A Second Calling
Dr. Johnnetta Cole to lead all-female Bennett College
By Allison Foreman
Troubled Bennett College received some new hope last month when it named Dr. Johnnetta Cole as its new president. Cole, best known for her 10 years as president of Spelman College, will step into her new post July 15. She will replace Interim President Charles Fuget, who took over in February after Althia Collins — the college’s 13th president — resigned.
“This will be a joy for me,” Cole says. “Hard work, but a joy.”
Cole arrives during tough times at Bennett. The historically Black, all-female school is facing a $2 million budget deficit, dropping enrollment, accreditation woes and buildings in need of extensive repair.
“Yes, the problems are deep,” Cole told students during a May 1 visit to campus. “But the solutions are within reach.”
Cole says she is committed to helping Bennett turn the corner, and that she will stay there at least five years.
“My sisters, I hope you can say it and believe it,” she said. “It’s a new day at Bennett College.”
Cole, 65, has worked in higher education for more than 30 years. She’s served as an assistant anthropology professor and director of Black studies at Washington State University; as an anthropology professor and Afro-American studies professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst; as an anthropology professor and director of Latin American and Caribbean studies at Hunter College; and most recently as a professor at Emory University.
Yet, she is best known for her 10-year presidency of Spelman College, the nation’s only other historically Black women’s college. Under her guidance, the school received millions of dollars and became the first historically Black college to receive a No. 1 ranking in U.S. News and World Report when the college was named the top liberal arts college in the South.
“I think it’s wonderful for Bennett; I think it’s wonderful for American higher education; and I think it’s wonderful for Greensboro,” says Dr. James Renick, chancellor of North Carolina A&T University, which sits about two miles from the Bennett campus. “We’re all very excited about having her as a colleague in Greensboro.”
Chancellor Harold Martin of Winston-Salem State University also expressed enthusiasm over the addition of Cole to the North Carolina higher education community.
“It is my expectation that she will have a significant impact on Bennett,” Martin says. “Absent someone of her magnitude and experience, Bennett’s future would be bleak.”
Martin adds that Cole’s work and achievements at Spelman College also make her an asset to the entire state, and he looks forward to working with her and hopes the Piedmont Triad community and Bennett alumnae will rally behind her.
Cole retired from Spelman in 1997. In 1998, she began teaching at Emory
University. She retired again in 2001.
“I really tried retirement,” Cole says, “but I had to give myself an ‘F-minus.’ ”
Her decision to come to Bennett was grounded in what she says makes a
successful relationship: reciprocity.
“I think Bennett needs me,” she says, “but I need Bennett.”
Still, the decision to return to a college wasn’t a quick one. In January, after then-President Collins resigned, Bennett trustee Akosua Barthwell Evans contacted Cole about helping the college in some way. Cole felt she should try to help, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to. She volunteered to serve as a consultant for the college while it searched for its next leader. But after talking with friends and colleagues, including actor and comedian Bill Cosby and writer Maya Angelou, who is a trustee at Bennett, Cole realized she wanted to be Bennett’s next president. It was her calling.
Marian Tasco, head of Bennett’s board of trustees, met Cole for the first time April 21 in Baltimore. Tasco thought the two were meeting to discuss Cole’s consultation. “When she told me she wanted to be president, I literally went numb,” Tasco says. “I went to Baltimore with a consultant, and I came home with a president.”
Bennett’s fall 2001 enrollment was almost 100 students fewer than the previous year’s enrollment at 619 students. The enrollment drop contributed to the college’s $2 million budget deficit. Several of the college’s buildings are also in poor shape and in need of immediate repair.
The college has had two presidents in the last two years. Collins started July 1, replacing former president Gloria Scott. Scott served as president for 14 years, but both she and Collins left amid controversy (see Black Issues, March 28).
If anyone can help guide Bennett to better days, Cole is the one to do it, colleagues say.
“She’s just so inspirational,” says Deb Hammacher, spokeswoman for Emory University. “She didn’t do anything halfway. She’ll make it happen (at Bennett).”
But Cole is quick to say she cannot do the job alone.
“There are no saviors around here,” she told students during her May 1 visit. “We are in this together.”
One thing Cole said she will focus on is Bennett’s need to raise money —
something she does exceptionally well. Cole led a fund-raising effort at Spelman with an initial goal of $81 million. The college raised close to $114 million.
She’s already working on gifts to Bennett and received several calls in the days after her appointment from companies and alumnae willing to donate. She planned to meet with a Bennett Belles alumnae group from Atlanta and a major foundation in the first two weeks of May.
After listening to her speak, students said they were thrilled Cole chose Bennett.
“We’ve been through a lot with our last two presidents,” says Robin Hendrix, a sophomore. “Everybody’s ready for a change.”
“We can’t be any worse than we already are,” adds Ashley Cobb, a first-year student. “We need this really bad.”
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