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Change Agent

Mary Schmidt Campbell ’69 leaves retirement to lead Spelman College

A year ago, Mary Schmidt Campbell ’69 had retired from a long, celebrated career in the public eye. After 23 years as dean of The Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, she planned to teach and write a biography of African-American painter and collagist Romare Bearden. She would let nothing distract her from writing. But retirement proved slippery.

Campbell is a scholar and art historian by training, a pot-stirrer and change agent by nature. Her first big job was as executive director of The Studio Museum of Harlem in New York City. The museum, in 1977, was a rented loft over a liquor store. When she left 10 years later, it was the country’s first accredited black fine-arts museum and owned its 60,000-square-foot space.

A leader of arts organizations and an advocate for the arts, Campbell served New York City as cultural affairs commissioner and chaired the Department of Art and Public Policy at The Tisch School and the New York State Council on the Arts. President Obama appointed her to his Committee on the Arts and the Humanities in 2009.

Last fall she visited 134-year-old Spelman College in Atlanta as a retiree. The nation’s oldest historically black college for women wanted her help deciding how to renovate its arts facility. Campbell found the intellectual energy, ambition, and accomplishment at the 2,000-student school seductive. U.S. News and World Report calls it the nation’s top historically black college. The National Science Foundation ranks Spelman first in the nation among undergraduate schools for graduating black women students who later earn Ph.D.s in science disciplines.

Later, a Spelman search committee probed her interest in becoming the school’s next president. Campbell declined at first but, as she learned more, the invitation seemed providential.

Campbell hails from a tradition of service and educational achievement. Her father’s family came north to Philadelphia in 1917, during the Great Migration. Harvey Schmidt, a mail carrier, attended night school to become a lawyer, then a family court judge and community leader. (Her mother, Elaine, a nursery-school teacher, died shortly after Campbell graduated from Swarthmore.) Her siblings and cousins attended historically black colleges, and her husband, physicist George Campbell Jr., retired as president of The Cooper Union in New York in 2011.

This is a pivotal moment for Spelman, Campbell says. “We’re not one of the big guys; we’re not an Ivy. We don’t have a multibillion-dollar endowment portfolio. But what we have is real clarity about who we are and where we want to go.”

She credits Swarthmore for helping prepare her for this. However, there was a time when she wouldn’t have thanked Swarthmore for anything. Campbell was part of a small beachhead of black students who responded to Swarthmore’s early efforts at diversity. But the school was oblivious to how alien and hostile campus life felt to black students. It asked incoming whites, for example, if they’d mind rooming with a Negro. “No one asked me if I minded rooming with a white person,” Campbell says. After graduation she hoped never to return.

Swarthmore persisted, though. Alumni groups reached out. The school became hospitable to many cultures, and Campbell became a member of the Board of Managers from 1988 to 2000. One of her three sons, Garikai “Kai” Campbell ’90, enrolled in a Swarthmore that was “radically” changed. (Kai was an associate professor of mathematics at Swarthmore before leaving in 2013 to be provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Morehouse College.)

Swarthmore, she says, let her understand how great institutions evolve: They “constantly subject themselves to a conversation with the larger world.”