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Spelman College

Town Hall Address:  Mary Schmidt Campbell

Spelman Sisters Chapel
Thursday, March 26, 2015


Good morning.  I am so honored to be standing in front of you on this glorious spring morning in the beautiful, historic Sisters Chapel as a candidate for the presidency of Spelman College.  

Long before I ever visited the Spelman campus, I have known about the Spelman woman.  She’s a leader in government, a renowned scholar, a community organizer, an entrepreneur, the head of a major corporation, a scientist, a cultural touchstone, a mother, a daughter and a sister. 

Dr. Campbell Town HallEveryone recognizes that Spelman is a college on the ascent.

This fall, at the invitation of President Tatum, I had the privilege of visiting the campus for the first time and spending the day with Spelman arts faculty.  Our meeting, hosted by the gifted artist and Divisional Chair of the Arts and Humanities, Ayoka Chenzira, was organized in anticipation of renovating an arts facility, and was designed to explore the role of the arts on Spelman’s campus.

After a day of lively discussion and debate, I left thinking how lucky Spelman students are to have such stellar, dedicated faculty, working professionals, committed to the life of their students, committed to their work and committed to the Spelman community. How wonderful it must be for a Black woman to attend a school where she is the heart and soul of the mission and everyone in the community is committed to her success. How wonderful it must to be to graduate and walk into the world not only prepared, armed with an excellent education, self-confidence and self-knowledge, but surrounded by a lifetime community of devoted Spelman alumnae.

I have been on many college campuses and Spelman is a truly rare and remarkable community.

This morning I have been asked to talk to you about the path that has brought me to this remarkable community. I have also been asked to share with you my ideas on a liberal arts college for the 21st century, a topic to which I have given a great deal of thought over the past two decades. Let me begin with my story, and the twists and turns in the road that have led me to Atlanta and the Spelman College campus this morning.

My Path to Spelman

I was born and raised in Philadelphia. My family was the center of my world. My mother was a homemaker and nursery school teacher. My father, a postal clerk, who went to law school at night, became a lawyer, and eventually a highly regarded catalyst for change in the criminal justice system in Philadelphia.

I had the great good fortune to attend an all-girls high school--The Philadelphia High School for Girls--where your former mayor, the Honorable Shirley Franklin, and I were in school together. Women were in charge at Girls High. Women ran the newspaper, led student government, and there was always a woman at the top of the class. I graduated from Girls High thinking that women could rule the world. So I know full well the potency of a women’s school.

On the occasion of my graduation, my father gave me a book that he said that I must read: James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. I could almost feel the heat coming out from the pages from Baldwin’s lacerating words as he excoriated us to take up the task of healing and mending our country with a sense of urgency.

I mention that gift, because I have often been moved by the words of writers like Baldwin or Toni Morrison, or the words of a musician like Nina Simone, because their words feel so consequential to me. By that I mean their words articulate some essential truth and communicate that truth in a way that is a call to action, an imperative to lead a moral life, a meaningful life, a consequential life.

Consequential Choices

My mother and father strived to lead that kind of life.  The man I would eventually marry leads that kind of life.  It’s the kind of life we’ve tried to teach our three sons to lead. It’s what I decided long ago that I wanted for myself, a consequential voice and a consequential life. Every major life choice I’ve made, I’ve made with that in mind, beginning with getting married.

Dr. Campbell and HusbandMy husband, Dr. George Campbell, a physicist and president emeritus of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, is here this morning. I met him when I was thirteen years old.  He was fifteen. We were good friends, at first.  That friendship grew and, at the age of 20, I married him. Father of our three sons, grandfather of our six grandchildren, for the past 46 years, he has been the love of my life. 

I discovered my professional calling in life late in my undergraduate career at Swarthmore College—the field of art history. I never knew there was such a field as art history but a liberal arts education allowed me to explore disciplines about which I knew nothing. At the time that I chose art history, women as well as Black artists were virtually invisible in galleries, museums and in the history of art. Plenty of women and Black artists, very good ones, were at work. But the world chose not to see them.

I was captivated, too, by the fact that we live in a culture inundated with visual images. They influence the way we think about ourselves, our culture and our place in the world. I couldn’t help but notice that the institutions that preserve, collect and interpret visual images—the major museums and cultural institutions—are often powerful players in the building of community and in the preservation of culture and identity. Writing, researching, and organizing exhibitions of the works of artists of the African Diaspora would be a means of revealing the depth and complexity of Black culture and the consequential impact of our culture on the modern world.

The desire to articulate the consequential impact of Black culture on the modern world brought me to my first job in New York City: the Studio Museum in Harlem. The word museum, in those days, was generous. The “museum” was actually a loft over a liquor store and a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Despite its humble venue, the museum had built a reputation as an exciting center of Black art and culture. But New York, when I arrived in Harlem in the 1970s, was on the verge of bankruptcy. Harlem was a ruin and although its programs were exciting, the Studio Museum was a hand-to-mouth operation. A lesson I quickly learned is that in order for an institution to be consequential, it first must be sustainable. 

Another lesson learned is that with imagination, vision, a single minded focus, and discipline, you can, as Martin Luther King once said, “make a way out of no way.”  The Studio Museum was clear about what it wanted for its future—to be a real, accredited fine arts museum, to have a significant  place at the cultural table of this country. Never deviating from that vision, the Studio Museum was able to acquire a 60,000 square foot building, renovate it and—in the process— become a lynchpin of what would become the revitalization of the 125th street corridor, the main commercial thoroughfare in Harlem.

And Spelman students, I know that one of the goals of the Spelman strategic plan is that each one of you has an opportunity for an internship, or service learning or research project. Just to give you an example of how critical those programs can be to your future, the woman who is now the renowned director of the Studio Museum in Harlem today, Thelma Golden, was my intern when I was the director, many years ago.

After ten years at the Studio Museum, I left the care and tending of Black culture to take on the care and tending of the many cultures of New York City, when I served under two New York City mayors as cultural affairs commissioner for the city of New York.  Equally as important to the journey that brings me here today, I also began 12-year tenure as a member of the Board of Managers of my alma mater, Swarthmore College. 

Dr. Mary CampbellBoard service amounted to an intensive tutorial on what makes for excellence in a liberal arts education.  As a board, we constantly asked ourselves—what is the value of a liberal arts education?  What do we look for in our faculty and our curriculum?  What constitutes excellence in teaching? What type of academic infrastructure supports excellence?  How do we make that excellence inclusive and accessible?  How do we know when we have succeeded?  Serving on the board re-affirmed my commitment to the liberal arts.

Then my road took an unexpected turn.

I became the dean of a school of the arts, a conservatory, and I was introduced to a way of teaching and learning that seemed, on the surface to be the antithesis of everything I had learned about higher education.  My liberal arts education entailed reading a book or searching an archive or walking the halls of a museum or writing an essay— quietly and by myself.  At the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, the students are singing and dancing and running around New York City making films and they are doing all of this activity in  groups—in ensembles and film crews and production companies.

My liberal arts education required me to complete my work product, hand it to the professor, have it graded and returned. No one else saw it.  At Tisch, the work product - the dance, the photograph, the play, the new media presentation had an audience and the audience had an opinion.

Conservatory training challenged my thinking about higher education. And over the years I have come to see great value in the pedagogy of learning by doing, of being asked to invent something from nothing, in an education that calls on the exercise of the imagination.   I have come to value the skill of collaboration, of working in a team with shared goals, of learning to trust and depend on others, to listen to them, to put yourself in their shoes in order to realize a shared outcome. I learned that risk taking and making mistakes and learning to embrace being wrong can be a way of learning something new and unexpected. What I learned in my 23 years at Tisch has influenced the way I now think about a liberal arts education.

So let me talk a little bit now about my ideas of a liberal arts college for the 21st century.     

Dr. Mary Campbell Townhall

A  Liberal Arts College for the 21st Century

To do that, let me share with you what I think the world will need as the 21st century progresses and what our liberal arts colleges will have to be prepared to provide.

  • We live in a world that I call the Global Silk Road. Like the silk road trade routes of the middle ages, our world is one in which  ideas and information are constantly moving constantly circulating from one continent to another. 

In this world of vastly increased mobility,

  • Spelman’s goal in your strategic plan for a 100% participation in a global experience for all Spelman women is vital.
  • Spelman women will need to be at ease with difference and skillful in the navigation of the unfamiliar.
  • We live in a world that demands the capacity to collaborate meaningfully across cultural as well as disciplinary boundaries. 
  • Spelman is in a great place to be expert in collaboration. With its demonstrated strength in educating students in STEM subjects and its demonstrated strength in the arts and humanities, there is an opportunity to set those disciplines in meaningful conversation with each other.
  • There is an opportunity for faculty and students to create in that conversation a site of innovation, risk taking and invention that could mark Spelman as a place for the bold creative thinker.
  • Dr. Campbell and Student SelfieWe live in a world that requires (a term I have borrowed from my son, Kai Campbell, whom as some of you might know, is the provost at Morehouse), a growth mind-set.
  • New knowledge is being created every day. The future will demand that every Spelman faculty member and student be called on to be in a mode of constant re-learning, refreshing and re-thinking. The Spelman campus will need to become the site of that constant process of refreshing and re-tooling.
  • Technology dominates our lives as a language, a creative tool, and as a means of connecting and communicating.  Every Spelman student will need to master a set of fundamental technological tools. And she will need to  master as well a way of learning new technology that allows her to continue the learning process long after she leaves Spelman because as well all know what we learn today in a year will become obsolete.
  • A growth mindset will require the school to constantly revise and update its technology infrastructure for teaching and learning, for creative and research purposes, and to effectively support the administrative and operational efficiency of the college.

Finally, as I have participated in the campus conversations, I have heard from many constituents in the Spelman community who believe that Spelman has the opportunity to leap into the ranks of top tier liberal arts colleges.

  • If that is the case we will need to ask what skills our students need, what writing, research and critical thinking and creative skills, and make sure that we deliver those skills at the highest level.
  • If that is the case, we need to make sure that we have the resources to attract and retain the best and the brightest students and faculty.
  • If that is the case, we need to push for ever greater student retention rates.
  • If we want to be in the top tier, we will need to articulate the metrics that let us know when we have met our goals.

Dr. Campbell with BoardMy sisters, we live at a time when it is a wonderful time to be a woman. The world looks to women for leadership, wisdom, intelligence and strength.  Women in the 21st century are expected to step forward with consequential voices and exceptional skills to lead consequential lives.  Women are expected to play a major role in building the future for our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, our country and the world.

Who better to build that future than the women of Spelman College?

Make no mistake; it is a tough time to be in higher education. There is widespread public disillusionment about the value of higher education, and a sense that, for some of our best and our brightest, higher education may be out of reach.

Even as Spelman’s next president tends to the needs of the campus, the students, faculty and staff, your new leader must be part of the conversation and the solution to re-think the model of financing higher education and re-think it in alliance with the American business community, the federal government and private philanthropists.

How great it is to be a Spelman woman.  Your president Dr. Beverly Tatum - along with the board, the faculty, the staff, you and the alumnae - has built a truly rare and remarkable community. I am honored to stand here on this beautiful spring morning, as a candidate for the Spelman presidency, looking into the faces of what I know will be a glorious future.