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Bennett College President Prepares for a Year of Achievement Before Stepping Down

Bennett College President Prepares for a Year of Achievement Before Stepping Down
By Eleanor Lee Yates

Greensboro, N.C.
When Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole announced on July 11 that she would retire as president of Bennett College in June of 2007, faculty, staff and friends of the college tried to persuade her to reconsider. It was no use.
“It is just time to move on. I don’t claim to have ESP or see in the future. I’m just a rational person capable of making decisions and executing them,” she says. “When I went to Spelman College [as president], I said ‘10 years.’ And that’s how long I was there. Five years was the number I saw when I came here in 2002, and I will honor that.” 

Cole is credited with pulling the historically Black women’s college out of a downward spiral. During her tenure, she has led the college off probationary status and steered it back on track financially. When Cole arrived, Bennett was operating with a $3 million deficit. Now, the endowment has grown from $7 million to $10 million, and enrollment is up. Three historic buildings have also been renovated in the past four years, and other buildings have been upgraded.

“I think that one of the biggest effects Dr. Cole has had on Bennett is increased recognition and visibility,” says Dr. Claudette H. Williams, the college’s executive vice president. “Bennett has become a place with which individuals, foundations and other institutions now want to associate. This is evident in the types of partnerships that have been forged.”

According to Williams, the positive attitude Cole brought to campus with her in 2002 helped heal a growing rift between the college and its Greensboro, N.C., community.

Looking forward, Cole, 70, says a lot can be done in a year. She already has a lengthy to-do list. One goal is to achieve the $50 million mark in the Revitalizing Bennett Campaign. Already, more than $30 million has been raised through corporate friends, alumni and other sources. One big boost, no doubt, will come this fall with a gala dinner hosted by Oprah Winfrey.

Supporters say Cole’s rock-solid confidence, sense of purpose, warmth and energy have helped attract high-profile people to Bennett College’s aid. Former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, for example, serves as chair of the Revitalizing Bennett Campaign.

“His wife, [U.S.] Sen. Elizabeth Dole, came on campus in 2002 when she was running for Senate. She said she believed in HBCUs and women’s colleges, and that she was going to help us,” Cole says. The next morning, at 8 a.m., the phone rang. “I hear, ‘Dr. Cole, this is Bob Dole. My wife said I’m supposed to help you.’ I told him he had listened to his wife before so don’t stop now. He said, ‘let’s talk.’”

Dole and noted author Maya Angelou serve as honorary chairs of the campaign. One highlight was a $500-a-plate dinner with former President Bill Clinton.

Cole’s time at Bennett has not been without challenges. In fact, she resigned last year after a protracted battle with a group of faculty members over her decision to cut some jobs (See Black Issues In Higher Education, May 18, 2005). She maintains that the cuts were necessary to balance the budget and meet the requirements for accreditation.  After two days of pleading from students, faculty, staff and alumni, Cole withdrew her resignation.

The issue was painful, she says, because she came out of faculty ranks. She taught at Washington State University, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Hunter College and Emory University, where she was a presidential distinguished professor of anthropology, women’s studies and African-American studies.

“I still see issues from the views of the faculty. Faculty and students are two great principles, and unless those two constituencies are with you, you will not succeed,” Cole says.

Some insiders, including Williams, doubt the faculty flap affected Cole’s decision to step down next year.

Although she is leaving the president’s office, Cole has agreed to serve as chair of the board of the Johnnetta B. Cole Global Diversity and Inclusion Institute at Bennett. She says there is “one, maybe two books in me.” She would also like to consult with both non-profit and for-profit organizations on diversity issues. Looking back, Cole says her time at Bennett was the toughest work of her career, but “it was also the most rewarding.”

As for Bennett’s future, Cole is optimistic. 

“There is nothing needed here that money won’t buy,” she says, hinting at central air conditioning for residence halls. 

As for Cole’s successor, Williams thinks the job should go to someone who has some national recognition, is a strong but empathic leader, possesses a vision for education in the 21st century and understands the needs of the population Bennett serves.

“She is out there, and we hope she will come to Bennett in 2007,” Cole says.

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