By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Dec. 21, 2018
For Spelman College President Mary Schmidt Campbell, the proposed Center for Innovation and the Arts has been central to bringing her to Atlanta.
Spelman got a major boost earlier this month when it announced that trustee Ronda Stryker and her husband William Johnston are donating $30 million to help build the Center, the first new academic facility on its campus since 1996. It is the largest gift Spelman has received from a living donor.
The proposed Center, however, played a special role in connecting Campbell to Spelman.
During the summer of 2014, Campbell received a call from then-President Beverly Tatum.
“Dr. Tatum, whom I had never met, called me when I was in retirement,” Campbell recalled during an interview on Dec. 16. “She said: ‘We are going to build a new arts facility, and we would love to have you look at it.’ It was the first time in my life I had been to Spelman.”
Campbell has had a rich background in the arts. She began her career with the Studio Museum in Harlem, where she served as its leader for a decade. The late New York City Mayor Edward Koch named Campbell to serve as his commissioner of cultural affairs in 1987. She later became dean of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in the fall of 1991, where she remained for more than two decades before retiring.
Also, President Barack Obama appointed Campbell as vice chair of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities in 2009. And Campbell has served on numerous boards of arts and cultural organizations and foundations throughout her career. (More recently, Campbell authored the book: “An American Odyssey: the Life and Work of Romare Bearden” – the celebrated artist of murals and collages who she had met in the 1970s).
So Campbell came to Spelman in September 2014 as a consultant to study the feasibility of a new arts facility. Tatum was out of town, but Campbell met with Ayoka Chenzira, an independent filmmaker who is now division chair for the Arts, as well as other members of the faculty and the Spelman family.
She wrote her report, and she gave it to Tatum. Then two months later, she got a call from Celeste Watkins, chair of a newly-formed search committee, who asked, would she be interested in becoming president of Spelman? Campbell quickly answered that she was retired.
“Two months later I was sitting in a search committee meeting,” Campbell said. “I said: ‘I don’t want to formally put my hat in the ring, but I’ll talk to the committee.’”
Rosalind “Roz” Brewer, chair of the Spelman Board of Trustees who is now president and chief operating officer for Starbucks Corp. (Nasdaq: SBUX), asked everyone to go around the table to say what Spelman meant to them.
That’s when Campbell realized, “This is an extraordinary community.” She had gotten hooked, and on Aug. 3, 2015, Campbell became Spelman’s new president.
The all-women’s liberal arts college consistently ranks on the top of every listing of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. While many of the nation’s 74 HBCUs are facing financial challenges, Spelman has become the model of success. It has about 2,100 students enrolled, and it is getting more difficult to gain admission. It accepts only 39 percent of its applicants.
More than 85 percent of its students get financial aid, and 48 percent of its students are eligible for Pell grants, limited to families making $40,000 a year or less. “This is not a rich girl’s school,” Campbell said. “These are hard-working families for whom education is invaluable.”
The new Center for Innovation and the Arts will solidify Spelman as a place that intersects the sciences and the arts.
“In this day and age, you have to have creative thinking. It is essential for innovation,” said Campbell, adding that the building will have an expanded innovation lab that will marry the role of technology within the teaching of the arts. “You don’t have to choose between the arts and science.”
The Center will cost $86 million, which will include a $10 million operating endowment. Construction on the Center will begin when at least $70 million has been raised. Spelman and the Atlanta University Center Collective also received a recent $5.4 million gift from the Walton Family Foundation, which will complement the new facility.
Spelman has had a history of successful fundraising. In 1992, it received a $37 million bequest from the founder of Reader’s Digest – DeWitt Wallace. At that time, the college had an endowment of only $51 million.
“With that bequest, it jumped to $88 million, and it is now at $394 million,” said Campbell, who credited her predecessors for the college’s strong financial standing. “We’ve had a long history of strong leaders.”
But she also recognizes that the college has room to improve when compared to top tier universities. “Most of the $100 million gifts go to the wealthiest colleges,” she said.
Under Spelman’s strategic plan, Campbell said a goal is to increase the number of endowed professorships from three to 15 – one way to better recognize the quality of teaching and research conducted by its faculty.
Campbell also has set a goal, one she admits will be almost impossible to accomplish, to have 100 percent of its students graduate within six years.
“We are now at 77 percent. The national average for African-American women is 44 percent,” she said. “But to reach that goal (of 100 percent), I have to have scholarships. We now give $17 million in scholarships. I need $10 million to $12 million more to help our students.”
Campbell also said a top priority is to modernize Spelman’s technology infrastructure, which she generously described as “quaint.” During the summer, it will install a new fiber network to ensure its ability to have the latest technology.
Lastly, a central focus for her over the next several years will be the Center for Innovation and the Arts. “I want to see this building get built,” Campbell said. “ I want to see us make significant progress towards our strategic goals.”
At 71, Campbell and her husband have welcomed coming out of retirement and coming to Atlanta.
“Atlanta was new to me,” she said. “It’s a very hospitable city and an incredibly civic city with Rotary Club, the Metro Atlanta Chamber, the Atlanta Committee for Progress…. That was a brand new thing for me as a newcomer.”
She has become engaged in efforts to revitalize the Westside communities around the Atlanta University Center, and she sees an opportunity for the communities becoming a neighborhood of choice for the 3,000 faculty and staff members of the Atlanta University campus.
Campbell, who does not have an end date for her tenure as president, is committed to helping improve the lives of African American women. Incidentally, she and her husband have three sons and six grandchildren, of which five are boys. And they also have a home in Big Sky, Montana.
“I want to look back over my shoulder and say, ‘I came to this rich storied place, and I made a contribution that took it to the next level,’ ” she said. “Whatever we do has to capture the uniqueness of the black woman’s voice.”