Donald Stewart led Spelman to new heights as last male president

Donald Stewart, Spelman College’s last male president, improved academics and left the school on a more solid financial footing.

Donald Stewart, Spelman College’s last male president, improved academics and left the school on a more solid financial footing.

When Spelman College named Donald M. Stewart its sixth president 1976, the female students, “went ballistic,” a former pupil recalled.

Four of Spelman’s previous presidents had been white women and the fifth a black man. Believing the time long overdue for an African-American woman being named president, some Spelman sisters roped the school boardroom door closed, locking in several trustees. For roughly 24 hours students took shifts guarding the rope.

“During that time I went into the student center, and standing right there was Daddy King,” (Martin Luther King Sr.) said the Rev. Cassandra Aline Jones, a 1979 graduate. “He told us, ‘I support what you young people are doing, just remember to stay peaceful.’ “

By the time Stewart brought his family to campus that fall, tempers had simmered down.

“We were young,” his wife Isabel Stewart said recently. “We had two young boys and a dog. That softened people.”

It didn’t hurt that Stewart’s personality and intellect took the school, founded in 1881, to new heights.

During his 10 years, Spelman’s endowment grew from $9 million to more than $41 million. A gift negotiated with DeWitt Wallace added another $37 million to that when the gift matured in 1992, five years after Stewart left.

According to a 1986 New York Times article, the average SAT scores of entering freshman escalated 100 points during his tenure. About half of Spelman’s professors had doctorates when Stewart took over; that jumped to 74 percent. The enrollment expanded from 1,200 to 1,600 students.

To many, it seemed like he knew them all.

“I had a classmate who lost both her parents during her senior year,” Jones said. “Both the Stewarts called her, asked her how she was, if there was anything she needed. That is something my friend has never forgotten.”

Donald Mitchell Stewart died of natural causes in his hometown of Chicago April 7. The funeral is April 20, 11 a.m. at University Church of Chicago, 5655 South University Avenue.

Read and sign the online guestbook for Donald M. Stewart

He was born in 1938 to Elmer Ashton Stewart, who worked for the Postal Service, and Anna Lucy Stewart, who sold World Book Encyclopedias to help put Don and his younger sister Ruth Ann Stewart — later a professor at New York University — through school.

He graduated from Grinnell College (Iowa) in 1959 with a bachelor’s in political science. He earned a master’s in political science from Yale University, and a master’s and doctorate in public administration from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

In 1960-62 he also attended the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Switzerland, although his wife said, “He mostly studied skiing.”

They met on a complicated blind date involving three couples where, she said, “nobody liked anybody.” But Don persisted, and they married in 1965 in Philadelphia. They honeymooned in Europe and North Africa and, through his work with the Overseas Development Division of The Ford Foundation from 1962 through 1969, lived in Nigeria, Egypt and Tunisia.

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“We were planning an international life of adventure,” Isabel Stewart said. “But then came the assassinations [Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King] in 1968. We knew we wanted to come back and take part in the movement.”

Stewart spent several years teaching and helping administer at the University of Pennsylvania before coming to Spelman.

Marian Wright Edelman, a 1960 Spelman grad and later a MacArthur Fellow and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, was on the board of trustees that hired him. She was also one of those locked in by angry students.

“Well, of course I wanted a black woman president just like they did,” Edelman said this week. “They locked us up with no access to the bathroom, although we did have some nice trash cans. I don’t blame them. I would’ve done the same thing if I’d been them.

“But I wasn’t going to back down,” she said. “We scoured the country and we found the best choice in Isabel and Don, an extraordinary couple. They were young, vibrant, attractive and smart. And he made the college a national institution that competed on a national level.”

During Stewart’s time Spelman established a foreign travel-study program, a comprehensive writing program and the Women’s Research and Resource Center. It built strength in the sciences, technology and math (STEM) and established chemistry and computer science departments.

Spelman is now the number one institution in producing African American woman who get doctorates in the STEM field, according to Myra Burnett, Spelman’s Vice President, Institutional Research, Planning and Effectiveness.

“Our success was built over many decades, but it goes back to him,” she said.

After resigning in 1987 — Stewart said he’d stay no longer than 10 years — he became president of the College Board, the nonprofit that administers the SATs. This was during a controversial time in SAT history when detractors claimed the test slighted minority students.

“It’s true the average Scholastic Assessment Test scores for some ethnic minority students are lower than the overall averages. But those scores reflect inequity of education, not bias in the test,” he wrote in a 1995 letter to the New York Times. Under Stewart the board revised the exam, eliminating some of the more formulaic multiple-choice questions and allowed students to use calculators, though it stopped short of requiring essays as some demanded.

For his entire professional life, in one form or another, Stewart followed a long-held mantra where, “I believe in elite education for the non-elite.”

After leaving the College Board in 1999 he became a special advisor to the president and senior program officer in the education division of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. From 2000 to 2005, he was chief executive of Chicago Community Trust, and from 2005 to 2011 was a visiting professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy.

In his last years it wasn’t unusual for Stewart to express pride that he was Spelman’s last male president.

“We all wanted a [black] woman going back a long time,” said Jane Smith, Spelman’s Vice President for College Relations. “But all that [lockdown] was never about him. For all of us who were around back then, Dr. Stewart walks on water.”

Survivors include his wife, Isabel Carter Johnston Stewart, along with their sons, Jay Ashton Stewart (Jasimin Torres), Carter Mitchell Stewart (Michelle Alexander), Gojeb Frehywot and eight grandchildren.

Giles Hall is seen in the background on the campus of Spelman College in Atlanta. (Chris Shinn / Spelman College)

Credit: Chris Shinn

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Credit: Chris Shinn