KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Dr. Merze Tate saw boundless possibilities in a world where the odds were stacked against her; she refused to sit in the mold society created for her and instead set out to conquer her dreams and explore the world. Western Michigan University is honoring Tate's legacy by naming University College—the academic home for exploratory majors—after the inspirational alumna who was a scholar, world traveler, journalist, author and disarmament specialist who advised world leaders.
"Dr. Tate was a bold and courageous trailblazer who explored the world with passion and purpose; that's the same type of spirit we encourage in our students in Merze Tate College," says Dr. Jennifer Bott, provost and vice president for academic affairs. "By providing integrated, holistic approaches to student success, we are building a new road map that guides students in charting their own path."
A dedication ceremony for the new Merze Tate College will take place Friday, Oct. 8, at 4 p.m. in the Bernhard Center Ballroom.
It will be a historic day for the University that adds another milestone to Tate's extensive list of barrier-breaking accomplishments, which include being the first Black woman to earn a bachelor's degree from Western (then Western State Teachers College). She will become one of the few Black women to have an academic college named after her at a predominantly white institution.
“In our conversations about naming the college after Dr. Tate, we wanted to acknowledge both the remarkable journeys she made and the fact that the larger journey toward racial justice, of course, remains ongoing and unfinished," says Dr. Ed Martini, associate provost of WMUx and dean of Merze Tate College. "While we are excited to name the college after her, we are also humbled. And we take seriously the responsibility of honoring her legacy by creating the conditions in which all students, particularly those from historically underserved groups, can thrive."
Merze Tate College will serve as a guidepost for students as they chart their own path to success, affirming the University's core mission: "So that all may learn." It is a centralized network of support services, units and departments that exist to help Broncos envision their future, embrace their potential, thrive in all dimensions of their well-being and discover their purpose.
In addition to serving as the hub for functionally centralized academic advising, the college will serve as home to students in the Exploratory Advising and University Studies programs, as well as a variety of student support units such as:
Office of Student Transitions: Assists and supports all students in developing social networks, understanding the expectations of academic rigor, learning about the vast opportunities at Western and preparing them for life beyond graduation.
WMU Signature: Encourages all students to complete a culminating integrative learning project related to their purpose.
Center for Academic Success Programs: Enhances teaching and promotes student learning through collaborative, effective research-based programs.
Student Success Services: Provides academic support programs and connects students to resources they may need to achieve academic and personal goals.
Career and Student Employment Services: Assists students with career exploration, job searching, interviewing, negotiating and finding internships and jobs.
Collegiate Pathways: Provides dual enrollment opportunities for eligible high school students with access to university courses and delivers new educational opportunities in cooperation with K-12 partners, reducing the time and cost of degrees.
WMU Essential Studies: WMU’s recently updated core curriculum, designed to help students become fluent in change and driven to contribute; develop perseverance; and be ready for their future. Students develop the skills employers seek most in graduates: demonstrated complex problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, emotional intelligence, judgment and decision making.
"Western Michigan University was the beneficiary of the brilliance, leadership and example of Dr. Tate. Naming University College in honor of this trailblazer is a fitting tribute to her legacy, service and advocacy—particularly for students of color," says Dr. Deveta Gardner, associate dean of Merze Tate College. "We hope to continue to live up to the ideas Dr. Tate embodied through the work of the college in the delivery of the important services we provide our students."
About one in 10 first- and second-year students at Western are undecided on their major, and more than 2,000 students change majors every year. Merze Tate College sets Western apart from many institutions by offering programs and services that seek to empower these students by normalizing the process of asking for help. This is based on evidence that first-generation students and other historically underserved students can be reluctant to seek out support as they navigate the higher education landscape.
ABOUT MERZE TATE
Tate's grandparents were among the first Black settlers in Mecosta County, Michigan, where she was born in 1905. She walked three miles each way from her family's farm to get to school every day and was the only Black student in class.
She excelled in the classroom and was named valedictorian of her class, but she was denied entry into the University of Michigan when the school learned the color of her skin. Still she pressed on, knowing an education was the key to achieving her dreams. When then-WMU President Dr. Dwight Waldo heard what happened, he immediately accepted Tate and provided her a scholarship. She went on to graduate in three years with a degree in education, becoming the first Black woman to receive a bachelor's degree from the institution in 1927.
Despite her exemplary academic record, every Michigan school district she applied to refused to hire a Black teacher. Waldo and other Western faculty members made calls to districts across the midwest on her behalf, and she soon became the first history teacher at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis—a school created in 1927 by the Ku Klux Klan to keep Black students segregated from their white peers. Intent on expanding opportunities for her students, she created a travel club to bring history and civics lessons to life with field trips across the country.
"She was very focused, very determined," says Sonya Bernard-Hollins, a Western alumna and Tate historian who in 2008 founded the Merze Tate Explorers, a travel club to carry on her legacy for girls in Kalamazoo. "While she didn't march or protest, her whole focus was fighting racism through education. She thought, 'If I can educate myself and educate others to have careers and skills that the world will need, then that is the ultimate civil rights movement.’"
Tate went on to earn bachelor's and doctoral degrees in international relations from Oxford University—the first African American to do so—and became the first Black woman to earn a doctoral degree in government and international relations at Harvard University's Radcliffe College in 1941. She was one of the first two women to join the Department of History at Howard University as a professor, where she spent three decades before retiring in 1986.
After a lifetime of learning and exploring, Tate donated more than one million dollars to Western and has a Medallion Scholarship named for her. And now, a college will be dedicated to her legacy.
“I have beat the drum of Tate’s legacy for more than a decade,” says Bernard-Hollins. “The girls who have gone on to do amazing things in her footsteps and the many people who have been inspired by her story now have a new reason to be proud. I commend WMU for taking this bold step in honoring Tate not only as a woman of color but as a woman whose life is an inspiration to the world.”
“The path that Merze Tate has paved for my community and the girls of the Merze Tate Explorers leaves me speechless! To be attending Western Michigan University as the first former president of the Merze Tate Explorers during this time not only makes me feel as if I am a part of this legacy, but it feels as if the ball is now in my court," adds Sierra Ward, a first-year public health student who has been an Explorer since elementary school.
"By continuing to motivate young girls in my community, upholding the values that Western has been rooted in since 1903 and focusing on my studies to become successful and represent my community well, I am adamant that the legacy of Merze Tate will be honorably upheld at WMU and throughout the Kalamazoo community!”
The dedication ceremony is just the beginning of a larger celebration of Tate's life and legacy on campus. A major public event is being planned around her birthday, Feb. 6.
For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.