Bennett College makes strides in Cole's first year at helm
7/30/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.
A head-and-shoulders photograph of Johnetta Cole, http://umns.umc.org/photos/headshots.html.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story originally appeared in the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., and is reprinted with permission.
By Tim Simmons
News & Observer
GREENSBORO, N.C. (UMNS) - At age 66, Johnnetta Cole can
stake a legitimate claim to being a successful author, a celebrated
college president and an academic with near-celebrity status in the
world of higher education.
She is, however, quite lousy at retirement.
people could be happier about this than the staff and students who
gathered July 29 to celebrate Cole's first anniversary as president of
The future of Bennett, one of only two
historically black women's colleges in the nation, was bleak when Cole
took over. The school was in debt, its buildings were an eyesore, its
enrollment was less than 500, and its accreditation was in peril.
the United Methodist-related school has made great strides toward
turning itself around even as some other historically black colleges
have all but lost their battle to survive.
"A year ago,
Bennett's position was difficult, challenged - how many euphemisms do we
need?" Cole said after the brief anniversary celebration. "But the
folks we needed most to survive were the ones who never left. Many of
them were in that room today. They are the reason we are moving forward
The people Cole praises don't believe this. If they are
the reason Bennett is on the mend, they say it is only because the
130-year-old institution has found a firecracker for a leader who makes
everyone want to work harder.
"You wonder why a woman like her
who has accomplished so much would even come here," student Tonya Doane
said. "Then you see her doing something like pulling weeds to help clean
up the campus or taking the time to really find out how you're doing,
and you realize you have to succeed. You can't let her down."
knows the recovery won't be easy. She expects enrollment will drop to
maybe 400 students before it rebounds in 2004. Despite recent successes
at raising money, the school is still woefully short of what it needs.
"But I believe deeply in women's colleges," Cole said. "Those who are here believe it too. You can't buy that."
Success at Spelman
those around her believe in dreams was a part of Cole's legacy before
she came to Bennett. She was well-known as a professor of anthropology
at Hunter College in New York when colleagues urged her to apply for the
presidency of Atlanta's Spelman College, the nation's other
historically black women's college, in 1987.
Her selection as
the first black female president of Spelman created a splash in
academia. But that news was quickly trumped when Bill Cosby and his
wife, Camille, donated $20 million to the school during Cole's
inauguration ceremony. It was the largest single donation to a
historically black college at the time.
It was also just the
beginning of Cole's success at Spelman. During 10 years there, Cole more
than doubled Spelman's endowment to $98 million. It became the first
historically black college in the country to top $100 million in a
single fund-raising drive. It was named best liberal arts college in the
South by U.S. News & World Report.
Cole retired from
Spelman in 1997, went on to teach at nearby Emory University, retired
again to travel and write, but got a call in 2002 asking whether she
would help stabilize Bennett.
Bennett was clearly in trouble.
jewel among historically black schools after it was converted to a
women's college in 1926, Bennett was in disrepair. Buildings had not
been renovated in decades. Students had to use the library at nearby
N.C. A&T State University. Alumni back for reunions cried at the
sight of peeling paint, cracked facades and haphazard maintenance on the
The Commission on Colleges of the Southern
Association of Colleges and Schools had also threatened to revoke the
school's accreditation because of budget problems. The books were so bad
that auditors weren't sure how much debt the school was carrying. The
association report cites an operating deficit of $3.8 million for the
2001-02 fiscal year.
After learning more about the school, Cole
stunned supporters when she said she not only would help but would be
willing to serve as president for five years.
"We talked among
ourselves and said we really need someone like a Johnnetta Cole, but
never in our wildest dreams did we think we would get the Johnnetta
Cole," said Sandra Walker, the school's director of alumni affairs.
told trustees what most knew but would not admit: Without more money,
the school could not survive. She redirected federal money into two
major renovations and set to work with Jacqueline Pollard, whom she
brought from Spelman, to start raising money.
Bennett on the mend
effort has energized the alumni, who presented Cole with a check for $1
million in May as part of $9.1 million in total contributions. Cole
then persuaded Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican presidential nominee, to
lead a $50 million revitalization campaign.
"I surprised people
when I did that," said Cole, who served briefly as an adviser to former
President Clinton. "I surprised myself. But the good Lord, she sent me
More specifically, Cole said, Elizabeth Dole offered
to help the school before she was elected to the U.S. Senate. Cole said
she later thought of recruiting Bob Dole, because "I open my mind to all
Remaining open to possibilities is why Cole
believes there is still a need for a small, private women's college with
deep roots in black history.
"This school is not for everybody,
but for those students who need it, it can be honest-to-goodness life
changing," Cole said. "Women's colleges produce a disproportionate share
of successful women. Right now, I suggest we not turn this faucet off."