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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, 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.

Few people could be happier about this than the staff and students who gathered July 29 to celebrate Cole's first anniversary as president of Bennett College.

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.

But 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 again."

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."

Cole 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

Making 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.

A 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 50-acre campus.

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.
Cole 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

The 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 Bob Dole."

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 possibilities."

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."

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