Spelman College Marks a Milestone Spelman College celebrates its 125th anniversary this year. Farai Chideya talks with the Atlanta institution's president, Beverly Daniel Tatum, about the milestone and about historically black colleges and universities.
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Spelman College Marks a Milestone

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Spelman College Marks a Milestone

Spelman College Marks a Milestone

Spelman College Marks a Milestone

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Spelman College celebrates its 125th anniversary this year. Farai Chideya talks with the Atlanta institution's president, Beverly Daniel Tatum, about the milestone and about historically black colleges and universities.

TONY COX, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya.

In 1837, a Pennsylvania Quaker founded the first U.S. college specifically for African-Americans, Cheyney University. Today, there are 105 historically black colleges and universities, or as they are popularly known, HBCUs. But today, these African-American colleges face challenges of enrollment, finance, even mission. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the percent of African-American students attending HBCUs fell from 18 percent in 1976 to less than 13 percent in 2001.

To find more about the future of historically black colleges and universities, NPR's Farai Chideya talked with Beverly Daniel Tatum of Spelman College. The all-female Spelman is one of the best-known and solidly financed HBCUs. President Tatum, who became president in 2002, is also the author of books, including Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race.

She joined Farai in our studios at NPR West.

FARAI CHIDEYA: Congratulations, 125 years of Spelman. You've been at the helm for the past 4 years now, I guess?

Dr. BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM (President, Spelman College): Yes. I started at Spelman in 2002, and it's a real pleasure to be there now that we're celebrating our 125th anniversary of educating women who change the world.

CHIDEYA: Speaking of educating women who change the world, you recently got some good news from a ranking of colleges. Why don't you tell us about that?

Dr. TATUM: Well, I was very delighted to see that Spelman College was represented in all of the national rankings: the U.S. News & World Report, Princeton Review. But the one that I was most excited about was the Washington Monthly. And they look at three factors: social mobility, research and community service. And I was delighted to see that in terms of social mobility, Spelman was ranked number one.

CHIDEYA: So recently, we had a Roundtable panel, our everyday Roundtable that got into some of the challenges facing HBCUs. And I just wanted to play you a little something from Michael Meyers, one of our panelists.

Dr. TATUM: Okay.

Mr. MICHAEL MEYERS (Executive Director, New York Civil Rights Coalition): We don't need black colleges. We don't need white colleges. That's just old hat. We need non-racial institutions of higher education. We have to see that race-identifiable colleges are anachronistic.

CHIDEYA: What do you think about that? Because in addition, of course, to being all female, Spelman is a historically black college.

Dr. TATUM: I think that there's a need for diversity in education. There's a need for women's colleges as well for historically black colleges as - and, of course, Spelman is both. I think it is important for all colleges to be open to everyone, and Spelman, of course, has always been available to anyone who wanted to apply.

Having said that, though, I think it's important to say that - and I speak as someone who has been educated entirely myself at predominantly white institutions and spent most of my professional life working in predominantly white institutions. And what I would say is, of course, there are many excellent institutions where African-Americans students can be well educated, but there is something special about coming to an institution where you can say this place was built for me.

CHIDEYA: I want to play you one more clip from our Roundtable, our recent Roundtable. Economist Julianne Malveux brought up the issue of financing.

Ms. JULIANNE MALVEUX (Economist): These schools need to be saved. The people I have ire with are these HBCU alums that aren't giving to their schools. Princeton has 66 percent alumni-giving rate. Morgan State shows up as NA - in other words, not applicable. In other words, not enough people to count. Now that's what you call a shame.

CHIDEYA: Now, Spelman has been blessed with generous alums and donors, including Bill and Camille Cosby. What do you think separates Spelman from some of the colleges like Clark Atlanta and Morris Brown in the same region that may not be able to do same kind of fundraising?

Dr. TATUM: Implied in your question is that Spelman is a wealthy institution. And what I like to say is that Spelman is a healthy institution. One of the reasons we are healthy is because we have a longstanding practice, a very disciplined practice of not spending money we don't have. So we have been blessed to have received gifts - not only the Cosby gift, which came in the 1980s - but gifts that came in the ‘20s and ‘30s. And dollars that were invested, and that money has grown over time, so our endowment has been built up. And that's been a very helpful thing in terms of Spelman's current fiscal health.

But what is essential to any college's fiscal health, including the fiscal health of Spelman, is active alumnae participation. When you look at the alumnae rate of participation at Spelman College over a five-year period, it is 79 percent - which is fabulous. But if you look at it over an annual period, it's about 16 percent.

One of the things that we are focused on is encouraging our alumnae to recognize that they need to give every year. It would certainly transform our ability to fund more of our students in terms of financial aid and scholarships. And I think it's a real education process.

Every school, I think, really needs to focus on this. And sometimes, you know, it takes money to raise money. It costs money to send up the mailings. It costs money to do the telethons. It costs money to do some of the things that more affluent, predominantly white institutions have been doing for many years.

But Spelman, I think, is in a position to be a model for other historically black colleges in the sense that we are really focused on this. And we believe, if given the opportunity and given the information, our alumnae will respond to our every woman, every year effort.

CHIDEYA: Moving beyond Spelman, how do you think a sort of systemic issue of funding historically black colleges and universities could be addressed?

Dr. TATUM: Well, certainly, historically black colleges and universities have made a tremendous contribution to the education of our population, and that needs to be perhaps more widely acknowledged than it is. One of the things that you can say, if you look at the leadership of our African-American community, you will find that graduates of historically black colleges and universities are very well represented.

But the reality is in local communities, some of the smaller, perhaps lesser-known historically black colleges have been contributing greatly to that local economy in terms of taking students who are sometimes under-prepared because of the inequities of our K through 12 educational system and helping them move from, perhaps, first generation college to college graduate to contributing member of the economy, and contributing in terms of civic participation.

That's a very important legacy. It is true that there are some colleges that are really struggling. But it is important, I think, to continue to recognize that these colleges and universities are serving populations that do not have ready access to other institutions. And that's an important role.

CHIDEYA: You know, I'm thinking here, specifically about Morris Brown…

Dr. TATUM: Yes.

CHIDEYA: …and it may be delicate for you to comment on other school, but that college - which is right in the same region as you - has had so much trouble financially and even academically. Is there any way to strengthen partnerships between historically black colleges and universities that are in the same region? How do you interact with the other schools, because Atlanta is really a hub for the HBCUs?

Dr. TATUM: Absolutely. The Atlanta University Center Consortium represents Morehouse College, Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, The Interdenominational Theological Center - which is also known as ITC - and Morehouse School of Medicine. Morris Brown, when it was an accredited institution, was also a member. Since it has lost its accreditation, it is no longer a member. And that is, you know, an unfortunate circumstance.

However, when we were all together as part of the Atlanta University Center Consortium and continuing - the schools that continue to be members - we do work together in a variety of ways. For example, Clark Atlanta, Morehouse College and Spelman College share a dual degree engineering program.

We have exchanged relationships with other schools - Georgia Tech, the University of Michigan, other engineering schools - but the office which supports those dual degree engineering students is collectively supported by the three undergraduate institutions of the Atlanta University Center.

So we are able to save some money as the result of keeping out dollars together and combining resources in a variety of ways. But we are also part of a larger consortium of schools in the greater Atlanta area known as the Atlanta Regional Consortium of Higher Education, sometimes referred to as ARCH.

And that's important, too, because historically black colleges do play an important role in higher education, but we are also part of the wider world of education. And we want to be in relationship with predominantly white institutions, as we are Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Agnes Scott College, as well as the ones with whom we have a historic relationship.

CHIDEYA: Finally, in your book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, you provide a different perspective on what some people have called self-segregation. If someone is listening now who's heard everything you've had to say, but still isn't necessarily sold on the need for historically black colleges in the year 2006 - I mean, make an argument for why this isn't self segregation, or isn't just self segregation.

Dr. TATUM: If we think about the college years as a time when you are really exploring who you are, what you hope to be, how you want to define yourself and if you are from a group that has been historically marginalized and undervalued, having the opportunity to attend a school where - as I said earlier, you are at the center of the educational experience, where your intellectually development, your leadership development is at the core of the mission of the institution - is a very empowering experience which is hard to find in the context of a society that still advantages those who are white, disadvantages those who are not.

I think recognizing that important exploration of identity and what it means to be thinking about who you are, who you can be in the world at a particular moment in your development as a young adult is really critical. Certainly, when we think about opportunities for young people to get to know each other across racial lines, it is very important to create places where that can happen.

It's important K through 12, I think, for us to provide schools that are racially integrated. But just as women's colleges are still important because of the confidence building that they provide for women during a critical period during their young adult years, in the same way I think we can point to historically black colleges as creating an important opportunity during a critical period in one's life.

Now I will say that, you know, I myself attended a predominantly white institution as a college student. I benefited from that experience. But I can see clearly the value that our students at Spelman are experiencing, and I can see some of the disadvantages that my own children have experienced in predominantly white environments and the benefit that has come to them when they've had the opportunity to connect with others who have been affirming of their identity.

CHIDEYA: Well, President Tatum, thank you so much.

Dr. TATUM: Thank you.

COX: That was NPR's Farai Chideya talking with President Beverly Daniel Tatum of Spelman College. She's also the author of books, including Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: Coming up, is it time for Donald Rumsfeld to step down? We'll tell you who says yes. And a controversial plan to cut crime in New Orleans has some locals up in arms.

This is NPR News.

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