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Spelman College charts a new path by encouraging women in STEM studies

December 9, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Next: a conversation about charting a different course in the world of higher education.

Today, Spelman’s Beverly Daniel Tatum became one of four college presidents and the first from a historically black institution to receive the Carnegie Corporation’s annual Academic Leadership Award. The foundation cited her work in encouraging women to pursue careers in the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math and for her decision to drop intercollegiate sports in favor of student health.

Beverly Tatum joins us now from Atlanta.

Welcome, Professor Tatum, President Tatum.

BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM, Spelman College: Thank you so much. I’m delighted to be here.

GWEN IFILL: In full disclosure, Carnegie is one of our funders here at the “NewsHour.”

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But I want to ask you about what has motivated you to refocus the academic goals at Spelman and whether that is applicable elsewhere.

BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: Well, let me begin by saying that at Spelman we have been focused on STEM education, as well as a broader liberal arts focus for many years. And that doesn’t begin with me, but I’m happy to say that since I have been president at Spelman, we have been able to keep moving forward at a time when we see nationally interest in STEM declining.

We know there are many young women of color interested in pursuing science. A third of our students are STEM majors. And we want to insurance that they can move into fields where they are under-represented and make a difference to our economy and to our nation.

GWEN IFILL: Are they making a choice to ignore liberal arts or to move away from liberal arts or traditionally — majors, I guess, that women have traditionally pursued in favor of STEM?

BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: Well, I think that — let me begin by saying that Spelman College is, in many ways, a traditional liberal arts college, in that we emphasize the skills that come from a strong liberal arts education, critical thinking, problem-solving, quantitative reasoning, communication skills.

But, certainly, a third of our students come with an interest in moving into science. They may be thinking about health careers initially. But once they start to explore biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, engineering, they see a wider range of options.

And I think that’s one of the things about Spelman, that when they come to Spelman, they are exposed to faculty who represent a very diverse group of faculty, men and women — 52 percent of our STEM faculty are women. A third of them are women of color, so that they’re a broad range of role models and they see that the sky really is the limit. There is no limit, excuse me, to their opportunities.

GWEN IFILL: But, more broadly, in academia writ large, there is — I read a study that showed 90 percent of students aren’t really interested in STEM, for all the talk of STEM. Do you have to recruit students specifically to speak to that, or are they seeking you out because they know that you — which is the chicken and which is the egg?

BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: Well, I think we’re involved in both.

Certainly, students who have an interest in STEM come to Spelman because we know we have that strength. We know that the likelihood of graduating in STEM if are you interested in it is much higher at a place like Spelman that perhaps at a majority institution, where the pipelines, particularly for young people of color, is quite leaky.

A lot of students come in saying they want to graduate in STEM, but they don’t necessarily do that. They get discouraged along the way. And at Spelman, we see that there is a higher rate of persistence. But, that said, we are also engaged in community outreach so that our students are doing things like FunLab, which was the brainchild of a sophomore at Spelman.

She has her friends volunteering with her in local schools in the Atlanta region, exposing students, middle schoolers to experiments that they can do in school to encourage their interest in science. Our computer science department features a robotics team known as the SpelBots. And those young women are often doing demonstrations with their robots in middle school, in high schools to encourage young people, particularly women, to think about science as something that can be fun and that they might want to pursue.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me get back to that leaky pipeline idea, especially once they leave college.

I saw another number today that said that 41 percent of STEM Ph.Ds are now women, which is a good women, but that they make up only 28 percent of tenured faculty in academia. Isn’t there some leaking going on after people get out of college and get these advanced decrees?

BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: Absolutely.

You know, there are leaks at every stage of the pipeline. Certainly, when we think about the success of women who have Ph.D.s moving into science, they are more likely to be in biology, less likely to be in physics. There’s a range of where you will see them.

But the idea is, how do we create communities that are supportive? Spelman is a wonderful example. I want to lift up the work of one of our faculty members in math who has since recently retired, but Dr. Sylvia Bozeman had a program called the EDGE Program, which was really intended to encourage women in mathematics, for example, to get beyond the isolation.

If you are the only woman of color or the only woman, or the only woman, even, in a math department in your university, you may feel isolated. The same may be true in other areas. But if you are part of a community that perhaps spans institutions, but where you feel a sense of support, you may be more likely to persist. Certainly, we see that at the undergraduate level, that kind of persistence.

(CROSSTALK)

GWEN IFILL: Pardon me.

BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: Go ahead.

GWEN IFILL: Was this also what drove to you decide to eliminate intercollegiate athletics for your students and focus not on sports, but on wellness activities instead? Is this also part of the same idea?

BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: Well, it’s a little different.

So let me just say that we had an intercollegiate program that was really underutilized. Only about 80 of our 2,100 students were participating. But we found ourselves in a situation in December of 2011 where our athletic conference, the conference that we participated in was unraveling. And we needed to either find a new conference to participate in or do something different.

And when we evaluated the cost-benefit and we saw that we were spending close to a million dollars on a program that was really only benefiting 80 student athletes, and yet we had a campus full of women who were unfortunately more sedentary than they should be for their health, that we could perhaps reinvest those intercollegiate athletic dollars into a campus-wide wellness initiative that would really impact their lives, not just at Spelman, but hopefully beyond, and that hopefully those women would influence their family members, their friends, that we would, indeed, launch we call a wellness revolution and impacting some of the horrible health statistics that are impacting black women.

GWEN IFILL: And, finally, President Tatum, Spelman is one of only two colleges in the nation exclusively — or that caters specifically to African-American women.

BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: Why is there a need for women’s colleges anymore or women’s colleges for black women anymore?

BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: Well, when people ask me why do students who have choices want to come to Spelman, one of the things I always say is that, for a young woman of African descent, a population that has historically been marginalized, to come to a school where she can say, this place was designed for me, was built for me from day one, where I’m going to be at the center of the educational experience, not marginalized in any way, is a very powerful magnet.

And we like to say we provide a learning environment that is without the barrier of race or gender and create an environment where the students will learn about themselves as individuals, not as categories in another context, but — and will be able to experience themselves as empowered agents of change, ready for a future without limits.

GWEN IFILL: Beverly Daniel Tatum of Spelman College in Atlanta, congratulations on your award.

BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: Thank you so much.

And I want to say how glad I am to be in such great company with Richard Brodhead of Duke University, John Hennessy of Stanford, and Michael Crow of Arizona State.

GWEN IFILL: Absolutely. Thank you.

BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: Congratulations to them as well.