By Daniel Rose
Donald Stewart, former president of HBCU Spelman College, and later president of the College Board, has left us. If there is a God and if there is a Heaven, he has been greeted with choirs of angels and a heavenly crown.
First in his family to go to college, he graduated with honors from Grinnell College in 1959 and went on to a distinguished academic career at Yale, Harvard and the University of Chicago. A defender of affirmative action to help black students gain admission to college, he advocated high academic standards and strove to help black students to meet them. When he became Spelman’s president in 1976, half the college’s professors had doctorates; when he left a decade later, three quarters had them. During his presidency, the average S.A.T. scores of entering freshmen increased by over 100 points (and the college endowment increased fourfold).
Widely admired as a clear thinker and an eloquent speaker, he encouraged high aspirations in young people and spurred their determined efforts to achieve them. Formidably well-read himself, he urged parents of young children not to read “to them” but “with them,” and to inculcate in youngsters the feeling that reading was “not a duty but a pleasure,” one that could open for them windows on exciting new worlds.
Stewart was famous for inspiring young people to “grow to their full height,” to realize their true potential. He emphasized that time was a precious commodity in their lives, that an hour once passed could never be re-claimed and that they could not afford the luxury of killing time aimlessly.
Fully aware of the destructive impact of prejudice, segregation and social isolation, he encouraged young people to regard them as obstacles to be overcome. As one whose college expenses were paid by a mother who sold books door-to-door to earn them, he regarded financial handicaps not as barriers but as hurdles to be surmounted.
Turning down offers of senior federal positions in order to join the College Board, he said on his installation, “As we look to the future, the issues will be performance, quality and access. I believe very strongly in high standards, but also in helping people to meet those standards.”
A great many young people are indebted to him for their success, as will countless others in the future. May his memory be blessed.