The ‘Sisters and the Bro’
President Johnnetta Cole assembles new Bennett College team
By Allison Foreman
Dr. Tatia Granger remembers the moment like it was yesterday. It was June 6, 2002. The special assistant to the vice president for financial services was sitting at her desk at Duke University when the phone rang.
“When I picked up the phone, this voice on the other end said, ‘Dr. Granger, this is Johnnetta Cole calling from Atlanta.’ “
“I almost dropped the phone,” Granger says.
This was not just Dr. Johnnetta Cole, Bennett College’s newly appointed president, calling. This was Johnnetta Cole, former president of Spelman College. This was Johnnetta Cole, anthropologist and nationally known educator.
And this was Johnnetta Cole, who Granger had written about at the University of Virginia 10 years ago for a paper on Bennett and Spelman — the only two historically Black colleges for women in the country.
“I remember telling my professor, Dr. Cole is the kind of person I’d really like to work with one day,” Granger says.
Now, as Granger speaks from her new office as vice president of enrollment management at Bennett, she said her longtime dream has come true.
Granger is one of the many new administrators Cole has recruited to be a part of her team at Bennett College. They have come from diverse but deep academic backgrounds, ranging from private research schools like Duke to HBCUs like Clark Atlanta University. Still, all of them have a similar goal in mind — to work with a woman they admire and make Bennett College the best it can be.
“They could be other places,” Cole said from her office. “They have chosen to be at Bennett.”
While many in the Greensboro community have called her the “savior” at Bennett, Cole insists she is not a one-woman team. She just has the sense to choose people who are as good as her or better at their respective jobs, she said.
“I honestly think that was the secret at Spelman,” Cole says. “It will be again a part of our ‘secret instrument’ at Bennett.”
Bennett has its share of challenges in the coming years. It needs to boost enrollment. This year, 486 students enrolled. Next year, the college hopes to enroll 550. Bennett also needs to raise money, renovate old buildings and repair its standing with its accrediting association. That’s why having a qualified and dedicated team is so important, Cole says.
She collectively calls her senior staff members “the sisters and the bro.”
Granger says she felt “deflated” when she heard Cole was retiring from Spelman. She thought she would never have the chance to work with a woman she admired so much.
But one day in April, her husband saw a small blurb in a Durham newspaper announcing Cole’s new presidency.
Granger cut out the 10-line article and placed it on her counter top. “I said, ‘I cannot believe she is coming to North Carolina.’ “
Granger wrote to Cole in May to congratulate her on the new job and wish her well. She also included a copy of her University of Virginia paper.
“I thought, maybe eventually she’ll see it,” Granger says.
Not only did Cole see it — she called Granger directly about it that day in June.
Cole told Granger she wanted her to know the package had arrived and that she had just finished reading Granger’s paper.
“That’s when I knew this woman was truly incredible,” Granger says. “I thought, ‘She really is all that I think and more.’ “
Cole met with Granger this summer, and the meeting turned into a job offer.
“Quite frankly, I was willing to do whatever she needed,” Granger says.
Like Granger, Dr. Jacqueline Pollard jumped at the chance to work at Bennett.
“Dr. Cole is a winner,” Pollard says. “Tell me one person who would not want to be with a winner?”
Pollard worked with Cole at Spelman in several roles, including assistant academic dean. She said she was excited about reconnecting with her former boss.
“I said, ‘Oh, this might be an opportunity to bring about some much-needed change,’ ” she says.
As vice president of institutional advancement, Pollard oversees fund raising — one of the cash-strapped college’s most important goals. She also is responsible for alumnae affairs, college publications, work with the United Negro College Fund and the new lecture series, “The President Presents,” which recently brought Coretta Scott King to the campus.
Emilye Mobley, who oversees student affairs, is another senior staff member who wanted to reconnect with Cole.
From 1989 to 2000, Mobley worked as director of residential life at Spelman.
“I was so excited and honored that she would see me as someone she’d want to be a part of her team here,” Mobley says. “Victory is inevitable with her at the head of the team.”
But not everyone is new to the school. The “bro” on the team is Dr. Charles Fuget, Bennett’s former interim president whom Cole credits with providing stability.
“After all, it was he who was the bridge over troubled waters,” she says.
Fuget stepped in days after former president Dr. Althia Collins resigned (see Black Issues, March 28). He immediately faced budget constraints and challenges to Bennett’s accreditation. As interim president, he reduced the work force to balance the finances. He worked with the accrediting association to fix financial record-keeping problems. And he helped organize a plan so that Bennett could repay interest on money it had mistakenly received from the federal government for financial aid.
Cole asked Fuget to stay on board to help with the transition. He agreed to stay on as special assistant to the president through May.
“It was really an opportunity to work with a high-powered team,” he says. “And it’s fun to watch her.”
Cole has brought enthusiasm and optimism to the campus, and the community has readily welcomed her, Fuget says.
“She’s using her contacts; she’s using her relationships to assist the college in moving forward,” he adds.
Three months into her term, Cole says most of her team is in place. There will be a few changes in the coming months, including moving Louise Farmer from vice president to associate vice president of fiscal affairs. Farmer has impeccable integrity, Cole says, and without her, the college would not have pulled through some tough times. Yet in the current corporate climate, Cole says the college needs someone with a lot of experience in the vice president role.
But even in this short time, the senior staff has meshed.
“We all work together extremely well,” Pollard says. “And we’re all committed passionately to this school and the work that has to be done so it can remain the historic treasure that it is.”
Granger agrees, and says she has no doubt Cole and the team will turn Bennett around.
“The team is so completely devoted and committed,” she says. “The energy is just amazing.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com