Women of Power: Spelman College President Beverly Tatum Talks Fundraising, Fitness and Retirement

In 2002, Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D., took over as president of the prestigious Spelman College. In her 12 years of presidency, her work at the university has brought about change and progression that has made national headlines for being one of the most creative and innovative educational institutions for women of color. Her most recent accomplishment came earlier this year when it was announced that the college had exceeded its fundraising campaign goal and raised $157.8 million toward improving academic programs and campus facilities.

To mark 10 years of legacy for the Black Enterprise Women of Power Summit, Tatum will receive the Barbara Graves Award in March 2015 for her awesome leadership in STEM advocacy and education. The award, created in honor of Graves, the exemplary matriarch of Black Enterprise magazine, who co-founded and guided the summit.

BlackEnterprise.com caught up with Spelman’s leading lady to get the scoop on how she was able to raise a historic $157.8 million, the changes she’s brought to the institution and what’s next for her after retirement.

What do you think is Spelman’s secret to having so much financial support in a time when a lot of HBCUs are struggling to stay alive financially?

One of the things we take a lot of pride in is that our alumni really rallied during this campaign. We raised $157.8 million and 71% of our graduates made a contribution during the course of our campaign. Not only are we excited about the fact that so many people made a commitment to the campaign, but we’ve been working on increasing our alumni participation on an annual basis. We’re trying to get every Spelman woman to make a gift to the college on an annual basis, not just when she’s coming back for reunion or entering a special fundraiser drive. This year, 41% of our graduates made a gift to the annual fund and when we started our campaign that number was more like 13 or 14%, so it’s really grown a lot.

We’ve also worked hard on making sure our graduates understand why it’s so important. If you look at where the total dollars in our campaign came from, it didn’t all come from alumni. In fact, some of the biggest gifts came from people who didn’t go to Spelman, but were passionate about women’s education, or particularly women of color, and could see the value of the investment.

Since you came to Spelman in 2002 you’ve made a lot of changes including ending all sports programs in 2012 and starting a fitness initiative. What was your reason for doing this?

In 2011 we realized that we had to make some changes in our athletic program because of things that were happening external to our institution. We were a part of an athletic league that was falling apart. We were either going to have to join a new one or figure out something. As we started thinking about it we became aware that a very small percentage of our students, in fact, 80 were actually participating in NCAA intercollegiate athletics. Meanwhile, we had a population of 2,000, most of whom were not physically active. So it didn’t make sense to spend a million dollars or more on a small program that only a few people were benefiting from when we could take those dollars and invest in a campus-wide wellness initiative that will benefit everybody. When we think about the health issues that so many black women suffer from, particularly as you move into your 30s and 40s, it became important to me to think about what we could do as an educational institution to really educate our students about how to take care of themselves physically.

Now, what has been the response from the Spelman community?

So the 80 student-athletes who were on campus at the time were disappointed, but at the same time half of them were graduating before the changes took place. The vast majority of students saw the benefit, and even after explaining what the thinking was, some of the athletes could say it made sense.

I’m pleased to say everyone is getting more active. If you come on campus in the spring we now have an annual 5K, and 700 students participated in the first one. The second one was this past spring and the number was even higher. It’s exciting to see that people are rallying around it, and we were able to raise $18 million to build a new facility. So our old gym, which was built in 1950, has been torn down and a new one is being constructed as we speak and when it opens in the spring of 2015 it will be a real magnet for student activity.

With all of the success that’s going on at Spelman, you have announced that you are retiring next year. Why now?

I would say why now because one, we had this big campaign which came to an end in June. So June 30, 2014 was the end of our very successful campaign. In the fall I will turn 60 years-old, and while you don’t have to retire when you’re 60, it’s a natural point of transition to maybe think about doing something else. We have a lot of momentum, and I like to say that being president is kind of like running a relay race. You take the baton from the person who came before you, you run with it as fast as you can to make as much progress as you can, and then you have to pass it to someone else. And if you’ve ever watched a relay race, one of the things you can say is that the relay runner speeds up before he or she passes the baton. So I wanted to pass the baton while I was still running pretty fast.

What leadership advice do you have for the person who will be following in your footsteps?

I have two things to say about that. One is, whenever I’m asked for advice I say listen to that small, still voice within because that will always give you great guidance. That has been my experience and I recommend that to anybody. But the other thing that I would say is run your own race. You know, it’s natural that the comparisons will be made. When I first came to Spelman I was sometimes compared to previous presidents, but at the end of the day all you can be is yourself. I’m quite sure the board of trustees will make a great choice, and whoever that person is will do it her own way.

What are your plans after Spelman?

I’m excited about the opportunity to return to my scholarship. I’ve written several books and my focus has been on race relations in the United States, the psychology of racism, we might say. I’m very interested in talking to young people of the 21st century. Think about this, if you were born in 2000, you will be 17 in 2017. You were 8 when President Obama was elected. What does it mean to you, whether you are of African descent, or you are white, or Asian, or Hispanic? What does it mean to have grown up in the age of Obama? I’m very interested in talking to young people about that.