Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D., announced that she will retire as president of Spelman College at the end of this academic year, effective as of June 30, 2022.

Mary Schmidt Campbell leaves a legacy of challenges met and successes marked when she retires at the end of June from her post as the tenth president of Spelman College.

She faced no small number of challenges during her presidency: the COVID-19 epidemic; the protests and upheaval following the police murder of George Floyd; controversies surrounding admitting transgendered students; and sexual assaults on campus.

Her successes include a five-year fundraising campaign that exceeded initial expectations and created an endowment that now approaches $500 million; a significant upgrade to the college’s creaky IT infrastructure; additional aid to students; expanding coursework in science and technology; and maintaining Spelman’s place at the top of the list of the country’s elite HBCUs, historically black colleges and universities.

Campbell’s varied career has included work for museums, a stint as cultural affairs commissioner for the city of New York, and the deanship of New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts. At age 74, she gives every indication of having had the time of her life in her seven years at Spelman.

Atlanta Senior Life talked with Campbell recently about Spelman and about her plans. Answers have been edited for space.

Q. Why are you stepping away at this point?

I committed to five years at Spelman (in 2015). When we drew near the five-year time frame, I was asked to renew my commitment. My husband and I thought very long and carefully and made the decision that two more years was reasonable because it would mean I would have time to complete work on our capital campaign … and that I would have time to complete work on our strategic plan.

Q. You built a strong background in museums and cultural affairs. What prompted the shift to academia?

I consider a museum essentially an educational institution. Yes, we collect and, yes, we mount expeditions, but we do so for the purpose of enlightening and instructing the public. When I arrived at New York University, that’s when I began to profoundly grasp how effective the arts were in terms of teaching. So, when I was invited to consider Spellman, it seemed to me that the arts could be a force that could be generative for the liberal arts.

Q. What are you most proud of looking back on your Spelman sojourn?

Spelman has long had a reputation for excellence. The two founders in 1881 said this school will be second to none and here we are 141 years later, and Spelman is the number one HBCU. (U.S. News and World Report ranking).
When we set out to do the capital campaign, we had advisers who thought maybe setting a goal of $200 million would be ambitious for Spelman. We decided to push that envelope and set a goal of $250 million dollars in five years. I am very pleased to say that the campaign has now exceeded, I think it’s somewhere around $315 million dollars that has been raised.

Q. What has the money been used for thus far?

Scholarships were the number one goal. That was very important. Also increasing support for our faculty. Our faculty teach with a very high course load, so we used the money to help support their research and creative efforts. Another goal was, as I like to say, Spelman had a very quaint technology infrastructure and so we had launched a complete digital transformation of the school.

Q. What about challenges and perhaps frustrations during your tenure? For instance, the issue involving the admission of transgendered students.

When we began the conversation maybe five or six years ago, there was a great deal of consternation because people thought we were perhaps changing or altering the mission of the school. We spent a year thinking about what our policy should be, and then we spent another year making people sure we were going to unroll that policy. I think it also created a climate where people were more understanding of the fact that when young people come to college, they’re exploring who they are. I felt like the campus grew during that period of time and we became comfortable discussing our diversity wherever that diversity might reside.

Q. And then there was the COVID. How big was that an issue for Spelman?

It was a problem for everybody in the country and the world. However, we had the distinct advantage of being part of a consortium that had in it a leading medical school and we had the advantage of having a very proactive and highly-organized leader in [Morehouse School of Medicine President and Dean] Dr. Valerie Montgomery who brought to bear the expertise of faculty, staff, and physicians to help the consortium think through the protocols and practices we could put into place to continue to educate our students and keep them healthy and safe.

Q. What about challenges to Spelman and HBCU’s in general going forward?

For Spelman, you may know we had a very unexpected enrollment surge, so one of the challenges will be to determine how large our residential stock should be to accommodate the number of students we need to accommodate on campus.
A challenge also is affordability. It is going to be important to the college to continue what we have started, to find sources other than tuition to bring in as income so we don’t have to rely on continually increasing the tuition each year.

Q. And for HBCUs in general?

I think the largest challenge for HBCUs and frankly for the African American community, in general, is affordability. I think we’re all looking forward to the time when the government will substantially increase the Pell Grant so that we can provide more financial aid resources to students and relieve some of the burden on the schools to come up with more financial aid.

Q. What will you do in your post-Spelman phase?

I have several writing commissions. I am assuming I will continue to get those commissions and assignments. I have grandchildren — with an eighth on the way — so I will get to play grandma many times over. My husband and I have been married 53 years and we thoroughly enjoy each other’s company, so we’ll get to do more of that, as well.

Mark Woolsey

Mark Woolsey is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.