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‘Choosing Spelman’

‘Choosing Spelman’
College’s ninth president sees intersection between the school’s values and her life’s work.Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum took over the reigns of Spelman College as its ninth president in August. “It just felt like this was what I was supposed to do,” Tatum says about heading Atlanta’s historically Black college for women. Author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria and former acting president of Mount Holyoke College, an all-women’s college in South Hadley, Mass., Tatum says Spelman’s values and its mission of empowering the whole student and preparing young women to become agents of change is consistent with her life’s work. Late last month, Tatum and members of her staff visited with Black Issues In Higher Education. Following are excerpts from that interview.BI: How do you see the intersection between single-sex institutions and historically Black institutions?
BDT: I am a great believer both in Black education and also women’s education, even though I myself attended historically White institutions all my life. …Whether you are talking about HBCUs or women’s colleges, the difference is that rather than being on the margin you are at the center. So then that brings us to an HBCU for women … Spelman College is one of the few places where as a Black woman you can come and look around and say, “This institution was built for me, with me expressly in mind.” BI: How did the Spelman (presidency) opportunity present itself?
BDT: I have lived most of my adult life in Massachusetts and was very happy in the position that I held at Mount Holyoke. So, I certainly wasn’t actively seeking, for some personal reasons, a new position, because I have a son who is still in high school … But, as life does, an opportunity presented itself. So when I got the word that I had been nominated for the position of president at Spelman, I knew that, given the uniqueness of Spelman, that it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I needed to at least investigate whether it was the right choice for me.
BI: What can Spelman learn from other women’s colleges such as Mount Holyoke and vice versa?
BDT: Women’s colleges, traditionally White women’s colleges, are legendary in terms of the involvement of their alumnae, both in terms of returning for reunions and their financial support of the institutions. That is certainly something that Spelman would greatly benefit from, and I think that there are things to learn about how those institutions have cultivated their alumnae population.BI: What are the most pressing issues at Spelman right now?
BDT: One of the things we are all concerned about is technology. Students want to have easy access to their e-mail, especially those who live off campus. And we are moving toward universal Internet access in our residence halls, but we’re not there yet. More specifically to students, communication is important. My experience at Mount Holyoke, and also at Spelman, is that students really want to have a sense of involvement. They want to feel connected to the college administration. They want to have a voice in decisions that are being made. BI: What strengths and unique skills do you bring to the presidency?
BDT: With no disrespect to any of my predecessors, I think that I bring something that none of them did, and that is 22 years of experience in higher education. Not just as a faculty member, but also as an administrator. Dr. (Audrey) Manley was an experienced administrator, but not in higher education. … One of the things that I really like to do is to meet people and engage the community. One of the reasons that I spend so much time here in Washington is so that I can meet the alumnae community and meet the friends of the college and parents … I also think the academic infrastructure is important, the sort of day-to-day tasks of working out faculty governance issues, looking at developing a sabbatical policy, doing the nuts and bolts of the academic affairs infrastructure. I think if we could characterize my predecessors, maybe one was very externally focused, one was very internally focused, and I guess I see myself as a blend between those.  

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