Incoming Spelman president sees need to advocate for higher education

Spelman College has named former New York University dean Mary Schmidt Campbell as its next president.

Campbell is dean emerita of the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, where she served more than two decades before retiring last year. Her extensive background in education, the arts and public service includes past positions as the chairwoman of the New York State Council on the Arts, New York City’s cultural affairs commissioner and vice chairwoman of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, appointed by President Barack Obama.

Campbell will replace Beverly Tatum, who retires this summer after 13 years at the helm of the acclaimed historically black women’s college.

Campbell was on campus last week for meetings with faculty, students and alumnae. She talked with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about her background, issues facing higher education institutions and the relevance of historically black colleges.

Q: What led you to Spelman College?

A: I had retired as dean of the Tisch School, and was hard at work on writing and researching my book (a biography of artist and writer Romare Bearden). But as I grew to know more and more about Spelman and its ideals and values, and examined my own experiences over past 35 years, I realized that the set of experiences and skills that I had developed were an exceptionally good fit for where Spelman is today and where it sees itself in the next five to 10 years.

Q: What did you hear from Spelman students during your visit last week?

A: It was more what I observed about them. These are women who are incredibly ambitious with higher aspirations, are willing to work extremely hard to prepare themselves to develop the kind of skills to make them competitive. What was also evident was that for all of their personal ambition, they have even more ambition for Spelman college. They are absolutely committed to making sure that their experience has been transformative, shaped them, has given them a community for life. They very much want to make sure the college is in good hands.

Q: As the incoming leader of such a prestigious school, how would you view your role in national conversations on higher education issues, such as college access and affordability, along with college ratings and accountability?

A: There is a lack of enthusiasm in higher education that seems to have become so pervasive nationally. The national conversation (on these issues) has to make an alliance with the business community, federal and local governments to state in no uncertain terms the value of higher education, liberal arts and the need for our country to make major investments in those areas. Up to now, I think it's been every college for himself or herself, but I think that is no longer tenable. I think we have to form a case of stories or examples, and have to find ambassadors to speak to what a college education contributes to shaping your life, values and sense of purpose.

Q: Are historically black higher education institutions still relevant?

A: I think one of the real hallmarks of American higher education is its diversity. You have large research universities in major cities, small liberal arts schools in the outskirts of those cities, public universities, military academies … (Historically black colleges and universities) are part of the landscape that exists among American universities.

One of the first things I noticed when I came to Spelman for my first visit last September was that this is a school where black women are the heart and soul of the mission … For better or for worse that is not a statement that many colleges can make, and we have to preserve that. Spelman prides itself on its membership as an HBCU, but Spelman has not in any way exempted itself from being competitive with every other school in the country. That’s one of the things that makes colleges exceptional. I think that’s a model for the women who come there, to know that I can have allegiance with my black experience but I can also compete in the world.

Campbell’s remarks were edited for length and clarity.