Johnetta Cole, the first African-American female president of Spelman College, nation’s premiere liberal arts schools, announced that she will relinquish the presidency next spring.
Cole’s departure leaves members of the Spelman community wondering if the college can attract another visionary leader to take the helm as the 2,000-student college moves into the 21st century. Cole, 59, said she will join Emory University’s faculty and teach anthropology after a one-year hiatus to work on a few books. She said she decided to leave Spelman after ten years because she has accomplished what she set out to do. “This was the most difficult of decisions, but it was the right decision,” said Cole. “This college is not about to miss a beat. It will keep going.”
Since Cole’s tenure, the school’s endowment has risen sharply from $40 million to more than $143 million. She heightened the awareness of the highly selective women’s college, seeing its reputation soar. The school has a broader curriculum, is more competitive and completed a record-breaking $114 million fundraising campaign under Cole’s leadership.
“Given the monumental job she has done at Spelman, I’m sure the search team will look at someone who will continue to advance the agenda Johnetta Cole had for that University. They can’t waver too far,” said N. Joyce Payne, director of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges’ office of the advancement Of Public Colleges.
Payne said that educational leaders like Joyce Ladner, former interim president of Howard University, and Vera King Farris, president of Stockton State College in Stockton, N.J., are competent administrators who would be fine presidential candidates. “Both of these women have had their imprint on higher education,” she said. “They have the kind of leadership style compatible with Spelman.”
Ladner was the interim president of Howard University in 1992 and the first woman to hold the seat at the historically Black institution. Ladner drew national attention during her 15-month tenure by laying off 400 staff workers to reduce the school’s budget deficit, a move that drew strong criticism.
Since Farris became president of Stockton State in 1983, she is most noted for turning the “party school” — as rated by Playboy Magazine — around. SAT scores of incoming freshmen have risen to record levels, 100 points above the national average, according to a school spokesperson. Spelman trustee June Gary-Hopps is chairing the search committee to find a successor to Cole. Gary-Hopps was unavailable for comment.
Many educators rate Cole’s performance among the best of college presidents. “If we were to grade presidents she would definitely get an A plus,” Deborah Carter, associate director of the American Council on Education’s office of minorities in higher education, said of Cole. “She is a very wise woman. The next leader should be without question a strong leader, an advocate and a proponent. Also someone who could assume the national role in higher education as well as an outstanding fundraiser like Dr. Cole was.”
Carter named Barbara Brown, vice president of academic affairs at Livingstone College and Mary E. Benjamin, vice chancellor of academic affairs at the University of Arkansas at Pinebluff as good potential candidates for the job. Dr. Henry Ponder, president and CEO of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, said that when he spoke with Cole she had expressed a longing for her old role as a teacher. She previously taught anthropology at New York City’s Hunter College and later taught at six other colleges.
“It will be hard to duplicate what Dr. Cole has done,” Ponder said. “it will be a tremendous loss.”
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