Presidential Voices Interview Series: Beverly Daniel Tatum, Spelman College
AASHE’s Presidential Voices interview series features conversations with heads of higher education institutions who are inspiring sustainability leaders. To recommend a president or chancellor for this series, contact Judy Walton, chief publications officer, at email@example.com.
Beverly Daniel Tatum, Spelman College President since 2002, is our guest for this interview. Spelman is America's oldest historically Black college for women, and a leading liberal arts institution. It has been recognized for its environmental efforts with a Green Key Award from the U.S. EPA. In 2010, Dr. Tatum signed the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). Most recently, she spearheaded a Wellness Revolution at the college to empower and educate Spelman women on the value of lifelong wellness as a means of building strong, sustainable communities. Dr. Tatum is a member of the President’s Board of Advisors to the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. She earned a B.A. degree in psychology from Wesleyan University, and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in clinical psychology from the University of Michigan. She also holds an M.A. in religious studies from Hartford Seminary.
Judy Walton: Why is sustainability important to Spelman, and how does it fit the college’s overall mission and tagline, “A Choice to Change the World?”
Beverly Tatum: Sustainability should be important to everyone because it’s essential to the viability of the planet on which we live. It was listed as a key priority in my 2007 convocation talk, and sustainability goals are incorporated into Spelman’s Strategic Plan for 2015. Sustainability is also listed up front on our About Us page.
When we talk about the mission of Spelman, we talk about preparing young women to be leaders; we talk about educating the whole person—mind, body, and spirit—developing her intellectual, academic and ethical leadership potential. You can’t talk about ethics without talking about responsibility, and you can’t talk about responsibility, in a holistic way, without talking about responsibility for the environment of which we are a part. So when we think about preparing students for the future --preparing them to be ethical leaders – certainly an awareness of sustainability is critical and an important part of what we mean when we say, “A Choice to Change the World.”
As I have said in other contexts, we are changing the world all the time, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. We’re not always conscious of the way we’re changing the world, but each of us in our daily interactions is making an impact. When we think about our environmental impact we want to be conscious of this in order to be good stewards of the planet on which we live and to make sure that the change we’re making is a positive one as opposed to one that’s detrimental to the long- term health of ourselves and those we care about.
JW: What key initiatives have led to Spelman’s recognition as a sustainability leader among HBCUs?
BT: We talk about sustainability at Spelman in the context of three areas of focus: One is traditional environmental sustainability. The second is personal sustainability, which has to do with our own personal health and wellness. The third focus area is communal sustainability -- the health and well-being of our campus as an institution. Each focus area has an initiative associated with it on our campus.
When we talk about environmental sustainability, we highlight Spelman’s Climate Action Plan and its status as a signatory of the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. As part of this commitment, we’ve set a target date for achieving carbon neutrality – we chose the year 2056, which is the 175th anniversary of the College.
We’re also committed to building green. In 2008, The Suites residence hall opened – the first-ever LEED Silver certified residence hall at a historically Black college or university. That commitment has been strengthened by a policy adopted by our board of trustees in 2010 stating that all new construction and renovations will be completed at no less than LEED Silver standards. The renovation of Laura Spelman Rockefeller Hall concluded in the fall of 2012 and we’re delighted that it has received LEED Gold certification. In support of our Wellness Revolution, we are planning a new project – Read Hall, which will of course be completed using LEED standards.
Also under the environmental sustainability umbrella we include curricular innovation and research. Along with everyday opportunities for conservation, we want to provide curriculum to further integrate sustainability across courses and disciplines with the goal of graduating empowered women who embody all three dimensions of Sustainable Spelman. We have faculty and staff Green Leaders who are working on environmental and sustainability solutions regionally, nationally and globally.
When we speak about personal sustainability we highlight our sustainability pledge as well as our Wellness Revolution and all it represents. Whether we’re talking about stroke, heart disease, breast cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, or HIV/AIDS, all these illnesses disproportionately impact Black woman. However, with changes in our diet, behavior, exercise and stress reduction, we can positively impact the current statistics. But we have to be knowledgeable about how to make those changes. Through the Wellness Revolution, we aim to educate the Spelman community on how to start and sustain healthy habits for life-long wellness.
Through communal sustainability we aim to make sure that Spelman College as an institution remains viable for many years. This requires all of us to abide by our standards of excellence which are captured by what we call the 3 C’s: civility, commitment, and consistency in excellence and performance.
JW: AASHE Bulletin recently featured Spelman’s plan to eliminate intercollegiate athletics in order to dedicate resources to a campus-wide fitness/wellness initiative. What was behind this decision, and how do fitness and wellness relate to sustainability?
BT: As I mentioned, personal sustainability is a key priority here at Spelman. When we decided to discontinue our participation in intercollegiate athletics in May 2013, we were not rejecting sports, or even competition -- just the limited benefit that our NCAA participation offered a few student athletes in favor of a program of activity that would support lifelong fitness for all 2,100 of our students.
The intent of our wellness program is to transition our students from high school sports to lifelong fitness. Just as we develop habits of the mind – such as critical-thinking skills that will be used for a lifetime -- we want to develop habits of the body that will support healthy and sustainable living for a lifetime.
If the health status of African-American women is an indicator of the health status of blacks living in America, the news is not good. According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 44 percent of Black women over age 20 have high blood pressure, and Black women are more likely to suffer from ailments such as diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer and stroke and to die from them early in comparison to women of other ethnicities. All of these illnesses are linked to obesity and lack of physical activity.
Given these statistics, the need for a Wellness Revolution at Spelman is urgent, because it is our population -- young black women -- that is among the most at risk for negative health outcomes. Committed to educating the whole person - mind, body and spirit - we have an opportunity to change the health trajectory of the young women we serve. We are taking this opportunity seriously through the development of a creative wellness program. Wellness and societal sustainability go hand-in-hand.
JW: As a leader of one of the premier HBCUs, and a 2005 recipient of the prestigious Brock International Prize in Education, what strategies do you recommend to make campus sustainability a more diverse, inclusive movement?
BT: At Spelman we are leading by example and certainly we take pride in the various presentations that members of our campus community have given at professional events, national conferences and in the media. Along with Art Frazier, our director of facilities (who presented at AASHE 2012), we also have faculty members like Fatemeh Shafiei, chair and associate professor of political science and Jerry Wever, assistant professor of anthropology, who provide insight on the various sustainability efforts at Spelman to the broader community. Through these opportunities and others, such as our student Green Ambassadors, we have been able to tell the Spelman story in a way that we hope inspires others.
JW: How is Spelman tracking its sustainability progress?
BT: Our Climate Action Plan that I described earlier contains benchmarks and timetables, and includes a completed STARS checklist detailing our progress. For personal sustainability, we’re tracking participation in healthy living behaviors such as exercise. As part of our wellness program, our wellness coordinator tracks student, faculty and staff participation. When asked what will be the measure of success for our wellness program, I like to say, “when we have a culture of movement at Spelman College.”
JW: As an institutional leader, what are your biggest challenges in advancing sustainability initiatives?
BT: As at many institutions, two of the biggest challenges to advancing initiatives are limited resources and complacency. When advocating for any initiative, securing resources can be a challenge and that has to do with being in a tough economy. Our primary responsibility is to ensure that we’re able to deliver stellar academic programs and keep students in school, which requires scholarship support for most of them. Regarding complacency, we have to work diligently to ensure that everyone understands why it’s so important to mobilize and be actively engaged, in both supporting and promoting sustainability.
JW: What would you like to accomplish next in terms of sustainability at Spelman?
BT: As it relates to environmental sustainability, the first major milestone is our Climate Action Plan, which I described earlier. Now that we have a plan, we need to follow it. As relates to personal sustainability, we are focused on the Wellness Revolution (which I also described earlier) and creating the physical space needed to fully implement the vision for the program. That involves the completion of Read Hall using LEED standards. We are actively engaged in raising funds for that project. Regarding communal sustainability, we will continue to educate the community about the importance of the 3 C’s at Spelman and what each of us can do to ensure the long term health of our institution.
JW: How do you spend your free time?
BT: I like to exercise, read, and focus on my personal sustainability. I also enjoy time alone and time with my family.
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