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Art scholar Mary Schmidt Campbell to be president of Spelman College in Atlanta

Mary Schmidt Campbell graduated from Girls High in Philadelphia in 1965 with the confidence that she could make a difference.

Mary Schmidt Campbell graduated from Girls High in Philadelphia in 1965 with the confidence that she could make a difference.

And she has.

The art history and humanities scholar transformed the Studio Museum in Harlem from a rented loft over a liquor store into the country's first accredited black fine arts museum.

She ran the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at New York University for more than two decades. She currently serves as vice chair of a U.S. presidential committee seeking to elevate the importance of art in public schools.

And on Saturday, Campbell, 67, also a Swarthmore College grad, came out of retirement to become president of Spelman, a prominent historically black women's college in Atlanta.

"What I'm most proud of is that I'm a grad of Girls High," Campbell said, during a telephone interview from Atlanta. ". . .There really was a sense from those who graduated from Girls High that we could go out and run the world. It was an experience that really shaped me."

Now, for the first time in her career, she'll have a chance to run a school that gives young women the same kind of opportunity.

Campbell was invited to visit Spelman last September to help the school plan the renovation of its arts facility, and the relationship grew from there.

"I was blown away," she said. ". . .I thought how phenomenal it is to be a black woman and come to a place where you are the heart and soul of the mission of that place."

With 2,135 students, Spelman boasts graduates including Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman, author Alice Walker and Marcelite J. Harris, the first African American female to become a U.S. Air Force general.

The college, which runs on a $105 million budget and has a $367 million endowment, charges $37,441 a year for tuition, fees and room and board, according to the college web site.

At Spelman, Campbell said she'll focus on increasing financial aid to attract the best students, bringing in more resources for teaching and research and developing the new arts facility.

The daughter of the late Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Harvey Schmidt, Campbell grew up at 40th and Spring Garden streets in West Philadelphia and attended Henry C. Lea School before graduating summa cum laude from Girls High.

She entered Swarthmore in 1965, part of the first significant group of African American students - there were about 20 - to be admitted to the highly selective liberal arts college. The experience was hard, so hard that during a 2009 commencement address she gave at Swarthmore, she said she had left her own graduation "wearing a black arm band, a very large Afro" and vowing "never to return to the campus."

There were no black staff or faculty except for those who cleaned and served food, she said. White students were asked if they minded rooming with a black student.

"We were being treated as if we were guests allowed to stay there," she recalled.

Swarthmore kept reaching out to her after graduation, and she grew to admire its "deliberate steps" to become "an open and welcoming campus" to all students. She served on the college's board of managers for 12 years.

One of her sons, Garikai Campbell, graduated from Swarthmore and became a professor and administrator there before heading in 2013, to Morehouse College, an historically black men's school in Atlanta, as provost.

With a master's and doctorate from Syracuse University, Campbell began her career by building up the Studio Museum over 10 years, then went on to serve as the city's cultural affairs commissioner during Mayor Ed Koch's administration. She became dean of Tisch in 1991.

President Obama in 2009 appointed her as vice chair of the Committee on the Arts and Humanities, where her group researched and documented the importance of arts on improving learning in the public schools. The committee ran a pilot program in failing schools in eight cities and is about to expand to school districts in 10 to 15 states, she said.

"Our report gave us overwhelming evidence," she said, noting increases in reading, math and science scores, growth in attendance and a decline in disciplinary action.

Though heading to Atlanta, Campbell - who is married to George Campbell Jr., president emeritus of The Cooper Union for Advancement of Science and Art - said she has lots of incentive to visit Philadelphia often: Six grandchildren, a son, Sekou Campbell, a lawyer, and two daughters-in-law all live in the area.

And, of course, there's Girls High; her class will celebrate its 50th anniversary next month.

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