At the beginning of the Fall 2022 semester, as students and their families returned to Spelman’s campus in Atlanta, they were welcomed at the entrance by a new face: Dr. Helene Gayle ’76, the College’s new president. Shaking blue pompoms, Gayle, who was clad in a Spelman T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, greeted arriving cars with an exuberance that made clear she is the students’ biggest cheerleader.
For the public health leader and humanitarian, leading Spelman — considered the country’s premier undergraduate institution for women of African descent — is a natural evolution in her career. “I’ve been guided by my purpose and my passion. That has led me from one step to the next,” says Gayle, a physician who majored in psychology at Barnard and considered a career in that field. “I give a lot of credit to Barnard because it has such a history of women going into medicine. I got a broader exposure to that as a career.”
Gayle realized practicing medicine was a way she could have a meaningful impact on people’s lives. “A lot of why I pursued medicine was really because of my passion for social justice and equity and being able to give back to communities that I had come from,” she explains of her career path from clinician to public health and social justice advocate.
That path for Gayle has included such key roles as serving as president and CEO of several major organizations, including one of the nation’s largest community foundations, the Chicago Community Trust, and the humanitarian organization CARE.
Gayle has spent over 30 years tackling global health issues, with a particular focus on HIV/AIDS and reproductive health, and served as the director of programs for organizations including the Centers for Disease Control and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In addition, she sits on the Advisory Council of the STEMM Opportunity Alliance, which aims to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine) fields. Serving as Spelman’s current president is a fitting part of that trajectory.
“We know that HBCUs [historically Black colleges and universities] have had such a huge impact on making a difference in the social mobility for African American communities,” Gayle explains. “At this point in my career, I want it to be about giving back to the next generation and to be at a school where the next generation looks like me.”
Although Barnard and Spelman maintain a long-standing student exchange program, students who look like Gayle were not in the majority during her undergraduate years. Still, she considers her time at Barnard instrumental to her vision and goals as president of Spelman. “I can’t say enough about the good fortune that I had to come to Barnard — to have been at a place where you get grounded in who you are, what it means to be a woman, and how to take your power with you. That is something so vital,” she offers.
In a current social climate fraught with racial and cultural tensions, Gayle recognizes a particular necessity for Black women to have such sacred space. “At Spelman, there is an important place where young women of African descent can come to express their whole selves, where the issues that are key for them are not fringe issues but core issues. It’s not the choice for everyone, but it is an incredibly empowering experience to be here.”
It is significant to be at a private college for Black women at a time when the existence of women’s colleges seems vulnerable. A 2021 Daily Beast article, “The Fight to Save Women’s Colleges From Extinction,” reported that several women’s colleges that year, including Mills, Judson, and Converse, were closing or transitioning to coed — casualties of low enrollment and reduced revenue caused by the COVID-19 health crisis, as well as markers of an 85% decline in women-only colleges since the early 1960s. Gayle understands the gravity of the situation particularly at a time when key women’s rights issues such as education, economic empowerment, and reproductive rights are facing legal challenges and rollbacks.
“If we look at what makes the biggest difference, we know that if women get an education, the trajectory for their life is so different. If they have economic empowerment, not only are they empowered, their families are empowered,” says Gayle. “I think women’s colleges are critical perhaps more today than ever because when a woman makes the choice to go to a women’s college, she’s also making a choice to invest in herself as a woman.”
In 1983, when Columbia College transitioned to coeducational admissions, there was some concern among Barnard students and administrators that applications and matriculation to Barnard would drop and that a consequential number of enrolled Barnard students might transfer. As an outcome of the negotiations between the Colleges, Barnard became more autonomous.
A lot of why I pursued medicine was really because of my passion for social justice and equity and being able to give back to communities that I had come from.
Although Gayle graduated before these changes occurred, she recognizes the impact on women who have had the option to attend Columbia instead.
“Women who choose Barnard today are making a very different choice about being in a place that absolutely believes, as a woman, you can do anything, you can achieve anything,” she asserts. “The same for Spelman, which [also] says that as a Black woman you can achieve anything, that [neither] your race nor your gender needs to be a barrier. It is still an important choice that [women] are making to invest in themselves.”
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges for a college president is convincing donors to invest in higher education. As reports in Higher Ed Dive and The Daily Beast have shown, fundraising can be more difficult for women’s colleges. The intersection of gender and race has the potential to make it that much more difficult for an institution like Spelman. “Everyone doesn’t necessarily appreciate why, in today’s age, a school that is race- and gender-based is still necessary. I don’t think that it is the only option in today’s world,” Gayle concedes. “But I think our enrollment numbers — which have tripled in the last decade — speak for themselves. At a time when college enrollment and applications are declining, they are actually increasing for HBCUs.”
A September 2022 segment of PBS Newshour reported that applications to HBCUs had increased almost 30%. “There is a need, and there is a niche,” Gayle emphasizes. “There is clearly a desire for young people to be in a place that speaks to who they are and has no bar on what the expectations are for them in the world.”
For Gayle, there is a social and historical imperative to HBCUs that intersects with what students need and want from higher education today. “Spelman, for over 140 years, has been educating women of African descent, starting out at a time when Black people were [emerging from] the period of enslavement and did not have opportunities,” explains Gayle. “The initial colleges were set up so that Black men had opportunities for education. At that time, it was a radical notion that Black women also should have the opportunity. Starting from that premise — that there is a right to education in an institution that values you for who you are — is critical.”
Equally critical to generating financial support is highlighting alumnae achievement and service. Among the notable women who’ve attended Spelman are Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams; novelist and poet Alice Walker; actress, director, and producer LaTanya Richardson Jackson; Walgreens Boots Alliance CEO (and one of the first Black women to serve as a Fortune 500 CEO) Rosalind Brewer; and Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, who was Barnard’s Commencement speaker in 1985. This past November, Spelman renamed its admissions office in honor of film director Spike Lee’s grandmother Zimmie Reatha Shelton and mother Jacquelyn Shelton Lee, alumnae of Spelman classes 1929 and 1954, respectively.
“And there are a lot of names you’ll never hear,” Gayle adds, “but when I travel the country, I am told all the time, ‘Our best workers, our best staff, are the young women
I think women’s colleges are critical perhaps more today than ever because when a woman makes the choice to go to a women’s college, she’s also making a choice to invest in herself as a woman.
who got a Spelman education.’ So it speaks for itself. From the arts to the sciences to business and all, Spelman produces incredible women.”
As president and role model for the next generation of Spelman women, this Barnard woman, who purposely imbued her STEMM career with social justice, is only just getting started. “I feel privileged to have had a long and wonderful career,” Gayle reflects, adding with a chuckle, “It’s now my time to figure out how to give the kind of opportunities that I’ve had to young Black women so that they can go on and I can retire.”
Until that time comes, Gayle is focused on helping her students broaden their visions and follow their passions as she did. “That’s why I’m proud to be at a liberal arts college,” she says. “Whether you decide to go into a STEMM career or an arts career, it’s important to have the basic foundation of a liberal arts background that allows you to continue to be a lifelong learner. It should be the cornerstone to the specializations we keep trying to drive young people into, that we keep trying to have them decide from birth. Let them learn to learn and then think about how to use that.”
Sharon D. Johnson ’85 is adjunct faculty in the department of Africana studies at California State University, Northridge; script consultant for PBS’s Masterpiece; and a director-at-large on the board of directors of the AABC.
Photo by Ben Rollins