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Once-in-a-lifetime Career Opportunities

Once-in-a-lifetime Career Opportunities
Even as women move up the university’s ladder to accept senior-level positions, the question remains — Can women in the academy have it all?
By Kendra Hamilton

When Dr. Lucy J. Reuben rises each morning to prepare for her dream job as provost and vice chancellor of academic affairs at North Carolina Central University, it’s unusually quiet.
As she dresses and styles her hair, she no longer hears the comforting and familiar sounds of her husband running water in the bathroom — or of her youngest son, Akayomi, shouting for a favorite shirt. Reuben, a mother of three, made the difficult and often painful decision to accept a new position, which would put approximately 260 miles between her and her family. Reuben says she gets a real pang when she realizes “I’m not going to be part of the senior mom’s football team skit this year.” At the same time, however, her decision to take advantage of such a career-boosting opportunity has been exhilarating and exciting.

When the offer came from NCCU, Reuben says she was firmly ensconced in her position as dean of the business school at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. Her husband, Dr. John A. Cole, had a great job, too, as dean of the school of professional programs at Benedict College in nearby Columbia, S.C., and Akayomi was preparing for his final year of high school.

Torn between a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get Central’s first doctoral programs off the ground and her son’s desire to have the full “senior” experience at his South Carolina high school, Reuben, with her family’s blessing, left her son with his father and headed to Durham to take the position of provost and vice chancellor.

Reuben’s dilemma prompts two familiar queries: Can women in the academy have it all? Do babies matter when charting an academic career? These were some of the questions we asked earlier this year in our special report on women in higher education (see Black Issues, March 28). Younger female faculty members often contemplate whether having children will jeopardize their chances of tenure and promotion. But decisions revolving around career and family are ever present and unfortunately don’t get easier to make as women increasingly find themselves in senior-level positions.

Dr. A. Toy Caldwell-Colbert found herself in the same shoes as NCCU’s Reuben. Now Howard University’s provost, Caldwell-Colbert previously was the associate vice president for academic affairs for the University of Illinois system. Her husband had a high-powered job at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and her daughter was about to start her senior year in high school when Caldwell-Colbert got her alluring offer.

Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, Spelman College’s newly appointed president, also found herself with some tough decisions to make. She was the acting president of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., with a husband who was a full professor at nearby Westfield State College, and a son who was a junior in high school. She says she had “absolutely no interest” in making a professional move at that time and for one reason and one reason alone: her family.

“The year my son was a freshman, I was considered for another position — a presidency — which would have required me to leave,” Tatum explains. “Well, my son had been born in Massachusetts and had never lived anywhere else; he’d been in the same school system all his life, and he was not keen to move.”

Her son David all but begged her: ” ‘Mom, I’ll be out of school in three years and you’ll get other offers — can you please wait?’ In the end, I decided that position was not compelling enough to rock the boat.

“But this was Spelman,” she says, her voice conveying a world of longing even months after she has taken the job.

In each case, it seems the job was the deciding factor; each woman quite literally got the offer she could not refuse.

“It was a mission-driven decision (in response to) a mission-driven opportunity,” Reuben says. “I believe that NCCU is really on the cusp of significant advancement in education and impact. We have a team that is building on a strong foundation and putting into place the items that are going to make this the go-to university among HBCUs.”

And making it all possible was the fact that “there was an instant buy-in from my spouse,” she says, adding, “We’re both educators — there’s a passion of mission that we both feel.”

Tatum’s husband was similarly encouraging. “I felt strongly I wanted to keep my word to my son,” she says, explaining that she promised him after the first offer that she wouldn’t consider others until he had graduated from high school. “But there is only one Spelman — it isn’t just any liberal arts institution, and there was no guarantee that an opportunity like this would present itself again.”

Her husband told her she just had to accept the offer; however, children are not always as understanding.

Caldwell-Colbert says her son Joffrey, now 21, showed surprising sensitivity to her needs. “I said, ‘Don’t give me a response right away. Take some time to think about it.’ The next day, he came back and said, ‘You know, Mom, you have been moving quite a bit for Dad … It sounds like this is your opportunity to make a move for you.’ “

However, daughter Jordan, now 18, was wary. “Her first reaction was, ‘Am I going to have to move?'” Caldwell-Colbert remembers. “Even though when I asked her (feelings about the job offer), I was careful to add the caveat that I knew how important the senior year was, and I didn’t want her to miss any of the exciting things that happen in senior year.”

Caldwell-Colbert made it clear that she didn’t expect her daughter to move, and Jordan’s reaction was “first, relief — and then, ‘Mom, that sounds like something you should consider.’ “

The bottom line is “clearly (that) your children would rather have you with them,” Reuben says. “But if they understand the (academic) career path at all, it also makes it much more likely that they can be understanding of their parents’ choices.”

Coordination, creativity and technology

Surprisingly, the new family structures are not drastically different from the old ones, but coordination and creativity help with the transition, not to mention technology.

“We’ve always arranged our schedules so one of us was always there to do the pickups and dropoffs, to be around, to look after the kids,” says Dr. Travis Tatum, a professor of education at Westfield State College and husband to Spelman’s president. He emphasizes the fact that Travis Jonathan, their oldest son, is off at college and their younger son David is quite an independent 16-year-old, which helps matters greatly. “I’m a lot more relaxed in terms of the anxiety. When they were younger, I was always thinking, ‘It’s almost 3 o’clock — it’s almost 3 o’clock,’ ” he remembers.

Caldwell-Colbert’s husband Charles agrees that, with the demands of both of their careers, “It’s always been this way — we’ve always had to work together.” Currently, Colbert is the vice chancellor for administration and human resources at the Urbana-Champaign campus. His job requires a good bit of travel and entertaining — sometimes, he says, he has receptions four or five nights a week, and his wife’s jobs have been similarly demanding.

Their solution was a novel one: “From the time the kids started school until junior high, we had students living at our house, and we let them live there free. All they had to do was try to arrange their schedules around the kids’ schools and our meetings in the afternoon.” Four different students lived with the family over a period of approximately 10 years. “That worked out to be a good arrangement for us.”

And although nothing can replace personal contact, technology has helped to shrink the distance. Still, the families have had to exercise a good bit of ingenuity in response.

Beverly Daniel Tatum laments, “This is the first time I’ve ever missed the (annual) parent-teacher conferences. But one of the things modern technology has made possible is keeping in touch with teachers and advisers via e-mail. And also, the kinds of things I was involved in with my son — like reading drafts of homework assignments and papers — he sends them as attachments. And of course, I talk to him every night by phone.”

Caldwell-Colbert and Jordan also used e-mail, phone calls and letters to keep in touch. “Really it seemed like she called me more after I moved,” she says. “Sometimes when you’re there, your children take you for granted.”

The absence of their moms also has created space and an opportunity for the fathers and their children to forge a closer bond.

“It’s been really interesting for me being with our younger son. It has created an opportunity to do some father-son bonding,” Travis Tatum says. “I’ve been watching him start to become a man and enjoying that. He’s 16, so he’s really coming into himself in a sense. I get to participate and watch that.”

Charles Colbert admits that being the sole parent of a young daughter was a bit more of an anxiety-producing prospect. “I really felt responsible for making sure she was behaving responsibly,” he says. “But she’s such a good kid — we really bonded.”

Each family has found its own up side to their temporary separation from mom.

“That rascal is just as happy as he can be,” says Travis Tatum of his oldest son Travis Jonathan who is away at college. “I’m sure it has crossed his mind on more than one occasion” — that having a mom who’s the president of Spelman exponentially increases his odds of meeting attractive young African American women.

Jordan Colbert, meanwhile, found a novel solution to her family’s separation. After a memorable Homecoming weekend at Howard last year, she surprised her parents by deciding to forgo the final semester of her senior year to make an exciting new start at Howard as a January freshman.

“It was one of those out-of-the-clear-blue calls. She hadn’t even told her father!” Caldwell-Colbert remembers. “But she’s always been mature. And while she was really ‘into’ high school, she was also at a different point from many of her classmates. I think she just realized (during that trip to Howard), ‘I’m really ready for this.’ “

Reuben and her family are making the best of things. “It’s tough — it wears on you, and you just have to pray about it. I’m just fortunate that I have a wonderful husband and a wonderful son,” she says.

She’s not quite sure when the family will reunite. “Right now, in this economic climate, we’re happy to both have jobs,” she says. But her family is just hours away, and Central has been “very understanding, very supportive,” she adds.

Beverly Tatum, on the other hand, has a clear timetable. When her youngest son graduates from high school in two years, the family will be reunited, she says.

“I keep telling myself, ‘It’s not two years; it’s four semesters,’ ” she adds.

And her husband Travis says he’s looking forward to the trip South. He and his sons just returned from the Spelman-Morehouse Homecoming festivities and they enjoyed the football game, the step shows, the parties and the pageantry — immensely. “Some of the colleges up here (Mass.) have (step shows), but it’s not the same as at a Black college, with the history and the significance and the intensity,” he says.

So culturally, the Atlanta move will be wonderful, Tatum says. And there’s one thing that he’s looking forward to: “No more snow. I was born in San Francisco, so I have to admit I did not fully understand the concept of snow … “I won’t miss it.”

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