Spelman President Donald Stewart, center, with Martin Meyerson, left, president of the University of Pennsylvania, and Marian Wright Edelman, right. president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund.
Photo: Spelman College
Photo: Spelman College

Remembering Donald Stewart, sixth president of Spelman College

Spelman President Mary Schmidt Campbell pens a tribute to Donald Stewart, who became the sixth president of the college in 1976. The 80-year-old Stewart died April 7.

According to our AJC archives, Stewart's appointment spurred controversy on the all-female campus as students wanted a woman to lead Spelman. In his first speech to students, Stewart assured them he would not let the "male ego" get in the way of doing what was best for Spelman.

After retiring from Spelman in 1986, Stewart served as president of the College Board where he was credited with expanding AP classes to more high schools and forging closer ties between higher education and the K-12 sector.

> Read Donald Stewart’s obituary from the AJC

By Mary Schmidt Campbell

This is a season of sorrows. With a heavy heart, I bring news of the death of Donald Stewart, Ph.D., sixth president of Spelman College. 

Dr. Stewart assumed the presidency of Spelman in 1977, a time when leadership opportunities in a range of fields were opening up to women. During his tenure, he set into motion a number of initiatives that strengthened Spelman as a center of academic excellence and the development of women as global leaders. 

One of the most innovative initiatives, while he was president, was the establishment of the Women’s Research and Resource Center, the first of its kind on a Black college campus. Courses in women’s studies, conferences, symposia, the publication of a journal, SAGE, as well as the management of the College archives, were all activities conducted by the WRRC. 

With a bachelor's degree from Grinnell College, a master of arts from Yale University and master and doctorate degrees in public administration from Harvard University, Dr. Stewart came to Spelman having served as associate dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences, director of the College of General Studies, and counselor to the provost at the University of Pennsylvania. 

During Dr. Stewart’s tenure, the College continued to build its strength in STEM by establishing chemistry and computer science departments. Long before the digital revolution placed a computer in the hands of every student, President Stewart had the foresight to integrate computers into campus life. Computer literacy was required for all students, and there were ongoing workshops for the faculty. The Academic Computer Center originally housed a DECVAX 11/780 (a leading early microcomputer) for teaching, and a terminal room that contained terminals and microcomputers that accessed the Atlanta University Center computer. 

Dr. Stewart’s presidency was marked by a number of innovations that enriched campus life. He established an Honors Program, a Comprehensive Writing Program and an early version of Spelman’s program for non-traditional students in the form of Continuing Education. 

During President Stewart’s administration, Spelman strengthened its fundraising capacity by establishing a president’s council to enhance the College’s corporate relationships. A gift negotiated with DeWitt Wallace under his leadership matured in 1992 into a $37 million addition to Spelman’s endowment. During Dr. Stewart’s tenure, the endowment grew from $9 million to $41 million. Despite robust endowment growth, the College held firm to its values, and under the leadership of Spelman Board Chair Marian Wright Edelman, C'60, the first Spelman alumna to serve as chair of the Board of Trustees, the trustees approved a plan for total divestment in South Africa. 

Dr. Stewart improved the physical plant of Spelman with the addition of two buildings: the Donald and Isabel Stewart Living-Learning Center I and the Academic Computing Center. Designed to support the belief that education continues outside the classroom, the Living-Learning Center became the site for lectures, forums, discussion groups, and other educational activities, including the visit of Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm as scholar in residence. 

Over the years, I have had the great pleasure of getting to know Dr. Stewart and his elegant and brilliant wife, Isabel. I have come to appreciate that for all President Stewart accomplished at Spelman, he went on to a career of continuing accomplishments after Spelman. Dr. Stewart served as president of the College Board, senior program officer at the Carnegie Corporation and CEO of the Chicago Community Trust. 

He leaves behind his loving wife, two sons and five grandchildren. To his family and to his legions of friends and colleagues here in Atlanta, his hometown of Chicago, and throughout the country, we offer our condolences. Spelman is a better place for the energy, intelligence, and vision he contributed to building a sturdy Spelman future.

> From AJC: Donald Stewart, former Spelman College president, dies

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.