In June 2015, Dr. Beverly Tatum will retire after 13 years as the ninth President of Spelman College. During her leadership of the historically black women’s college in Atlanta, Tatum, 59, raised annual alumni giving to 41%—one of the highest among historically black institutions. Tatum will leave the school having led a 10-year campaign that raised $157.8 million and garnered the support of 71% of the school nearly 17,000 alumnae.
Spelman is an exceptional school in more ways than one: it’s one of the oldest Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the U.S., and it has an endowment of $357 million—the average private HBCU endowment is around $38 million. In 2014, Spelman ranked number 65 on U.S. News and World Report’s annual list of the nation’s top liberal arts colleges, the next highest ranked HBCU—Morehouse College—comes in at number 126.
But because Spelman is an HBCU, it’s often mentioned in discussions about the overall fate of black institutions, which face dire financial situations, declining enrollment and questions about their relevance in the 21st century. Tatum says the comparisons aren’t always fair. “Just as we as individuals tend to be stereotyped, lumped together as a group, in the same way the institutions that are serving African Americans are lumped together and are stereotyped as a group. We have to work very hard to penetrate that bias,” Tatum tells TIME.
In an hour-long wide-ranging interview, Tatum spoke about why we should not consider HBCU’s as a monolith, the problems with the Department of Education’s plan to marry financial aid and graduation rates, and what’s next for her post-retirement. The following interview has been condensed and edited for space.
You’re retiring in June of next year. Why now?
In the life of a college president 12, what will be 13 years is a long time. The average span of a college president is about 6 or 7 years. It’s a very demanding job—I’m just ready for a new chapter. But I think it’s also a great time to pass the baton. If you think about being a president as like running a relay race, you get the baton from one person and when you get it you run as fast as you can to make as much progress and then you have to pass it to somebody else. I wanted to pass it while there was a lot of momentum.
Your 10-year fundraising campaign raised $157.8 million, with contributions from 71% of alumnae. Forty-one percent of your alumnae give annually. Can Spelman be a model for other small liberal arts colleges and other HBCUs, specifically?
When I started in 2002 [annual giving] was about 13%. I knew that the future of the college really depended on strong alumni support on an annual basis because when you go to foundations, corporations, and other donors outside the alumnae community one of the first questions they’ll ask you is, “what is the level of support from your graduates?” If your graduates aren’t supporting you, why should anybody else? But, I do know that it’s very labor intensive. When you think about a donor who hasn’t been regularly giving to the college and you call her on the phone or you meet with her in person, the first gift she makes might be a small gift. Maybe $25, $50, or $100, but it’s not necessarily going to be a big check. And you spend a lot of time and energy just to get her to write that first check. There are schools that will likely say it’s not worth my time to focus on that little gift, I need to focus on those big gifts that are going to really help sustain me. 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.
What does the future of Spelman look like?
I think the future of Spelman is bright. Strong philanthropic support, great students, a wonderful tradition of excellence that I’m sure will continue into the future. But I think the next President will certainly need to be thinking a lot about the impact of technology in terms of this rapidly changing world we live in. There are lots of conversations in higher education right now that any new president should be thinking about. I often say when I’m asked what the characteristics of that new president should be—and obviously it’s the board’s decision to choose— but it should be someone who can be a really fast runner; someone who can take that baton and just go with it.
What’s next for you?
It has been tremendous honor to serve as the President of Spelman College. It’s been a high point of my career and I’m looking forward to this coming year. Before I became the President of Spelman I was a professor, but I was also a writer. I want to return to writing. So my first project will be to work on my next book. One of the books I want to revisit is “Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” which was written in 1996. I want to reflect on the last 20 years and figure out what I will say differently, but I don’t know the answer to that question yet.
How has the overall college landscape changed during your time as the leader at Spelman?
I think the concern about cost and affordability has really gotten more intense. How can we provide [an education] in a cost effective way so that students can afford to come—whether that’s providing more financial aid or figuring out a way to offer it less expensively. Because we know that everyone needs an education, but a lot of today’s students can’t afford it. And I think that that conversation has really gotten more significant for everyone, not just at HBCUs, in part because the vast majority of today’s high school students are coming out of low to moderate income families and are often first generation college students. It’s not just an HBCU question. Everybody has to figure out, how do we make this more affordable?
I know that’s something First Lady Michelle Obama has been focusing on, increasing access to higher education, particularly among African American students. But at the same time the Obama Administration is working to distribute funding based on graduation rates, which have long been a problem for HBCUs. What do you make of that?
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. One of the things we take great pride in at Spelman is our ability to graduate students at a high rate, but even at Spelman we have found since the Great Recession it’s become more difficult for us to maintain that graduation rate. More and more students are having to step out because of financial concern. 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. You have no reason for it not to be. 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.
Do you think that proposal will have an adverse impact on HBCUs in particular?
HBCUs have historically served those students who are most at-risk. Every HBCU is different. If you’re a school that has more open enrollment, more selective and students who are financially challenged you are hopefully going to transform their lives through the education you provide but your graduation rate is not going to be as high as someone who is dealing with a different socio-economic demographic. Graduation rates of institutions serving high percentages of under-served students should be evaluated in relationship to predicted retention rates for low income first generation students.
In previous interviews you have said people often talk about HBCUs as if they’re monolithic, as if they’re the same school. Where do you think the disconnect is in understanding HBCUs and addressing issues that face them?
That really has to do with understanding African Americans in general. Just as we as individuals tend to be stereotyped, lumped together as a group, in the same way the institutions that are serving African Americans are lumped together and are stereotyped as a group. We have to work very hard to penetrate that bias. You don’t regularly read articles about predominately white institutions are in trouble. You know what I mean? You don’t. So why is that when an HBCU closes its doors because of a loss of enrollment or loss of accreditation we read articles in which all of us get mentioned? That is, I think, just consistent with the stereotypes that have permeated our culture about people of color and the institutions of color.
What about the question of HBCU’s relevancy? Is that the same issue?
It’s a very interesting question. Why do people ask this question? We know that the history of HBCUs is that they were created at a time when there was no opportunity because of segregation, at a time when there was no educational access for African Americans. 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.
I had a really interesting conversation with a white male educator and he asked me about the relevance. He went to an Ivy League school and said he would have really benefitted from having women like the women who choose Spelman at my college. He said that would have really benefitted his education. I understood what he was saying, but he failed to realize the privilege in his statement. The parent who writes that check for their daughter to go to college is not thinking, “she’s going to help someone else get a good education.” They’re writing that check because this is the best possible experience for their daughter. And one of the benefits for American higher education is that there are a lot of different schools to choose from. If that guy really wanted access to smart, Spelman women he could have enrolled at Morehouse. [laughs].