Skip to Navigation | Skip to Content
Faculty Resource Network Home

Excerpt from the Plenary Panel "Strategies for Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling"

November 16-17, 2007
Johnson C. Smith University
Charlotte, North Carolina

Excerpts from the Plenary Panel

Speaker: Beverly Tatum, President, Spelman College

Thank you. I would like to thank President Yancy for allowing us to be here, and I am delighted to be here at Johnson C. Smith as well. I would like to ask a question before I begin speaking: how many of you in the audience would consider yourself to be in a senior administrative role already? And how many of you are junior faculty? And senior faculty but not administrators? And graduate students? It seems that we have a pretty diverse audience. I ask that question in part because I have two sets of comments. One set is for the person who is a faculty member thinking about administration, and in some way those remarks would be very similar to the ones e. Frances shared with us in terms of thinking of the importance of mentors and investing in yourself. The other set of remarks is from my vantage point as President, and that is the vantage point of being in a senior leadership position thinking about bringing other people along through that pipeline. So I would like to speak from that point of view.

I was recently asked to write an essay on this topic for the ACE publication "The President." One of the things ACE is looking at is how to expand the pipeline to the presidency. In my short essay one of the things I talked about was what I described in the title as "engaging the restless professor." If we think about the fact that the traditional route from being a professor to the next logical step for most people is the department chair, then from department chair to perhaps being dean or perhaps becoming a V.P. of some kind, whether it is V.P. of Academic Affairs, or Provost, or as in my case, V.P. of Student Affairs, we must recognize that that process is one that holds few prospective candidates of color. Usually, you have to be tenured, then promoted to full professor, before you get to do those other things. The pipeline of faculty of color and then the percentage of faculty of color who have become full professors is relatively small, and so of course we need to talk about mentoring and supporting people through that piece of the pipeline.

I would like to start my conversation though beginning with the assumption that a person has reached that point. Often, once you have been promoted to the rank of full professor at your institution, then the question that many people ask is "now what?" You have been promoted to associate and now full professor, maybe you have become department chair, and you wonder, "What's next?" That was certainly my situation. One of the things that I want to reflect on here is the idea of looking to those full professors, who have been tenured, who are talented teachers, who are not necessarily thinking about leadership roles in the institution, but who could indeed be great leaders, and I speak from some experience in that sense.

I am a clinical psychologist by training, and I think you are familiar from the introduction and perhaps from knowledge of my work that I am interested in racial identity development and taught for many years on the psychology of racism and was very content doing so, until I got about 45 years old, and then I got a little bored. My book, "Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" and Other Conversations about Race was published in 1997, just after my 43 birthday. The book was doing very well, and I was invited to speak at colleges and universities all over the country.. I had just been promoted to full professor, and I was getting a little restless. I was receiving recruitment letters, in part because of the success of my book, suggesting that I come teach at graduate institutions. Up to that point, I had been working exclusively in undergraduate institutions. I thought that teaching at the graduate level might be interesting, except that I had two children and a husband, none of whom wanted to move.

I thought "I could move, I could get a position as graduate professor, and that could be a new challenge," but that would be disruptive to my family, and I sought a colleague for some advice. I had a colleague in my department at Mount Holyoke College in the Psychology and Education Department, who seemed to be skilled at working out creative arrangements for herself, which is why I sought her out. I thought, "Well, maybe if I can work out some special assignment that will allow me to do some of the things I was interested in, other than at that point teaching introductory psychology, maybe that would take care of my restlessness." So we had lunch and she said to me, "you ought to think about being dean of the college," and I said "who in her right mind would want that job?" That was a direct quote. She said, "You are not using your imagination. You should think about what it would mean to be dean. If you were dean at Mount Holyoke you could put some of your own ideas, all of that stuff you write about, you could put it into practice, you could really make an impact at the institution." I began to think that maybe it would be more interesting than I might have originally considered.

I tell that story simply to say that there are people in our institutions who have made it through that obstacle course to full professor who could indeed be deans or vice provosts, or could take administrative roles. Maybe they have never even thought about it, but if it was suggested, they might give it some consideration. I thought about my colleague's suggestion, and indeed put my hat in the ring. Even though I was not sure that I would like the job, I only had to commit for three years. That was a very important variable in my decision and something we must consider. If we invite faculty members into time limited administrative opportunities, one of the things that happens is there is a graceful exit for them if it does not work out, and an opportunity to test a new role out, if it does.

In my case it did work out. I discovered very quickly that what I thought would be a boring day of meeting after meeting, was not boring at all. Meetings are much more interesting when you set the agenda, and there was indeed a lot of creative possibility in that opportunity. I spent my three years as dean, and then I signed up for another three years. During the course of that time it was possible to do things not only on the campus, but to write about the work that we were doing and to continue my scholarship in a different way. One thing led to another and I started being nominated for presidencies. Of course now I sit, as you know, as President of Spelman College, but my primary point here is, that we need to look for people on our campuses that are demonstrating administrative talent. I had been on many campus committees, as most faculty members have, and had demonstrated a certain kind of leadership on those committees. I think it was partly out of that experience that my colleague thought I might be appropriate for the position of dean.

I sometimes run into people who say to me, "I would like to be a college president. How can I become a college president?" Of course there are many people who know that about themselves, and who indeed would be good presidents, but sometimes I think the people who most want to be president are perhaps not the ones that would be best at it. I think there are people that have never ever thought about it, and I would put myself in that category, that in fact have the capacity to do it and to do it well. I would like to leave us with that thought, in terms of thinking about how to engage what I call "the restless professor," the person who has been teaching for fifteen to twenty years, is ready for a new challenge, the person who might leave the institution if they do not find a new challenge there, but in fact could be engaged on the campus in ways that would lead to more diverse leadership.

Back to Table of Contents