Campus News

Gayle, Hunter-Gault share thoughts on important topics

From left, Spelman College President Helene Gayle, UGA President Jere W. Morehead and Charlayne Hunter-Gault are shown at the 2024 Holmes-Hunter Lecture. (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA)

Annual Holmes-Hunter Lecture includes wide-ranging discussion from two pioneers

A source and a sister.

That’s how renowned journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault described Dr. Helene Gayle, the 11th president of Spelman College and public health expert. The two have known each other for more than 30 years and took the stage at the UGA Chapel for a fireside chat for the 2024 Holmes-Hunter Lecture on Feb. 27.

“When Charlayne first asked me if I would be the guest lecturer, I said that I would be happy to do it because I’ve always thought this series was incredible, but I would rather do it with you in conversation,” said Gayle, who is a pediatrician and public health physician. “When you’re the person who the lecture series is named after, you get a chance to hear a lot of people, but very few people have the chance to hear from Charlayne herself. I’m so pleased that we were able to be in conversation together.”

Hunter-Gault started by asking when Gayle first heard about her case with Hamilton Holmes Sr., which they eventually won, allowing them to integrate the University of Georgia in 1961. Gayle was in elementary school at the time but already recognized the sacrifice they made and the significance of the ruling.

“I came to appreciate even more what you and Hamilton went through,” Gayle said. “I think it was a hopeful moment because it said that even with something as unfair and cruel as denying students the opportunity to go to their school of choice, we have a system that works. It had a reality but also a sense of hopefulness.”

Hunter-Gault, who initially met Gayle as an expert source on women’s health when she was a reporter, also asked about how much has changed since that time.

“We’re going through some difficult times today, but have we learned anything?” Hunter-Gault asked.

Gayle said it’s important to take the long view because change takes time. She pointed out that although progress has been made, there is still work to do. She said that in her career, she was often the first in what she did, but now there are many others who have successfully come after her.

“We have work to do, but no one ever said the work was ever going to be finished,” Gayle said. “We are always in the process of making ourselves better.”

The 2024 Holmes-Hunter Lecture featured a fireside chat between Spelman College President Helene Gayle, left, and renowned journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault. (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA)

Hunter-Gault also asked Gayle about the challenges facing higher education and the benefits it offers society. Gayle said all colleges and universities—from community colleges to four-year institutions—can provide a transformative opportunity for all people to reach their full potential.

Recently, Spelman College received a $100 million gift to the institution, the single largest donation ever to an HBCU. Hunter-Gault asked how those funds would be used. Gayle shared that they will support the college’s endowment, additional scholarships and improvements to its campus.

Lastly, Gayle shared some thoughts on current issues in higher education. She said that, in essence, higher education has the same challenges as society at large and reflects the rest of the nation.

“College campuses can be a place where we start learning how to have the kind of civil dialogues that get us to solutions,” Gayle said. “These are the kinds of places where ideas matter and values matter. I hope we’re teaching our young people how we handle differences and recognize differences, because that’s what makes us wonderful. I will always believe that higher education is the place where that can happen.”

Named in honor of Holmes and Hunter-Gault, the first African American students to attend the University of Georgia, the lecture is sponsored by the Office of the President. It has been held annually since 1985 and is designated as a Signature Lecture.

“This annual lecture serves as an important reminder for our community because it honors two of the University of Georgia’s most iconic figures,” said UGA President Jere W. Morehead. “Since Charlayne and Hamilton first stepped through the Arch, a great deal has changed for the better on our campus.”

The Holmes-Hunter Academic Building, named for these two trailblazers, is currently undergoing a $30 million historic renovation that will make the building a center for student activities. The project is scheduled to be completed and the building reopen in fall 2024.

This year’s lecture fell on Hunter-Gault’s 82nd birthday. In honor of the occasion, Hunter-Gault and her husband, Ron, donated $8,200 to the Giving Voice to the Voiceless fund, which they started in 2017 to support projects that amplify marginalized voices and thus carry forward her work.