Dr. Shirley A. R. Lewis
Dr. Shirley A. R. Lewis, former president, Paine College
Born Shirley Ann Redd Lewis on June 11, 1937, in Winding Gulf, WV; daughter of Robert F. Redd (school teacher) and Thelma Danese Biggers Redd (children's nurse); married Dr. Ronald Lewis, 1963; children: Mendi.
Univ. of California-Berkeley, B.A., Spanish, speech, 1960, M.S.W., 1970; Stanford Univ., Ph.D., Education, 1979; Ghana and Univ. of London, African studies, certificate.
Numerous teaching positions, 1962-; Meharry Medical College, educational specialist/special asst. to the vice pres. for academic affairs, 1981-84, assoc. dean for academic affairs, 1984-86; United Methodist Church, exec. dir., Black College Fund, 1986-91, asst. general secretary, 1992-94; Paine College, president, 1994-.
Whether in the area of academic affairs, linguistic pluralism, African studies, English, or literacy, Shirley A. R. Lewis has fulfilled her long-established goal of improving the lives of African American young people. Now as the first female president of Paine College in Augusta, Georgia, she has moved into a key position which gives her a wider arena for uplifting young lives.
Shirley Ann Redd Lewis was born on June 11, 1937, in Winding Gulf, West Virginia, the daughter of Robert F. Redd, a school teacher, and Thelma Danese Biggers Redd. Although they divorced when Lewis was young, both her parents were very supportive and provided a rich background which continued to shape her life as she developed. When Lewis was five years old, she became distressed that two of her cousins who began school had learned to read when she could not. Her father taught her to read from the cousins' books, which she says set the stage for her abiding appreciation for the feeling of empowerment brought on by access to education and to literacy.
After her parents divorced, Lewis alternately lived with each parent in various parts of the country, as her mother sought employment and as her father helped augment his teacher's salary through summer work. Lewis consequently lived in Beckley, West Virginia; Harlem, New York; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and other cities in the East, finally settling in Berkeley, California, where her mother acquired a position as a children's nurse. Lewis said in an interview that she is very proud of the fact that her parents maintained civil relations with each other and were both very nurturing to her. As she grew up in California, her father kept in close touch by mail and reviewed her school progress each report card period. Her mother provided support for her development and made it possible for her interest in reading to grow by providing books in their home library. When Lewis was 12 years old, she had read works for mature readers such as The Street by Ann Petry and Richard Wright's Native Son, along with children's literature. Lewis's mother also read and recited poetry to her, introduced her to opera and the theater, and influenced her interest in music through her own interest in jazz, blues, and classical music.
Lewis became interested in politics early on. As she moved about the country with one or the other of her parents, she continually ran for class office. She says that based on her parents' expectations, it seemed the thing to do. Her first elected position was as vice president of her fourth grade class at Russell School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In Berkeley, California, she attended Garfield Junior High School where, due to gerrymandering, she was the only black student in the school. Lewis was elected vice president of the student body and was elected a class officer throughout her public school career.
Upon graduation from Berkeley High School, Lewis entered the University of California at Berkeley, graduating in 1960 with a B.A. in Spanish and speech. She did graduate work in education at California State University at San Francisco and at Hayward and received her general secondary teacher's credential from the latter.
Lewis has had wide experience in the field of education. She was a Spanish teacher in the Ravenswood City School District, East Palo Alto, California, 1962-63; reading teacher at Sagamore Hills Children's Inpatient Psychiatric Hospital, Northfield, Ohio, 1963-64; and mathematics teacher at Junior High School #2, New York City, 1965-66.
In 1963 she married Ronald Lewis, a psychiatric social worker. When they lived in New York the Lewises were active in the arts, black heritage, and African and African American affairs. Inspired by the presence of many African leaders and by their associates in the city of New York, they decided to visit West Africa to learn more about African culture and customs. The Lewises made the first of three trips to Ghana in 1966. They also visited Liberia, Senegal, Nigeria, and the Ivory Coast. They returned to Ghana in 1968 through the Forum for African Studies and pursued courses of study at the University of London and the University of Ghana at Legon. In the summer of 1968 Lewis and her husband received certificates of African studies by participating in a joint program of the University of London and the University of Ghana. In Ghana she received intensive training in African culture, focusing on African carryovers in African American life. She has maintained an intellectual and cultural relationship with Ghana, and since then has shared her learning with numerous students and community members in the United States.
Lewis reentered the University of California at Berkeley in 1968 to pursue a master's degree in social work. In 1970 she received an M.S.W. degree with a specialty in community organization. In the process, she worked with welfare rights organizations and community-based schools where she formed programs to help alienated black students learn to read. In 1971 Lewis and her husband served as staff for the Forum for African Studies. In that capacity they coordinated field studies for program participants.
Continuing to establish a diverse educational record, Shirley Lewis became educational development training officer at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Berkeley, 1971-72. There she was responsible for training blacks and other employees for job upgrading. When she entered Stanford University, she served as reading and composition instructor at Nairobi College, East Palo Alto, California, 1972-75; and instructor in linguistics and English at Foothills Community College, Los Altos, California.
All of Lewis's subsequent academic experiences have been at the college or professional school level. As a graduate student she was a supervisor of the Stanford Teacher Education Program, 1972-74, then held positions in the Stanford School of Education's Program on Cultural and Linguistic Pluralism, 1974-79. The research position afforded Lewis the opportunity to train teachers of black students in school districts across the United States. Working with Stanford professor Robert L. Politzer and researcher Mary Rhodes Hoover, Lewis coauthored research memoranda, linguistically fair student tests, and other teacher training materials. The primary outcomes of this work were that black students could achieve and learn to read regardless of their linguistic or socioeconomic status and that teacher knowledge of and attitudes toward black students correlated with student achievement.
In 1979 Lewis was awarded a doctorate in education from Stanford University. Her doctoral studies focused on language acquisition and literacy for bidialectal and bilingual students. Her doctoral thesis investigated the effects of speech variety dominance and cultural heritage attitudes on reading comprehension. A significant but serendipitous finding was that many black children dominant in vernacular black English with positive attitudes toward their heritage and culture outperformed other black students as well as the white student control group on seven out of eight tests. For Lewis, this finding underscored the need to maintain and enhance personal and cultural self-esteem among black children.
In 1979, after completing her doctorate, Lewis moved to Nashville, Tennessee, with her family where she held a part-time position as adjunct assistant professor of education in the Department of Teaching and Learning at George Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, 1979-80. Lewis then moved to Meharry Medical College in Nashville where she worked as educational specialist for the Department of Family Medicine and special assistant to the vice president for academic affairs, 1981-84. Her work focused on faculty development and student achievement. In 1984 she was appointed the associate dean for academic affairs, becoming the first female associate dean in the School of Medicine at Meharry.
Her broad background and experience in college administration prepared Lewis for important management positions with the United Methodist Church. She was executive director of its Black College Fund from 1986 to 1991, and in 1992 her position was elevated to that of assistant general secretary. Her responsibilities for the Black College Fund were wide and demanding. Lewis administered, promoted, and distributed the United Methodist Church's Black College Fund, an annual fund of more than $7 million which supports a consortium of 11 Methodist-related historically black colleges. Her work involved coordinating proposal reviews in amounts ranging from $250,000 to $1 million for academic, capital, and program awards. She conceptualized and participated in regional and national projects related to fund management, educational policy, and institutional accreditation. She interacted with higher educational constituencies, including the United Methodist University Senate, the United Negro College Fund, institutional boards of trustees, and other college and university constituencies.
Lewis created the Ambassador Scholars Program within the Black College Fund, which enabled students to travel the country to promote historically black colleges and universities and the Black College Fund. She did public relations work with churches, national organizations, and colleges and universities involving public speaking, conducting workshops, and conceptualizing and creating promotional reports, articles, and resources. She gained extensive fund-raising experience while in office. She was one of the eleven members of the College of Education Plenary Committee for the new United Methodist-supported Africa University, in Old Mutare, Zimbabwe, which opened officially on April 24, 1994. This experience enabled her to extend her goal of providing education for youth to communities in Africa. These activities put Lewis in a highly visible position in the church and in black higher education.
A news release from Paine College, Augusta, Georgia, announced on April 23, 1994, that the college had made history by electing its first female president, Shirley A. R. Lewis. She became one of only four women presidents in the 41 schools in the United Negro College Fund system. The thirteenth president of Paine was elected during the Board of Trustees' annual spring meeting. She replaced long- time president Julius S. Scott Jr., who was retiring from the 112- year-old historically black liberal arts college. Paine was one of the institutions in the Black College Fund that Lewis had administered earlier; the school also receives support from the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and the United Negro College Fund.
Lewis knew that accepting the new position would have an impact on her immediate family; therefore, the offer required a family decision. Her husband, Ronald, who, until he retired in 1994, directed school social work and attendance in the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, and her daughter Mendi, a senior at Spelman College in Atlanta, gave her their full encouragement and support. On accepting the appointment Lewis told the Board of Trustees that she had adopted her mother's philosophy and applied it to all black children. When her mother asked her earlier if she wanted the position at Paine and Lewis said yes, she repeated what she had told her since Lewis was a child: "I think if you want to do it, you can do it." At Paine Lewis plans to help students become what they want to be. According to the Augusta Chronicle, she called fundraising her top priority. She sees recruitment and retention of students at Paine her greatest challenge and wants to build a national reputation for the school. "It is my hope to take Paine College, the wonderful things it has done, the tradition, and to cast that image nationwide," she said. Lewis also expressed concern for African American males, many of whom are at greater risk now than others had been before. In her November 7, 1994, letter, she said, "Paine College can and should be a place for the sustenance of African American males. Somehow education is frequently perceived as being uncorrelated with being African American." Lewis also plans to build a strong liberal arts tradition based in the humanities, and perhaps develop a program in international business.
Lewis speaks often at educational conferences, colleges, and universities. She has given commencement addresses at such schools as Philander Smith College, Claflin College, and Rust College. She has held consulting positions with Bennett College, Clark Atlanta University, Dillard University, Meharry Medical College, Wiley College, and other black institutions; with the Formative Evaluation Research Associates at the University of Michigan; with the National Institute of Education; and with a number of school districts in California, New Jersey, New York, and Tennessee.
Lewis is also a scholarly writer whose contributions have been primarily in the area of linguistics and English. She collaborated with R. L. Politzer and M. R. Hoover to write "A Semi-Foreign Language Approach to Teaching English to Bidialectal Students," in Applied Linguistics (Center for Applied Linguistics, 1980). She also wrote "Practical Aspects of Teaching Composition to Bidialectal Students: The Nairobi Method," in Issues in Composition (Lawrence Ehlbaum, 1982); and "Humanistic Research: A Tool for iteracy," in Successful Schools (Onyx Press, 1983). In addition, she has published important works on black colleges, including "The Future of Black Institutions: The Black Family, the Black Church, and the Black College," Position Papers (Cincinnati, Ohio, National Meeting of Black Methodist for Church Renewal, March 19, 1993); "Historically Black Colleges Enjoy a Renaissance," Black Issues in Higher Education (August 27, 1992); and "A Shared Dream," The Interpreter (February-March 1988).
Numerous community groups have benefitted from Lewis's expertise and generosity toward volunteer groups. In Nashville she served on the executive committee of the YWCA board of directors and she has also been active with the Girl Scouts of America, the United Way Appropriations Committee, the Mental Health Society, the Black Cultural Alliance, the Center for Black Family Life, and numerous other groups. Her affiliations with black women's groups include the Links and the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. Her keen interest in black and African heritage led her to become involved in a number of Kwanzaa activities in Nashville, including the Kwanzaa Committee, which she and her husband founded. She was a chief early promoter of Kwanzaa. She has been liturgist and greeter at Clark Memorial United Methodist Church in Nashville. In 1990 Dollars and Sense magazine named her one of America's Best and Brightest for her professional commitment and dedication.
Lewis is at once impressive, confident, unpretentious, poised, and gracious. She has a warm and contagious smile. Together the Lewis family exudes maturity, confidence, love, and a strong sense of belonging. They are especially devoted to the Methodist Church and to African culture and heritage.
Lewis credits her success not only to the love and support of her parents, but also to the influence of a number of black professional women in Berkeley: women from the Links, the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women, and women of the St. Augustine Episcopal Church where she grew up. "They watched and nurtured me. They invited me to give speeches and to attend their teas. They told me to aim high," she said in an interview. In her life and work, Lewis has in turn passed this optimistic advice on to others. Her concern with the uplift of young people is apparent in her unswerving dedication to education and in the broad and meaningful experiences that have made Shirley Lewis exceptionally well-prepared to lead Paine College, its students, and faculty to new heights.