Empowering Black Women: Spelman President Talks Race, Finances & Education

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July 31, 2014 ‐ By Ann Brown


The president of Spelman College was recently interviewed by Time magazine for a Time Newsmaker profile and she said quite a few interesting things.

Dr. Beverly Tatum spoke on small college success, race, HBCUs, and more. Tatum, who she steps down next June after 13 years as the ninth President of Spelman College, has had a successful run as leader of the Atlanta HBCU. She raised annual alumni giving to 41 percent, which is one of the highest among HBCUs. And she spearheaded a 10-year campaign that raised $157.8 million, with contributions from 71 percent of alumnae.

Spelman has been one of the outstanding successes of historically Black institutions of higher education. It has an endowment of $357 million while the average private HBCU endowment is about $38 million.

When asked if her fundraising tactics could be a model for other small liberal arts colleges and other HBCUs, Tatum said:

“When I started in 2002 [annual giving] was about 13 percent. I knew that the future of the college really depended on strong alumni support on an annual basis…If your graduates aren’t supporting you, why should anybody else? …What we did, which I think was really helpful, was we got one of our trustees to essentially match the gifts that we got from small donors over a period of time so that we knew we’d be able to build up the level of giving, knowing that there was a safety net, so to speak, of this other donors’ match. I think every school has a trustee who would, if you ask them to, help grow alumni giving by matching.”

When questioned about the Obama Administration ‘s efforts to distribute funding based on graduation rates, which is a problem for HBCUs, she replied:

‘There’s an irony there. When you are serving low-income students there are many barriers to their completion, some of which have nothing to do with the school. There are all kinds of circumstantial situations that make it hard for students to persist. If you are providing services to students who are coming from high-risk backgrounds, the odds of their completion are going to be lower…I think when the Department of Education says to an institution that we’re going to judge you by your graduation rate— I hope that they will compare apples-to-apples. If you’re a well resourced institution serving a high-income student body, that graduation rate better be high…But if you are looking at the performance of schools that are serving the most underserved student population, you should compare apples to apples to make sure that you are holding all of those variables constant.”

Lastly, she was asked if HBCUs were still relevnat.

“It’s a very interesting question. Why do people ask this question?…When Spelman was founded in 1881 in the city of Atlanta, there was no other opportunity for black women to get an education. So people will say, well now those majority institutions are available so why do we need those other institutions? But that fails to acknowledge the other purposes of HBCUs. An HBCU not only provides an educational opportunity for those who have been underserved, but it does so in a context in which the culture from which they come, the history that they’ve experienced is affirmed and acknowledged in a way that’s very empowering. And so the need for empowerment is always relevant.”

As for herself, when she retires, Tatum says she will return to writing and begin working on my book. She has authored Can We Talk About Race?: And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation, Assimilation Blues: Black Families In White Communities, Who Succeeds And Why and Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race, which she plans to revisit.

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