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Home » Discover Rackham » Alumni Spotlight: Beverly Tatum

Beverly returned to Ann Arbor recently. Her career as a psychologist, author, educator, and administrator has had a profound influence on a generation of students, a distinction the University of Michigan wanted to recognize. They did so on a grand scale, as she received an honorary doctorate at the U-M commencement ceremony in May to sit beside the one she earned at U-M in 1984.

Her career path to this milestone was a long one. Always achieving, Beverly graduated a semester early with her undergraduate degree from Wesleyan University and worked as a management trainee at Sears & Roebuck to fill the time before her graduate studies at U-M began. She recalls, “I had a very positive experience in the clinical psychology department under the guidance of Eric Bermann. The opportunity to be the teaching assistant for a class on the psychology of marriage and family led me to decide I wanted to be a professor. I hadn’t planned to pursue an academic career at all; my original intent was to be a practicing clinical psychologist. That teaching experience, combined with other experiences in grad school helped me decide that my passion was more in the college and university classroom setting.”

She met her husband Travis in grad school, where he was a student in the political science department. They got married in Ann Arbor in 1979. At that point, she had completed her coursework and three years of internships, including two years at the Ann Arbor Community Health Center and a year at the Children’s Psychiatric Hospital, now a part of the Mott Children’s Hospital. Being so far along in her graduate studies allowed the young couple the freedom to follow an opportunity for Travis at UC Santa Barbara. She moved without a degree, having completed all but her dissertation.

Her plan was to move to California and work, completing her dissertation along the way. It took a little longer than anticipated. Living in Santa Barbara was conducive to collecting data for her dissertation, and she began working part time as a counselor on campus. She and Travis decided to start their family and she was, not surprisingly, distracted by that process. Still, their four years in Santa Barbara were fruitful, beginning their careers and growing their family, but that dissertation was still pending. They moved as far across the country as possible and settled in Northampton, Massachusetts where they both began teaching at Westfield State College (now Westfield State University). Beverly recalled, “I was hired with the expectation that I would complete my dissertation within the first year. I focused on that deadline. That was all it took.”

Beverly taught there for six years, leaving for a teaching position at Mount Holyoke College. She shares, “When I left Westfield State, colleagues asked me why I left a tenured position. I began an associate professor role without tenure and had to get tenured again. It was a little bit of a risk but one I’ve never regretted. It was a great opportunity for me. I had half the teaching course load so was able to do more research and spend more time writing my first major publication. That positioned me to be marketable at Mount Holyoke. I wrote an article published in Harvard Educational Review, “Talking about Race, Learning About Racism: The Application of Racial Identity Development Theory in the Classroom.” It became a widely read article. I didn’t anticipate it would have such a positive impact on my career. It resonated with people in the field – practitioners and educators, and as a result, I began doing a lot of professional development with educators. It was gratifying for me and fueled a desire for my book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race. My career really took off from there on a national platform.”

Her transition to administration continued after serving as interim president at Mount Holyoke and being recruited to Spelman, where she was president for 13 years until retiring in 2015. Her role there was all encompassing, and her passion for teaching was limited to occasional guest lectures. She reflects, “The funding model for higher education needs to be affordable for students and their families, and right now the number one cost is human capital. The question becomes how do you maintain the quality of education and teaching, particularly at small liberal arts colleges, where so much depends on strong relationships between students and faculty? How do schools contain costs, pay people, and fund faculty at a level they hope to be funded and avoid the cost cutting strategy of using part-time folks, which is not optimal for students or faculty?”

This leads to Beverly’s perspective on one of the most important roles of graduate education: preparing future faculty. She says, “As a consumer of graduate education in terms of hiring new faculty who are beginning their professional journey in academia, it is increasingly important to give folks who want to teach the chance for a pedagogical experience in teaching. I don’t recall in the ‘70s whether there was attention to training and professional development in the classroom, but that is certainly critical today.” 

Beverly may be busier than ever after stepping down from Spelman. She laughs and says, “I like to say I did retire from the presidency but I didn’t fall off the planet.” She is regularly speaking on college campuses, particularly around diversity and inclusion. She sits on a number of boards, both corporate boards and more significant to her, civic engagement boards in Atlanta. She states, “I’m excited about giving back to improving educational opportunities and college access here in Atlanta.” That and updating her book are her next big projects. She is in the throes of updating an anniversary edition of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race to be reissued in 2017.

Being on campus is a reflective opportunity to revisit her graduate student experience. Her advice to current students is to “own your career – don’t be afraid to take risks. People told me it was too big a risk to give up a tenured job, but tenure’s only good if you want to stay someplace. When I was a professor at Mount Holyoke College and became the dean, that was a risk. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a college administrator; I had said who in her right mind would want that job, but my friends told me to use my imagination and think about the difference I could make. Also, what’s the worst that could happen – I could always go back to being a professor. But it turns out I liked it quite a lot. If asked when I was a grad student if I ever saw myself as a university president, I would have said without a doubt, not at all. My advice is: when opportunities present themselves, take risks and try out new things.” 

Coming to campus under such auspicious conditions is not lost on Beverly. “I am so honored to be recognized by my alma mater. This is such a prestigious university, and receiving an honorary degree is tremendously exciting and humbling for me. I am very appreciative and delighted to receive this degree at this moment in my life,” she expresses. This will be a family celebration for Beverly, as her oldest son and daughter in law – both U-M Rackham grads who also met and married in graduate school – will be on hand to celebrate with Beverly and Travis.