Addressing Inequalities in Education: The Thomas B. McCabe Lecture from Spelman College President Mary Schmidt Campbell ‘69

With the Pearson-Hall Theatre abbreviated to approximately ten rows of seats, alumni, friends, and family of Swarthmore College gathered on Saturday afternoon to listen to this year’s Thomas B. McCabe lecture, “Education: The New Civil Rights?” given by Spelman College President Mary Schmidt Campbell ‘69 on the role higher education institutions can play to make educational excellence more accessible to a diverse, inclusive population. 

The Thomas B. McCabe Lecture series is an annual tradition during Garnet Weekend at Swarthmore College where individuals, generally alumni, with distinguished careers in various fields are brought to speak on campus. Past speakers include Dr. Claudia Kawas ’74, a geriatric neurologist and researcher, and Paul Young '92, an Emmy-Award-winning producer, in 2018 and 2017, respectively. Videos of their speeches and previous speakers’ presentations can be found here. Around one hundred and fifty people were in attendance for the lecture, including McCabe scholars of various class years.

President Valerie Smith opened the presentation, highlighting the current celebrations of Black excellence and the 50th anniversary of the Black Cultural Center, as well as Garnet Weekend. Speaking about Thomas B. McCabe’s legacy and the beginnings of this lecture in his honor, she then introduced Tyler White ‘22 and Shelby Billups ‘20, co-presidents of the McCabe scholars. 

White and Billups introduced Campbell and her background, both at Swarthmore as a student and at various institutions such as her current position at Spelman College. 

Campbell began her lecture by congratulating the McCabe scholars and recognizing the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Black Cultural Center, noting that it didn’t exist when she attended Swarthmore College. Later in the lecture, she said that there were about twenty Black students when the class of 1969 arrived, mentioning how “that state could not be more different than the way Swarthmore is today. Here we are fifty years later, a radically different institution.”

She expanded upon the importance of educational excellence and equity, as institutions should aspire for students not only to excel, but for excellence to happen equitably. Campbell briefed how the lecture would cover the challenge in expanding this, why higher education institutions should pursue it, and for whom. One of the key points in the lecture was that, although by 2050 underrepresented minorities will be America’s majority population, “all types of inequalities are actually growing.” Campbell cited both the growing diversity in politics and statistics on national college completion rates. 

Using data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s 2017 report, “Completing College – National by Race and Ethnicity”, Campbell mentioned how “at four year colleges and universities, the six year college completion rate for Black students was 45.9%. That’s under half. Under half of Black students who go to four year colleges graduate.” The data are even lower when taking into account any type of college or university started in Fall 2010. 

For reference, here is the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s more recent 2018 report. The data trends remain the same, but the completion rate percentages in the 2018 report went up from Campbell’s data for all groups by 0.3-5.1% for each group, with a 1.7% increase for Black students. 

Campbell continued by referencing the effects of income inequality and how it impacts educational excellence, before, in, and after college. She notes how this becomes an even more pressing issue given how “high skilled jobs will depend increasingly on the skills of a good liberal arts education.” Addressing the question of the value of a high priced liberal arts education when the cost and debt severely burdens families, Campbell spoke on what attendance to liberal arts colleges contributes to a 21st century workforce, citing how artificial intelligence and other technologies are expected to eliminate 80 million unskilled, and some white-collar, jobs. 

Her final references to the growing inequalities in America included citing statistics on infant and maternal mortality rates, the prison population, and health disparities for Black people. “The truth is that we are more divided now as a country and the stakes could never be higher,” said Campbell. “If ever there was a need for the fierce urgency of now, it is today, right now. Where is our will to change and disrupt all these trends, these growing inequalities, these growing inequities?”

Pointing out how rapidly the American education system changed in a bipartisan way to focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in the mid-20th century, Campbell questioned why this couldn’t be done now to play a role in achieving educational excellence in K-12 and higher education environments. 

“I challenge not only our institutions, but our students who are motivated to serve and take responsibility for the students after them,” said Campbell. She wants to see national student-led programs for literacy and math proficiency in K-12 schools, as well as all institutions to embrace teaching across the spectrum of education.

To do this, Campbell described two programs implemented by Spelman College. After hearing the needs expressed by elementary, middle, and high school administrators, Spelman College students provided literacy assistance and tutorials to K-12 students. Classrooms that experienced this had scores that improved from 10% to 21%. For math proficiency, Campbell described a program begun by Wayne State University, Math Corps, where college professors train college students in math and the teaching of math. College students then teach K-12 students who then teach other K-12 students. Spelman College is bringing Math Corps to Atlanta next summer. 

“Our own students could become the agents of change,” stated Campbell. 

Finally, Campbell closed her lecture by speaking about the importance of institutions to play a more aggressive role in disrupting the inequities and improving the education of non-traditional students. “Truly good institutions must have a growth mindset. . .Even as they’re stalwart in their longstanding values, mission, and purpose.” 

There were approximately ten minutes left in the lecture for questions from the audience, and Campbell quickly addressed the importance of a liberal arts education and how it can intersect with STEM, reaching nontraditional students by balancing online and residential coursework, the effects of the literacy program on students who taught other students, and how colleges must become more affordable from multiple sources such as the college itself, private philanthropy, and the federal government. 

STORIESErin ChenComment