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The physician, the professor and the politico – candidates for the presidency of Spelman College – Cover Story


For Spelman College
student Toria Davis, just
the thought of getting a
new campus president
with ties to the White
House speaks volumes
about the search to
replace Dr. Johnnetta B.

“It’s an honor just
to think someone
who’s so important would be interested in coming to
Spelman,” said Davis after learning that the school’s
search committee is considering former Secretary of
Energy Hazel O’Leary, acting U.S. Surgeon General
Audrey Forbes Manley and University of California at Los
Angeles Vice-Chancellor Claudia Mitchell-Kernan as
finalists for the school’s president post.

“It makes you feel real good about the being at Spelman,”
said Davis, a biology major from Scottsdale, Arizona.
With less than a month to go before the committee
makes its final decision, supporters of the school say
they also feel good about the slate of traditional and
non-traditional candidates.

About 125 candidates expressed interest in the job,
said search committee chair Dr. June Gary Hopps, dean
of the Boston College
School of Social
Work. The diverse
pool, she said,
included men and
women — Black and
white — and a few
international contenders.

As news of the committee’s top
choices spread, some
people said they
were taken aback by
such a high-profile `short list.’
But there’s no need for surprise, said Dr. Henry
Ponder, president of the National Association for Equal
Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), the membership
organization of historically Black colleges and
universities (HBCUs). “This is not new, we’ve always
had the top of the line as persons to choose from [for]
our presidents,” Ponder said. “No one should be
surprised and anyone acquainted with the selection of
presidents for our institutions should definitely not be

The bottom line in choosing O’Leary, Manley and
Mitchell-Kernan was their track records of achievement,
said Hopps.
O’Leary, while controversial during her tenure in the
White House cabinet, is a trained attorney
with strong executive and corporate skills.

During her stint at U.S. energy secretary,
she garnered a $4.8 million settlement
for the families of Americans who died after
being injected with uranium and plutonium
as part of a 1940s experiment. She also
brought in a reported $2.3 billion in gas and
oil business for the U.S. In addition to
working for the Carter, Ford and Clinton
administration, O’Leary also managed a
multi-billion-dollar division of Northern
Electric in Minneapolis for several years. While
she was secretary, the Department of Energy
increased its awards to HBCUs by 173
percent, from $21.6 million to $59 million.

Manley, a 1955 graduate of
the school and wife of former
Spelman president Albert
Manley, has worked closely
with the women’s school over
the last few decades. While her
expertise is in public health,
Manley is also a consummate
“cheerleader” for Spelman, say
those who know her.

Alumnae describe her as a
very formal person who, always
in uniform, has her own
style of marketing. Appointed
in 1995 to the position formerly
held by Dr. Joycelyn
Elders, Manley is seen by some
insiders as a front-runner for the job.
Observers say it’s time for an alumna to
run the school.

Still, few are willing to count anthropologist
Mitchell-Kerner out. The only
traditional candidate in the trio,
Mitchell-Kerner is a former Havard professor
and current presidential appointee to
the National Science Foundation’s Science
Board. A widely published author on
subjects such as African American marriages,
mental retardation and sociolinguistic
issues, Mitchell-Kerner has worked as a
Harvard faculty member and is a former
director of UCLA’s Center for Afro-American
Studies. She now heads the academic
affairs of the school’s graduate division and
is a professor in the biobehavioral and
anthropology/psychiatry departments.

“We did not look at anyone who was
not an extremely high achiever,” Hopps
said. “We’re looking for a trailblazer, a
visionary. We want people who are
committed and people who will help take the
college to the next step in its upward

That will be the biggest challenge of
whoever succeeds Cole, Atlanta-area
observers say. Under Cole’s leadership,
the school brought in
more than $113 million for a
capital campaign that set a
record for fundraising by
historically Black colleges. It was
also during her tenure that
philanthropists Bill and Camille
Cosby became big donors to
the school. The bills have been
paid and the real challenges
already met, say some supporters.

“For anybody to follow
Johnnetta Cole is a tough, tough
assignment,” said Michael
Lomax, chair of the National
Faculty, a high-brow professional
development organization based in Atlanta.
“She’s rewritten the book on what it means
to be a college president because she’s so

Lomax, like many other observers, says
she has “engaged Spelman with rest of the
world in a way that the expectations are
going to be much higher for her successor.”
Cole, who took the helm in 1987, is
stepping down in June to take a one-year
sabbatical before going to teach at Emory
University in the fall of 1998. Shortly after
her announcement last summer, the search
committee contracted with the
Black-owned search firm The Hollins
Group to find a replacement and name a
new president by graduation.

Each candidate could hold her own if
chosen, followers of the search said last
week. “There are some outstanding people
in this country,” Ponder said. “There’s a
fallacy we get locked into — that the
outgoing person is going to be hard to

“The job of the committee is to get
someone who meets the criteria you’ve set
up and that person will come in and make
a name for themselves. When we got Dr.
Cole, I’m sure people said `How in the
world can they replace Donald Stewart?’

Now they’re saying the same thing about
Dr. Cole.” Jane Smith, an alumna and
director of former President Jimmy Carter’s
empowerment initiative The Atlanta
Project, believes all the new president
needs to do is “be herself,” given the level
of accomplishment each has achieved.
“If the woman is herself, it will be very
easy,” said Smith.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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