In Their Own Words
Q: Research has shown that women don’t forge the aspiration to become a college president as early as men do. When did you realize you were on the path to top leadership?
Dr. Johnnetta Cole
“I knew quite early what leadership was and that I would become a leader, and that’s because I grew up in a town where my great-grandfather was considered the leader of the African American community. He was a great ‘race man,’ as it used to be called. A.L. Lewis was his name — as in Abraham Lincoln Lewis — and he became Jacksonville, Fla.’s, first Black millionaire. But that wasn’t what made him a leader. He was a leader because of service … The greatest female leader of that time was Mary McLeod Bethune. She and my great-grandfather were close friends — in fact, she gave the eulogy at his funeral. I literally sat on her knee as a child. And I knew what she had done, that she had baked sweet potato pies and sold them for a $1.50 to start that school. So I was told and taught I had to do the same thing: I had to be of service and I had to lead…”
— Cole became the first African American woman president of Spelman College in 1987.
Dr. Adena Loston
“I’m from Vicksburg, Miss., and growing up in Mississippi, I never imagined that I would follow this career path. In fact, it never occurred to me until I was in class one day, a higher education leadership class, and my professor mentioned that he had been a college president and returned as a faculty member teaching higher education courses. I thought, ‘You?!’ And that was the light bulb moment for me. A light bulb went off in my head, and I thought if Dr. So-and-So can be a college president, then I know I can be a college president.”
— Loston became an executive dean, then a provost in 1994 and a president in 1997.
Dr. Yolanda Moses
“It was a sudden epiphany. I was a dean of the college of liberal arts (at California State Polytechnic University-Pomona). I was the only female dean, the only dean of color — I had two younger daughters, and my husband and I were raising them together — but it had never occurred to me to think beyond that. Then one day I was in one of those meetings that go on and on and on. We were waiting for the president to come in. And maybe I was tired, but I remember thinking, ‘If it was all women in this meeting, we’d all be home right now. You can tell these men don’t have anything else to do.’ Then the president came in, and he did his blessings over this major initiative we were planning. And suddenly I thought, ‘I can do that.’ That’s the day I realized the presidency was attainable.”
— That was in 1985. Moses finished her deanship, followed that up with a provost’s post and, within seven to eight years, rose to the presidency.
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