On December 4, CREW Atlanta hosted a fireside chat with Spelman College President Beverly Tatum at the Atlanta History Center. Dr. Tatum is an accomplished writer, clinical psychologist, and nationally recognized expert on racial identity development and the role of race in the classroom.
Before taking the stage for a conversation with CREW Atlanta President, Christine Gorham, we asked Dr. Tatum to share her thoughts on women in leadership, the development of young female leaders, and how colleges and universities are working to create safe and inclusive environments.
Q: Only 26% of college presidents in the U.S. are women while more than 57% of the students in colleges and universities are women. Do women in higher education face unique leadership development challenges compared to their peers in corporate America?
A: Given that the percentage of women CEOs in corporate America is less than 10%, it would seem that the opportunity for women to lead at the top is greater in the world of higher education. That said, the growth in the percentage of female college presidents has been slow. The average age of college presidents today is 61 years of age, which means that we can anticipate a wave of retirements and new presidential appointments in the next few years. It is a significant opportunity to see a change in the face of college and university leadership. College presidents are selected by boards of trustees, and most boards are still dominated by men. If those men are proactive in seeking out diverse candidates, we could see significant growth in the number of women in leadership over the next few years. Now is a great time for women interested in academic leadership to prepare themselves by seeking out developmental opportunities and for those of us currently in leadership roles to actively mentor and sponsor the next generation of institutional leaders.
Q: What role should colleges and universities play in preparing young women not only for successful careers, but also to become the next generation of leaders in their chosen professions?
A: Exposing young women to role models whose career paths can serve as a source of inspiration is very important. At Spelman we are intentional in our efforts to do so. In particular, we work to connect our students with our alumnae in career fields that are of interest to them. It is hard to become something you have never seen, so it is important to make the success of women leaders very visible to them. It is also important to provide the kinds of experiences that will serve as a foundation for leadership. Learning how to think critically, solve problems, communicate effectively, and connect effectively with others across lines of difference – these tools are the hallmark of a strong liberal arts education and the tools all great leaders have.
Q: Many colleges and universities are struggling to address racial tensions, sexual violence and cheating among student athletes. Are these challenges indicative of a culture breakdown in higher education, or are campuses merely a microcosm of the nation? What changes would you like to see happening on college campuses?
A: College campuses are not islands. The students we educate bring the influences of their families and their home communities to campus with them. Regrettably the fact that most young people are still growing up in segregated neighborhoods means that they have limited experience engaging with other people across racial lines, and their attitudes are still being shaped to a large extent by media stereotypes and parental attitudes. Exposure to images of sexual exploitation and violence in the media is a daily occurrence and the disrespectful treatment of women that is still rampant in our society seeps onto college campuses as well. The same might be said about cheating. Too often we celebrate those who “win” without questioning the means they used to achieve the “win.” As parents and educators, we have to model the behavior we want to see in our children and our students. Educational institutions need to provide opportunities for students to examine their assumptions, and to learn to think critically about the messages they receive daily, and the way those messages are reflected in their own language and behavior. As we raise consciousness about that, we often see behaviors change. But that kind of critical thinking requires focused attention to develop.