About Us: President's Office

Spelman College Graduates with President Beverly Daniel Tatum

2010 Convocation Speech:  Sustainable Spelman 

Given by President Beverly Daniel Tatum 
August 26, 2010
Print version (pdf)

Good morning! Thank you, Iva, for such a nice introduction. I am really looking forward to working with you and all of the other student leaders this year. If the events of New Student Orientation week are any indication, you are off to a great start! Congratulations!

And this morning, let’s pause and thank our musicians again – our wonderful Glee Club under the direction of Dr. Kevin Johnson, and Dr. Joyce Johnson, our delightful college organist and professor emerita of music. Thanks as well to Dr. Butler and Dean Rhodes for starting us off with their words of wisdom and blessing.

It is great to see all of you here. This opening convocation is one of my favorite events because it marks the beginning of a new school year, a school year that offers new learning opportunities for all of us – not just students, but faculty, staff, administrators – new opportunities for all of us to embrace what it means to be a part of this special academic community. This is my ninth year at Spelman College, and as I look back over what we have been able to accomplish together in the last nine years, it is very gratifying. Whether you read US News and World Report, the Princeton Review, Forbes or the Washington Monthly, Spelman College is being recognized as one of the best colleges in the nation.

Just this week our own Dr. Geneva Baxter and Vice President Darnita Killian along with a Spelman student are featured in Jet Magazine, giving advice about what it takes to be successful in your first year of college. We are surrounded by talent here at Spelman College, and I am delighted to welcome the next generation of Spelman stars, here for their first opening convocation at Spelman College. Please stand if you would – our new Pauline Drake Scholars, our transfer and exchange students, and of course, the Class of 2014! Again, we welcome you! And to members of the class of 2011, moving ever closer to that graduation date – Sunday, May 15, 2011 -- welcome to your last opening convocation as students at Spelman! And of course, we welcome our sophomores and juniors as well.

I also want to thank our faculty and staff who have joined us this morning. Today we will have the great opportunity to spotlight some very accomplished members of our faculty as part of this morning’s program – an important part of what we will do together here, and I want to thank their friends and family members for joining us to help celebrate their achievements. Family members and friends, please stand up as we recognize you.

Some of you know I got an I-phone earlier this year. I really like my phone and all the applications I have on it, including one that has helped me improve my health and fitness. I take it with me everywhere. Here it is. If you have a phone with you, please raise it up so I can see it. Okay, now, let’s turn them off together.

Now that it is off, I want to thank all of our students in advance for remembering to keep your cell phones off and to refrain from texting not only during this convocation, but every convocation.

One of the advantages of sitting on the stage or standing at the podium is that you can see just how many people are having difficulty disconnecting from the outside world. I will confess, in a slow moment, I too am tempted to check my phone for new communications. And I know I am not alone. But it is a habit we need to develop – to be able to pause, to enter the chapel for a special occasion like this one, or a first-year assembly or a concert or a lecture – and know that for the short time that we are in here, we will give our full attention to what is happening on the stage.

The truth is you never know when you will hear something that could change your life. Some of you have heard me tell the story of Poetry Thomas, Class of 2010, who three years ago sat in the chapel with hundreds of other students listening to me talk about the importance of developing a global perspective through international travel. I mentioned in passing an opportunity to go to a student conference in Dubai. Even though hundreds were in the room when I talked about that global travel opportunity, only one student – Poetry - came forward at the end and asked me what she had to do to be able to go. Clearly she had been paying attention. You should not be surprised to hear that when the time came to choose two students to attend the conference, Poetry was one of them. That trip to Dubai truly transformed her perspective. Not only did she go to Dubai, but she spent the fall of her junior year in South Africa, and the spring semester at UC Berkeley in California. She had powerful learning experiences she never imagined she would - and it all started by paying attention in convocation.

So, remember you never know what you will hear – something that is meant for your ears in particular, perhaps – but you might miss it if you are texting instead of listening.

So let’s get in this habit – come into Sisters Chapel or Cosby Auditorium – or any classroom on this campus – and let’s unplug and give it our full attention.

At the beginning of a new school year, there are many things that a president could and should talk about. For example, I could tell you about our upcoming reaccreditation visit in October by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools visiting team, or the Quality Enhancement Plan (known as the QEP) we are working on in preparation for that visit. I could talk about the theme of the QEP – Spelman Going Global! – and what the plan will entail. But you will have other opportunities to learn about that in the coming weeks. I could update you about the progress of our fundraising campaign, and the success of our efforts to raise our alumnae annual giving rate – now at 39% -- and why that matters so much.

I could remind you about our new strategic plan and the GOALS we have for all of our students – you know, Global Engagement, Opportunities for Undergraduate Research and/or career-related internships, Alumnae-Student Connections, Leadership Development, and Service Learning linked to classroom content.

These are all important and worthy topics, and I will touch on some of them. But the core of what I want to focus on today is in the title, “Sustainable Spelman.” Sustainable Spelman.

Today’s talk is about sustainability – 3 kinds of sustainability – Environmental, personal, and communal.

The theme was inspired initially by three things: my attendance at the UNCF Building Green Institute in San Antonio in June where Spelman was highlighted as a leader among HBCUs for our environmental responsibility, my experience of watching helplessly for weeks this summer as gallon after gallon of crude oil bubbled up from a deep sea well into the Gulf of Mexico, polluting coastal fishing waters and marshlands, and most recently, reading Thomas Friedman’s book, Hot Flat and Crowded, as I know some of our first year students have.

There are at least three kinds of sustainability that are essential for the well-being of this community – Spelman College – three kinds of sustainability that I hope we will focus on this year – and in the years to come.

The first is environmental sustainability. Our mission at Spelman is very clear:

Spelman College, a historically Black college and a global leader in the education of women of African descent, is dedicated to academic excellence in the liberal arts and sciences and the intellectual, creative, ethical and leadership development of its students. Spelman empowers the whole person to engage the many cultures of the world and inspires a commitment to positive social change.

How can we be a global leader in the education of women of African descent without paying attention to the global impact of our environmental choices? How can we foster ethical leadership without educating our students about environmental responsibility? How can we honestly engage the many cultures of the world without acknowledging the American over-use of the world’s resources? How can we inspire a commitment to positive social change without setting a clear institutional example ourselves?

In the 19th century, our founders, Miss Packard and Miss Giles, said when they began creating this campus that they were “building for 100 years.” This year we will celebrate the 130th anniversary of the founding of Spelman College, and we can see all around us evidence of their 100-year foresight. Now in the 21st century, we too have to take the long view and think about the generations that are coming after us.

As I mentioned, some of us at Spelman have been reading Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas Friedman. In the quote you see overhead, Friedman makes clear that we need a sense of urgency about the environmental degradation that is taking place around us. And if we don’t step up – and teach our students to do so – we will all regret it.

To quote Thomas Friedman,

If we want to maintain...a habitable planet, rich with flora and fauna, leopards and lions, and human communities that can grow in a sustainable way – things will have to change around here, and fast.

We are the first generation of Americans in the Energy- Climate Era. This is not about the whales anymore. It’s about us. And what we do about the challenges of energy and climate, conservation and preservation, will tell our kids who we really are...

                From Hot, Flat and Crowded by Thomas Friedman

Now, we have already done some good things for which we have been recognized. Environmental Science and Environmental Studies are rapidly growing interests among students and faculty at Spelman. We’ve been recognized by the media, other higher education institutions, even the EPA, for our efforts, including our LEED-certified residence hall known as The Suites, the first building of its kind on an HBCU campus. We have been praised for our “green” cleaning program using non-toxic cleaning supplies, our paperless business processes, our beautiful low maintenance vegetation, watered with recycled water from our cooling systems. We’ve received grant funding from the Community Foundation of Atlanta to do an energy audit of the Science Building, and from Home Depot to retrofit the heating and cooling systems so we can conserve energy in that building, the most energy-guzzling building on campus. We have re-instituted recycling, an effort started by faculty in the 1990s, but in need of jump-starting again for this 21st century.

These are all important efforts but they just scratch the surface of what we could do and must do to reduce our collective carbon footprint – to slow the tide of environmental degradation occurring as a result of our overconsumption of the world’s resources.

Because we can do more and must do more, I am pleased to announce that yesterday I signed the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment, joining more than 670 other college and university presidents who have signed.

An excerpt of the Climate Commitment reads:

“...colleges and universities must exercise leadership in their communities and throughout society by modeling ways to minimize global warming emissions, and by providing the knowledge and the educated graduates to achieve climate neutrality. Campuses that address the climate challenge by reducing global warming emissions and by integrating sustainability into their curriculum will better serve their students and meet their social mandate to help create a thriving, ethical and civil society. These colleges and universities will be providing students with the knowledge and skills needed to address the critical, systemic challenges faced by the world in this new century and enable them to benefit from the economic opportunities that will arise as a result of solutions they develop.”

The President’s Climate Commitment requires us to create a long- term plan (perhaps as long as 20 or 30 years) for achieving climate neutrality, and to report publicly on our progress on a regular basis. We know that our efforts will be by necessity incremental, and our plan may be revised many times in the process, but we cannot in
good conscience ignore the science that tells us we have to change our ways, and do it as quickly as we can.

We often hear the phrase – “think globally, act locally” – and indeed that is what attention to environmental sustainability requires us to do. The choices we make here at Spelman and in our daily lives have ripple effects not just at home but around the world. We must have an ethic of conservation on our campus.

Our mission statement talks about ethical development – but what are ethics? Friedman writes, “Ethics are not laws. They are not imposed by the state. Rather they are norms, values, beliefs, habits and attitudes that are embraced voluntarily – that we as a society impose on ourselves. Laws regulate behavior from the outside in. Ethics regulate behavior from the inside out. Ethics are something you carry with you wherever you go to guide whatever you do.” (p.192)

Or to say it differently, ethics are what you do even when no one else is watching.

In Hot, Flat and Crowded, Thomas Friedman quotes Michael Sandel, a political philosopher at Harvard, who describes an ethic of conservation as “an ethic of restraint,” understanding that we cannot just use our natural resources as though they were limitless. An ethic of conservation requires us to be good stewards of our resources now, so there will be resources available in the future – not only for us but for those who will come after us.

Sustainable Spelman requires all of us to adopt an ethic of conservation.

A couple of years ago we faced a severe drought in Atlanta – the reservoir was down so low that it was said there was a water supply of less than 90 days. At that time, we launched a water conservation campaign on campus, and the Governor stood on the steps of the Capitol Building and publicly prayed for rain. It did eventually rain, and the reservoir filled back up, and some of us went back to our old habits. But the fact is that we still live in a place that has a limited water supply and a rapidly growing population. We have to have an ethic of conservation for our own sake, and for the sake of others.

But environmental sustainability is just one dimension. When I think about sustainable Spelman I also think about sustainable people – people who are demonstrating enough self-care to ensure their good health. Unfortunately African American women as a group have not been taking such good care of ourselves. But our mission statement says that Spelman empowers the whole person – mind, spirit, and body.

It has been said that the health status of African-American women is a primary indication of the health status of Blacks living in America. The historical context in which the experiences of Black women have emerged has taught us to care for ourselves last - and often not to care for ourselves at all.

The pantheon of Black women (s)heroes from Sojourner Truth, to Ida B. Wells to Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, Marian Wright Edelman, Queen Latifah, First Lady Michelle Obama and so many others, known and unknown, testify to our strength, fortitude, character and resilience. But, in our story there is also a theme that resonates truth - we have not been taking care of ourselves. We often prioritize the needs of others or have no priorities related to our care at all.

Taronda Spencer, the archivist of Spelman College, tells the story of a young woman who, in the early days of Spelman College, picked 1,000 bales of cotton in 24 hours to get enough money to enter Spelman College.

- (emphatically spoken) 1,000 bales of cotton! Can you imagine that? The story goes that upon her arrival she was admitted to the infirmary – and later died before she could attend one class at the College. She had literally worked herself to death.

Her story may appear to be an extreme case. But, in many instances we have worked ourselves to death, loved others to our death and paid little attention to the cost of so much giving and so little care. Our survival and the survival of our community requires that health and wellness become priorities in our lives.

At Spelman, our attention to the topic of health disparities is critical, because we know that Black women are dying much too soon. How can Spelman, the premier educator of women of African descent, stand idly by without doing what we can do to educate young women about these health issues?

We know what an impact the epidemic of HIV/AIDS is having on Black women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HIV/AIDS is one of the leading causes of death for African American women between the ages of 25-34. It is not always easy to talk about this epidemic, but our silence places our students and our community at risk, so we must break that silence. Our Women’s Research and Resource Center has been leading the way for Spelman in a global dialogue about the impact of HIV/AIDS in the lives of Black women, and we will have a special program in February featuring a new documentary by Sheila Johnson on women and HIV/AIDS.

Right here on our own campus, we need to remember that if we believe our own health and well-being and the health and well- being of those around us is important, then we must behave as though that were true. Our beliefs and our behaviors have to match. If you believe that self-respect is an important value, then your behavior will reflect that. If you respect yourself, you will protect yourself, and you will do what you can to preserve your health.

But students, HIV/AIDS is not the only threat to your health and longevity. Experts at the CDC tell us that “Poor diet and physical inactivity (the foundation for obesity) is the leading and fastest-growing killer of Americans and will overtake tobacco-related deaths.” In 2005, the Surgeon General predicted that today’s young people will be the first generation that will be less healthy and have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. We don’t have to just accept that though – we can do something about it. We can take charge of our health, take charge of our life choices, we can develop an ethic of self-care.

Chavonne Shorter, our Wellness coordinator has done a fabulous job of helping this community become more active. This summer we offered on campus a fitness bootcamp for employees at 7:15 every morning, aqua aerobics at the end of the day, and a walking program that encouraged participants to track their own walking activity (at least 30 minutes a day) throughout the summer and I got messages of appreciation from women who participated. Here’s an e-mail testimonial I received this summer:

I've consistently attended Boot Camp classes since last fall, started the Zumba class this past Wednesday and will join the Walk Around the AUC Program later this month. The benefits of having these classes on campus is tremendous! Not only is it very convenient, but the rewards are amazing! We have time to work out with each other, keep one another encouraged, share weight loss and get in shape tips, share recipes, have loads of fun and sweat a whole lot!!! And best of all, we all have a personal trainer, FREE of charge!!!

Now, that is an ethic of self-care in action! And we need more of that to be a community of sustainable people.

Students, if we have fulfilled our mission, you should leave this place healthier than you were when you came – with an understanding of what an ethic of self-care means.

You have big dreams, and we want you to have the energy and physical stamina to achieve them! I am pleased that Dr. Darnita Killian, our Vice President for Student Affairs and Ms. Brenda Dalton, Director of Health Services are teaming up with community partners and others to launch a new program, “Active for Life” which you will be hearing about later this fall. First Lady Michelle Obama says, “Let’s move,” and so do we.

The third aspect of sustainability that I want to talk about is about sustaining the Spelman brand, our reputation for excellence.

Students, you are here because you want something from Spelman – an excellent education, a uniquely empowering experience, a sisterhood of talented and successful women – and we are ready and able to provide that. But our ability to do that year after year is dependent in part on our students’ commitment to live out the words of the Spelman hymn: “Spelman thy name we praise, standards and honor raise...” Joining this community of women means that now not only do you represent yourself and your family but now you represent Spelman. When you shine, Spelman shines. When you slip, Spelman slips.

Last year I learned of several instances where Spelman lost some shine – all for the same reason, students failing to honor commitments. One of the incidents led me to write to the Spelman student body. I want to read a portion of the letter I sent:

Dear Students,

Every year companies think carefully about where they will send their recruiters. They ask themselves is it worth the time and expense to visit small campuses like ours, when they could easily meet more students at larger universities. Yet they continue to come to Spelman because they believe we have talented graduates who will make excellent employees and will eventually become leaders within their organizations. It is companies like these that decide to invest in Spelman by providing scholarships for worthy students, and offering paid internship opportunities as well as post-graduate employment. Unfortunately some of those companies leave disappointed, wondering if it would be better to invest somewhere else. One such incident happened this week, and I want all of you to be aware of it, so we can avoid future incidents of this kind.

Yesterday one of our corporate recruiters ...came to campus expecting to meet with 22 students, all of whom had sent RSVPs indicating their intent to attend the information session. The recruiter was excited to know that so many students had expressed interest in learning about her company and the opportunity she had to offer. Of the 22 students who had said they were coming, only 7 showed up. None of the missing 15 called to explain their absence. They just didn’t show up, wasting the time of the recruiter, and leaving her with a very poor impression of Spelman students as a group. [Her company] has been a long-time provider of internship and scholarship opportunities for Spelman students, but in this economy, every company is reevaluating that investment. This careless behavior on the part of fifteen students has not only reflected badly on each of them, but it has also threatened a much-needed source of scholarship support for their Spelman sisters.

At Spelman we are focused on the leadership development of our students. Integrity and accountability are key elements of authentic leadership. Honoring one’s commitments is important and a fundamental aspect of integrity in daily life. We expect our students to demonstrate that kind of personal responsibility. When they don’t, they jeopardize opportunities for everyone else.

I want to commend the seven students who honored their commitments. I am sure there were other things they could have been doing at that time, but having said they were coming, they came. That is what we should expect to see from every Spelman student...

To honor her commitments....

Now I know that some of the missing students were absent for legitimate reasons – an illness or perhaps a death in the family.  But even in that instance, a quick phone call, e-mail or even a text to let someone know would have made a difference. What was most concerning though was when I sent this message, I got several e-mails back from faculty members saying that they too had had similar disappointments with students not honoring their commitments. 

Women of Spelman, this is serious. In order to sustain the wealth of opportunities that we make available to all of our students, we have to be able to count on you to be women of your word. We need you to show up, and show up ready – for the interview, for the internship, for the grad school tour, for the dinner invitation with a special Spelman visitor -- if you say you are going to.

I know it is not always easy to do that. We have competing priorities, and sometimes things happen, schedules change, new opportunities emerge – often on short notice. Temptations are all around us. But that’s what commitment is – honoring your promises in the face of temptation.

I want to close my convocation remarks with one last story. It is a story of personal temptation. As you know, I am a psychologist, and long before I was the president of Spelman I was a professor of psychology. I wrote a book that some of you have read, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” and if there is one thing I dreamed about as an author, it was getting on the Oprah Winfrey show to talk about my book. One book appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show will make your book a best-seller. The PR team at the college where I worked tried hard to make that happen, sending copies of my book to Oprah, pitching angles – but to no avail. In the meantime, I was getting asked to speak at schools around the country, often scheduling those speaking engagements months in advance. One time a group of three private schools in New York got together and asked me if I would give a talk to their teachers. They all agreed to close school for the day, so that they could all share in this professional development opportunity, and a special hall was reserved to accommodate the size of their collective teaching staffs. Parents were also being invited. It was a big deal. Ten days before the event was to take place, I got an exciting phone call. It was someone from the Oprah Winfrey Show. They were planning a special segment on “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” talking to students in Chicago, and who would be better to have on the show than the author of a book by the same title. I was thrilled! The taping was going to be the following Friday – not much advance notice – but that’s how they do it in television sometimes. My heart sank. That Friday was the day of my big presentation in NY. There was no way I could be on Oprah when I was supposed to be in NY. I can’t tell you how distressed I was. I asked for advice and some people said just tell the people in NY you can’t come – after all this is Oprah! But I couldn’t do that. I had made a commitment.

So what happened? I called the school principal who had organized the event, and explained my dilemma. I told him right up front that I was prepared to honor my commitment. But I also hoped we might find a solution that would allow both of us to get what we wanted. I had a colleague who was prepared to substitute for me, and I would reschedule. But he wasn’t buying it. He said, “She didn’t write the book. We want you.” We talked more about it, and finally he said, he would discuss it with the other heads of schools and get back to me. I waited on pins and needles all afternoon, my stomach was in knots. Finally he called back. It was good news. He said that they had decided that if I agreed to make three additional appearances (one at each of the schools) they would accept my offer of sending my colleague in my stead, and I would be free to appear on the Oprah Winfrey show. I happily agreed to the new plan. But as we were wrapping up our conversation, he told me that the one thing that made a difference to each of the school heads was the fact that I had said from the very beginning, if we can’t work it out, I will honor my commitment. That fact made them more receptive to trying to help me find a win-win solution for all of us. 

There are times when you can’t do something you said you would do – or at least the temptation is great not to, but as Spelman women it is important to remember that your integrity depends on communicating honestly, and in a timely way, with those who are counting on you. We are a community that depends on an ethic of commitment to sustain itself. We are depending on you to take your commitments seriously, and to honor them.

An ethic of conservation, an ethic of self-care, and an ethic of commitment. Together these values will help ensure a Sustainable Spelman – a Spelman College that endures, a College that thrives, and a College that delivers on its promises to you:

Together -- with this great faculty – this dedicated staff – with our new strategic plan and all its GOALS - we will journey together to your most exciting moment – your graduation from this special place – empowered to change the world.   

We are glad you’re here, that you showed up – ready with an ethic of conservation, self-care and commitment. It’s going to be a great year!