks so much for creating this opportunity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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