NEW YORK — Donald M. Stewart, a career educator who was credited with reviving Spelman College, and who later, as president of the College Board, sought to maintain high standards for college applicants while helping minority students meet them, died Sunday in Chicago. He was 80.
The cause was a heart attack, his son Carter said.
In 1976, Dr. Stewart, the first in his family to complete college, became president of Spelman, the historically black women’s college in Atlanta that was rich in tradition but short of funds. His appointment was opposed by students who had wanted the school’s trustees to choose a black woman as president, and who briefly locked several trustees in a room in protest.
His tenure was successful despite the rocky start. When he retired from Spelman 10 years later — he was succeeded by the school’s first black female president, Johnnetta B. Cole — the endowment had grown to more than $41 million from $9 million, and enrollment had grown to 1,600 from 1,200. About half the college’s professors had doctorates when Dr. Stewart took over; the share was 74 percent when he left. And the average SAT scores of entering freshmen had surged by 100 points.
During his tenure, the college created a chemistry department, a comprehensive writing program, and a Women’s Research and Resource Center.
After leaving Spelman, Dr. Stewart took over the College Board, the nonprofit private organization that administers the SATs and a scholarship service. He was thrust into a contentious national debate over the college admissions process.
Some critics complained that relying largely on standardized tests reduced the number of minority students who were accepted because minority students tended not to do as well as a result of perceived bias in the tests.
Others cautioned that making the tests easier, or giving too much weight to amorphous factors — like attracting a more racially and ethnically diverse freshman class and students whose talents cannot be measured only by test taking — could lower standards.
The board revised the exam to eliminate more facile multiple-choice questions and permitted students to use calculators, although it stopped short of requiring essays, as some had recommended. It also began programs to better prepare minority students for college.
“Having spent a lot of time defining and raising standards,” Dr. Stewart said in 1993, “we have decided to help students meet those standards.”
But while Dr. Stewart insisted that a standardized test of acquired knowledge should not be the sole criterion for college admission, he staunchly defended the SAT’s record as an indicator of students’ performance during the freshman year.
Dr. Stewart warned that the elimination of affirmative action programs in college admissions, designed to mitigate generations of discrimination in educational opportunity, could cause a “wipeout that could take away an entire generation.” Such a move, he said, would lead to an increased reliance on test scores, which could risk “the resegregation of higher education.”