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2015 Opening Convocation

Inventing a Future at Spelman College

August 20, 2015
President Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D.

Good morning, 

Thank you for that introduction, Zarinah.  My congratulations to you as you assume the role of president of the Spelman Student Government Association. 

Zarinah is a senior, political science major from Portland, Oregon, who maintains a cumulative 3.7 GPA. She has taken full advantage of the Spelman experience: she is a member of the Spelman Mock Trial Team and serves as an associate in the Spelman Social Justice Program, where she focuses her activism on the impact of the prison industrial complex on communities of color. Her activism has taken her to South Africa and the Dominican Republic.

She has spent her summers in internships at Nike, Coca-Cola and the Portland Juvenile Detention Center. Upon her graduation, Zarinah plans to attend law school and pursue a career in law, entrepreneurship and social justice advocacy.  

Spelman has one of the most energetic, activist and thoughtful student government associations I have ever encountered on a college campus.  We look forward to what they will accomplish this academic year under Zarinah’s leadership.

An Active Beginning

Spelman College Opening ConvocationFor the past week, I have been spending quite a bit of time with the new members of the Spelman sisterhood nearly 600 first-year students, transfers, Pauline Drake Scholars, exchange and international students. We’ve had a great time, haven’t we?  I’d like to ask all of our talented new sisters to stand so that the Spelman community can welcome you to campus. 

Last week, I also had the pleasure of meeting our 22 dynamic new faculty members.  If they are with us this morning, I would like to ask them to stand so that we can welcome them as well.

Since I started a couple of weeks ago, it seems as though I’ve given at least a half dozen speeches – many from this podium. But this morning is special because it’s the first time, in my role as the 10th president of Spelman College I get to address the entire Spelman College community. I think of this address as a prelude. In the weeks and months to come, I intend to host a series of small group conversations with you, the people who make Spelman such a singularly stellar place – students, faculty, staff and alumnae. I want to hear your ideas as to how to keep Spelman soaring.

Presidential Faculty Awards

Spelman College's Presidential Award WinnersThis morning is special, too, because Opening Convocation is not only an opportunity to hear from the new president, it is an occasion as well for the presentation of the Presidential Awards of Excellence to five outstanding faculty.

Later this morning, I will have the pleasure of reading the formal citations for each awardee. For now, I would like to acknowledge and ask each recipient to stand.

  • Dr. Jeffrey Ehme, professor and chair of mathematics, recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching for a senior faculty member
  • Dr. Jimmeka Guillory, assistant professor of psychology, recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching for a junior faculty member
  • Christine Sizemore, professor emerita of English, recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Scholarship for a senior faculty member  
  • Dr. Jakita Thomas, recipient Presidential Award for Excellence in scholarship for a junior faculty member 
  • Dr. Anne Bradford Warner, retired associate professor of English and director emerita of the Comprehensive Writing Program, recipient of  the Presidential Award for Distinguished Service

It’s fitting that we start the year with awards to teachers. Acknowledging faculty reminds us of a central truth about who we are as a college.  Our school was founded by a pair of teachers – two women determined to provide a place in this country exclusively for the education of Black women. In the course of 134 years, Spelman has become the best in the world at producing women who are global leaders of African descent. In congratulating this year’s five awardees, we thank them for their role in making Spelman so exceptional.

Spelman's Rich History

When Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum prepared to retire after 13 enormously productive years as your ninth president, she authored a book – "A New President’s Guide to Spelman College." Dr. Tatum’s encyclopedic volume has taken its place on my bookshelf alongside several histories of the College:

  • Florence Read, Spelman’s fourth president, wrote "The Story of Spelman College" in 1961.
  • Former Spelman sociology professor, Dr. Harry G. Lefever, wrote "Undaunted by the Fight: Spelman College and the Civil Rights Movement, 1957-1967." He took the title of his book from a line in the Spelman Hymn.
  • On the occasion of Spelman College’s Centennial in 1981, Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Jo Moore Stewart compiled the book, "Spelman: A Centennial Celebration," a 100-year overview of the College in a volume richly illustrated with photos of the talented Black women drawn to Spelman, original drawings of the College’s historic buildings and reproductions of original source material. 
  • Spelman’s website recites in detail the contributions of each of the nine preceding presidents to date. To read all of this history is to be reminded that every decade, every era, every president brought to the College an advance.  

Our Bright Future

For the past 134 years, Spelman College has been on a steep ascent. It’s no wonder, then, that so many people have come up to me in the past few months and said, “So, what are you going to do for Spelman College?” Sometimes the question is posed in a polite way.  But more often than not, the question is a demand. Urgent. Insistent.  They want to know because Spelman is personally so important to them.  They want to know because Spelman is important to the world.  They want to know because they know that our stature and standing have been hard won.

We have worked hard for a six-year graduation rate of 73 percent.  We’ve worked hard for the National Science Foundation statistics that prove that we graduate more Black women who complete a Ph.D. in STEM fields than any other college or university in the country. They probably don’t know, but Dr. Burnett has assured us, that six out of the 10 Black women who completed doctorates in philosophy last year were from Spelman. They may or may not know that our College was one of the top producers of teachers for the highly competitive Teach for America program.
So, when people demand to know, “What is your vision, President Campbell?” it’s with considerable trepidation that I tell them – I don’t need one.  

Then, they usually ask, “Well, what is your plan?”  My answer is, “Time will tell.” 

By that time, they are exasperated. “No plan. No vision. What are you going to do to take Spelman to the next level?” My response: “We are already on our way.”

Let me explain, first, about the vision. Spelman College already has a vision. It was founded on a vision that has never wavered. 

Spelman is driven to be the best for the women it serves.  From the days of its founding, every constituency – students, faculty, staff, parents, alumnae, donors and trustees – believes that Spelman can be even better than what we believe is our best self.  And every constituency is willing to work to make that aspiration a reality. 

Dr. Tatum often referred to the transition of one president to the next as handing off a baton in a relay race.  But from the moment I stepped into the Spelman circle, I’ve felt as though I’ve climbed aboard a rocket, a rocket chock full of all of those constituents, and we are all hurtling through space at full speed.  My job is to be the pilot. 

We are a college with a sense of urgency. As proud as we are of a 73 percent graduation rate, we will not rest, until we can say that every single woman who enters the Spelman gates graduates with a degree in hand.

An Exceptional Experience for Every Spelman Woman

We are a college that wants the best for every student. We hear about the incredibly rich experience of a student like Zarinah Mustafa and realize how much this college has to offer.  We want every one of our sisters who attends to experience everything this college has to offer – a first-rate liberal arts education; an academic experience wrapped in the multiple folds of internships, community engagement, global travel, undergraduate research and the unbreakable bonds of sisterhood. 

The Spelman woman wants nothing but the best for herself. I have listened to you; I hear you speak about how you see yourselves. You don’t want to be just the best woman or the best Black you want to be the best.  As I said in one of those speeches, you want to win, to be the gold medalist, the Serena Williams, grand slam, global champion of whatever it is you choose to do.    

No, Spelman does not need someone to land on its campus with a vision. The very idea of a Spelman College, a place where Black women excel academically, claim center stage, with a consequential voice, become citizens of the world – in this culture – is, in and of itself visionary.  

If that is the Spelman vision, what then, Madame President, you might ask, is the Spelman plan for its future?  How does it continue this propulsive ascent? 

As for our plan, that is what you and I will have to work out over time.  Over time, we will have to agree on the common values that will keep the arc of our trajectory unbroken. Though I cannot tell you what the plan will be, here is what I have seen and heard thus far.

Students and Faculty at the Core

Whatever our plan, we will create and execute it on behalf of our students, our Spelman women, the members of our Spelman sisterhood.  Whatever our plans, we will offer all that a liberal arts education promises: critical thinking skills, the ability to critique, ask questions, read deeply, listen, speak, probe complexity, debate, dissent, explore and discover. 

We’ll commit ourselves to making the Spelman experience possible for every woman who deserves to be here. (By the way in the past decade, scholarship funds at Spelman have increased 400 percent and this year we raised more money in a single year than we ever raised in the history of the College). We will know we have succeeded when we have the capacity to find the Spelman woman, enroll her and exit her not just with a degree but with a competitive advantage and the capacity and drive to compete on a global stage.

Whatever the plan, the faculty will be at the heart of it. Last week, I attended the Spelman Faculty Institute, organized by the Office of the Provost.  The Faculty Institute is a forum in which faculty discuss what is important to them.  What was clear – listening to faculty presentations and discussions that followed – is that, our faculty are committed to the ongoing development of pedagogical strategies that lead towards excellence in the liberal arts; exploring new ways of thinking about the classroom; and experimenting with new pedagogical uses of technology.

A few days after the Faculty Institute, I read the abstracts of current NSF grants.  Most of the research projects include students. The range of topics and the depth of inquiry speak to the high expectations our faculty hold for you, my sisters, and the possibilities of full engagement at Spelman. 

Whatever our plan, it’s clear that we’ll need to find ways to support faculty in their teaching as well as their research and in the maintenance of the essential student/teacher relationship. We are a liberal arts college and teaching and learning is at the core of our identity.

A Plan With An Arts Focus

Whatever the plan, the arts will have a role.

Some of you may know that my introduction to Spelman was when I was invited to campus to talk to the arts faculty in advance of a planned renovation and expansion of the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Fine Arts Building.  The conversation with faculty a year ago suggested that there is a vital role for the arts as Spelman seeks to distinguish itself as a liberal arts college. 

Music, theater, dance, visual arts, art history, curatorial studies, a museum, and digital media salon are vital to the creative health of this college. But there is also a role for the arts in collaboration with science, technology and the humanities. 

One of my speeches last week was on the arts so I won’t repeat the ways in which the interface between the arts and the liberal arts can be a catalyst for the creation of unimaginable new ways of seeing and knowing. 

I do want to take the opportunity of the Convocation to share two pieces of news. One, we are establishing an ARTS@Spelman steering committee and I have asked Dr. Ayoka Chenzira to chair it and work with our interim provost, Dr. Myra Burnett, to broaden the conversation about the role of the arts beyond the arts faculty.  This committee will author a white paper and invite feedback from the campus community.

The second piece of news is the announcement of a demonstration project that illustrates what I mean by the statement that the arts in collaboration with the liberal arts can be a catalyst for new knowledge and new ways of thinking and knowing.

The Hamilton Project Invitation

Here’s the project. I am going to invite Spelman students to read a 1000-page biography of Alexander Hamilton, written by award-winning biographer and historian, Ronald Chernow, and ask them to participate with me and select faculty in several book circle discussions. Those who do read the book and attend all three discussions will be eligible to go to New York to see the musical "Hamilton" based on the book.

Alexander Hamilton is one of the country's founding fathers, our first secretary of the treasury, and the author of over half of the Federalist Papers. The musical based on the book, was written by a Puerto Rican musical theater artist and casts all of the founding fathers – George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson with Black and Latino actors.

Moreover, instead of the usual staid and stately utterings usually given to the First Fathers, they speak in hip-hop lyrics and dance a hip-hop inspired choreography as do their Black and Latino wives. Historically accurate, the play communicates a grasp of the country’s founding ideals that is profound. Questlove, multi-instrumentalist and music journalist, has attested that the hip-hop lyrics are rich with allusion and their own historical references. 

I am inviting your participation to give an example of what can happen when art and the liberal arts collide in a creatively productive union. If you are interested, look for an announcement of a lottery. About 30 students will be chosen. 

The arts will be part of the plan because we live in a world that requires creativity and resilience and a comfort in risk taking and, with the rapidity of change in today’s world, the exercise of the imagination.

Whatever the plan, it is clear that a liberal arts education has to require a mastery and ease with the tools, the design and the language of technology.

Technology, Globalization and Local Revitalization

We turn the ignition on in our car, we change the thermostat, make a telephone call, use the ATM, and use our laptop to check a reference in a 19th century newspaper. Technology has become the 21st century universal global language and we all need to be fluent in it. Even more than a language, it is a means to connect, compute, research, communicate, archive and construct.  

Whether we are a musician or a mathematician, a sculptor or a computer scientist, a historian or a biochemist; whether we are students, faculty, or administrators, we have to be not only proficient and fluent, we have to become creative masters of our machines and devices and the algorithms that map and direct them. Whatever changes a rapidly changing technology landscape brings, we have to position ourselves individually and institutionally to be resilient, versatile and adaptive. 

Whatever our plan, we will continue our goal of 100 percent participation in global studies. But even as we reach across oceans, we know that we need to reach across the walls that encircle our own neighborhood. This neighborhood that surrounds the Atlanta University Center was once thriving and healthy but, like many urban neighborhoods, it’s fallen on hard times. There are students, faculty and staff alike who have been working hard with community-based organizations to effect change. Whatever our plan, we as an institution will need to carve out a role for our participation in the revival and rehabilitation of a neighborhood that now hems us in, confines us and shortchanges the residents who call it home.

Sustainability and the Value of a College Education

Whatever our plan, our campus must be a model of fiscal and operational sustainability.  We have had decades of balanced budgets, endowment growth, a safe, stable environment, and in the process, we have become national leaders in campus sustainability. That, too, is no accident but the result of hard work. 

But it is a tough time to be in higher education. There is widespread public disillusionment about the value of a college education, and a sense that for some of our best and our brightest, higher education may be out of reach. Finding new sources of income, perhaps new business models, new ways of telling our remarkable story to attract new donors is part of our challenge moving forward as well. 

Women of Spelman, it is a wonderful time to be Black and a woman. The world is beating a path to Spelman’s door. Fortune 500 CEOs, leading researchers, scholars and world renowned scholars all want to be here. They want to meet you, know you and recruit you.  The future of Spelman is quite clear. 

Our job is to challenge you to be your greatest self. Your job is to reach beyond our expectations to heights we cannot even begin to imagine.