28 Days of Black Excellence: Alfred Tatum

28 Days of Black Excellence
28 Days of Black Excellence
28 Days of Black Excellence: Alfred Tatum

“You always have to engage in deep interrogation. If something’s important to you always interrogate, ‘What am I missing? How do I become better so that I am supremely positioned to be the leader in my particular craft?'”

Alfred tatum


Alfred Tatum, who received his doctorate from UIC, has over 18 years of higher education experience and is a leading authority of Black boys’ literacy development. He is the provost and executive vice president of academic affairs at Metropolitan State University of Denver and professor in its School of Education.

Tatum was dean of the UIC College of Education from 2013-2020 and directed the UIC Reading Clinic from 2007-2020. While at UIC, he hosted Boys College for three years, a program aimed at advancing the literacy development of Black boys in elementary school. He also led two post-release education and preparation projects for young men on intensive probation with Cook County.

His most recent research project examined the roles of texts and writing to advance the literacy development of Black males in elementary school. His latest scholarship focuses on moving U.S. students to advanced levels of reading, writing and intellectual development across the academic disciplines.


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Tariq El-Amin  00:01
Welcome to Black Excellence at UIC Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement with Dr. Aisha El-Amin

Recording of Dr. Martin Luther King  00:09
[Applause] Believe in yourself and believe that you’re somebody.

Clips from 1995 movie “Panther”  00:17
That we study and master a bunch of different things.
Why are you here? 
Study and master a bunch of different things.
I’m proud to introduce our new Minister of Information

Aisha El-Amin  00:26
I’m Dr. Aisha El-Amin

Tariq El-Amin  00:29
Welcome to Black Excellence.

Aisha El-Amin  0:33
Hello, hello good people. Greetings UIC family and friends and welcome to UIC’s “28 days of Black Excellence.” I am Dr. Aisha El-Amin, UIC’s associate vice chancellor for equity and belonging. It is my great honor to celebrate the history of Black excellence at UIC with powerful, inspiring and informative conversations with UIC’s alumni and past faculty and staff.

Each day we’ll have a new guest who will share their story and today I am so elated and honored to introduce a mentor of mine, a friend of mine, a powerhouse in his own right. Dr. Alfred Tatum, provost, Dean Tatum, I have many, many titles for him. And I want him to just you know, I’m handing on the mic and just ask him tell us what he’s been up to. And you know, a little bit about his self.

Alfred Tatum  1:37
Well, thank you, Dr. El-Amin, it’s a pleasure always to share any forum with you. And so I was excited to get the invitation. But right now I’m serving as the provost and executive vice president of academic affairs at Metropolitan State University. That’s on the administrative side. But I am still an active researcher, really advocating for the advancement and development of Black boys. And I always try to maintain that administrative and scholarly hybridity. I think it’s important and that’s how I was really brought up at UIC.

Aisha El-Amin  2:20
So you did your graduate studies here? What so what was your graduate degree in?

Alfred Tatum  2:25
Yeah, I came back to join UIC in 1995. To study, at that time it was called reading, writing and literacy. It was one of the only programs in the city at that time that had a stellar faculty. And so it’s been a 20 year journey for me from the time I started as a graduate school student in 1995. Until I resigned from the university in 2020, to move on.

Aisha El-Amin 3:02
Wow, what a long, long period of time as part of UIC’s legacy. And know you saw a lot of changes within that time. I mean, from [laughter] even from the buildings, I’m sure right. In those changes. What are some of those changes that you saw across 20 years from being a graduate student to be a dean?

Alfred Tatum  3:24
You know, UIC was ripe for significant growth. And that really manifested in the past decade. I even saw the reputation of the university grow, particularly looking at it from the lens of a doctoral student at the time, very highly regarded. I saw UIC’s capacity to just recruit extraordinary faculty. I mean, it was just a home that a lot of people wanted to be a part of. But I also saw its community engagement footprint grow. I saw the emergence of Black administrators at UIC. For that matter, when I was there, I saw more Black deans come on board at the time, and UIC just had a grand narrative that just began to flourish from the time I entered to the time I exited.

Aisha El-Amin  4:29
Wow. As you think back on that, that 20 year history. What are some some of your fondest memories of being at UIC?

Alfred Tatum  4:40
You know, it’s an institution that supremely prepared me as a leader, as a scholar. I mean, I had the fortunate opportunity to work with, I didn’t know this existed at the time, but we had a reading Hall of Fame. And so I didn’t know I was coming into an institution where I would be working with three members of a reading Hall of Fame. And that was particularly important to me in my profession. But outside of that, I mean, there were just so many, in the College of Education, there are just so many extraordinary leaders in the university, but they were national leaders. And so, I had a chance to cozy up next to the scholarship and collaborate with them. I mean, it was just a fantastic journey. But from a faculty member, and administrator, this is a university that did not create a lot of barriers to do great work. I mean, if you had an idea, you could move forward with that idea. And I think that was one of the fondest memories, I would always mention to others that there’s nothing you can’t do at this university if you can imagine it. And I really felt that and benefited from that, particularly in the College of Education.

Aisha El-Amin  6:05
I love that. I love that. And I have to, look, I’m gonna have to repeat that one a few times. [Laughter] I think that is key. So with every, with every journey, there’s challenges. There’s challenges as a student, you know, in trying to get through that and trying to get your degree. As an administrator, as a faculty member, you know, trying to get that tenure and all of that. So, since you’ve worn all of those heads, can you talk about any challenge that you faced, and how you, you know how you faced it? How you kind of got to the other side of it to help folks that may be going through their own challenges get to them?

Alfred Tatum  6:46
You know, if I think about … that entire period that I was there, our challenges were really influenced by national or local challenges. And so we, I didn’t experience a division between what was happening inside of the institution and the field of national and societal challenges. We had to find a way to respond to those challenges. Sometimes there was a high degree of impatience and you cannot just flick on a switch. But you develop a meter at UIC over a period of time that this is just how we have to function, there is no clear separation between the university and society writ large. That can cause a lot of tension for folks, racial tensions, economic tensions, neighborhood tensions, and you have to be able to find residence in a place that has those challenges, and you grow from them. You navigate them, but you can also struggle through them. And so these are productive humanitarian challenges that I think all institutions should embrace, but you feel that it’s really endemic at the university. And that’s just a function of having great people who care deeply about the work they do and they want to see stuff happen quickly. And that’s just what I recall about the university.

Aisha El-Amin  8:28
So I know you’re, you know, you said this, but I don’t I want to make sure the listeners know, your seminal work on Black boys and literacy. Can you tell us a little bit about some of the you know, a grander summary around the scholarship that you engage in?

Alfred Tatum  8:48
Somehow the nation has been missing the mark when it comes to the literacy development of Black children, but Black boys in particular. And so even though I came to UIC because I had difficulty teaching reading to a young girl, my first research project involved four Black boys in the back of my class in Chicago Public Schools. And I just became so excited and despondent in some ways, because as a nation, we were not giving these young boys the attention that they deserved. And many of these young boys were surrendering their life chances before they got to know their life choices, particularly amidst some of the violence in Chicago. And so my first book title was called, “Reading Amidst Violence.” But somehow, the publisher convinced me to change that. No, it was called, “Reading Amidst Turmoil.” And somehow my publisher didn’t think it would sell and they asked me to change that title, but you know, keep the same thing. But currently, I’m just really trying to figure out how do we move these boys to advanced levels of literacy development and using text. I want young men to be self-determined, self-reliant. And if there is an erosion of literacy, it sort of interrupts that, and that just drives me in ways that I can’t even fully explain.

Aisha El-Amin  10:22
I know when I taught fourth grade and when I was getting my master’s in DePaul, your readings were really part of my journey in trying to figure out how to do that work in the classroom. So I’ve been a beneficiary of your scholarship as well. If you had advice that you could give your younger self, when you first started at UIC, what would be some of your advice that others could benefit from hearing?

Alfred Tatum  10:53
Well, I tell you what really drove me, I learned early on that I don’t serve institutions, I have to position institutions to serve me. And I truly embraced that. And that gave me permission to reach out and knock on the doors of others because I felt that they had a responsibility to serve me. And I see that with young students. Now I often tell students, one of the most powerful tools is your fist. Just knock on the door and tell folks, you’re here and ‘you owe me.’ But that was really important to do that. The other piece of advice I would give is, you always have to engage in deep interrogation. If something’s important to you always interrogate, ‘What am I missing? How do I become better so that I am supremely positioned to be the leader in my particular craft.’ And there was one other piece of advice I would give someone else, all institutions are imperfect. Don’t spend all of your time trying to perfect an institution that will outlive you, outdistance you. Embrace those imperfections, use them as teaching tools or humanitarian tools for you. But you don’t want to get sidetracked in a way that it pinches your aspirations or your capacity to do something that could be so much larger than a particular institution. So, institutions belong to you. Interrogate what needs to take place and then don’t spend all of your time sidetracked.

Aisha El-Amin  13:06
That is beautiful advice. I also know that you’re an avid reader. And so I’m wondering if you have a book or two that you would recommend that folks pick up that could be of use? And I know that’s probably a very difficult question for as much as you read. But I’m gonna see if you can help us out with some recommendations.

Alfred Tatum  13:27
You know, I’ll start with two. And I may have shared this, and I think you’re aware of this. I’ve been reading five pounds of books per month since I was 11 years old. But there’s one book that I read at least twice a year. And that’s “Strength to Love” by Dr. King. And I read that because it taught me, it really talks about, strong mindedness and tenderheartedness. If you have a strong mind and a tender heart that leads to resiliency. But I am also a prisoner of the reading moment. I’m working on a fifth book called “Literacy and Land.” And so I’m just reading so many texts, and there is one. It’s called “Rooted in the Earth.” And it gives a historical relationship between African Americans and the land. And it just connects us to so many excerpts and literature and land and how that becomes a tool of protection. Historically, we know about the 40 acres and a mule. How that didn’t come to bear. Going back to my studies with young Black men now, I said, ‘you also want to think about one acre and a tool.’ With one acre and the right tools you can do so much to benefit, uplift, expand communities. And if that one acre and a tool has the same resonance as 40 acres and a mule, you can attribute that to some of the readings that I am deeply involved with today. Because I truly believe that communities have to be able to protect themselves in the social and natural sciences. And the land always communicates that to us. So I’m going to be…I’ll stop there, because you asked me about books. I can talk about books for the next 74 days. But you only asked me for a brief mentioning and so I always appreciate that question.

Aisha El-Amin  15:33
No, and I appreciate the recommendations. And I love the the heart in the mind. You know, I think that combination, and I think no matter what space you’re in, that you occupy, whether as a student, a faculty member or a staff member, you can use, you know, use those books. And so I want to thank you for taking time today. I want to thank you for the work that you do. And I continue to be a fan and in support of all of your endeavors.

Alfred Tatum  16:07
Thank you, it’s always a treat for me.

Tariq El-Amin  16:12
Thanks for joining us. Find more inspiring and informative conversations with USC alumni, faculty and staff, at blackresources.uic.edu. That’s blackresources.uic.edu.

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