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Inauguration marks milestone in Bennett College turnaround

10/13/2003 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

Photos are available with this report. A head-and-shoulders photo of Johnnetta B. Cole is available at

By Neill Caldwell*

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Johnnetta Cole, UMNS photo by Neill Caldwell. Photo number W03033, Accompanies UMNS#488

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Bennett College bell. Photo number W03035, Accompanies UMNS#488

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Bennett College. Photo number W03034, Accompanies UMNS#488
GREENSBORO, N.C. (UMNS) - When Johnnetta B. Cole took over the leadership of Bennett College last year, she deferred her inauguration as president. First, she said, she must restore the school to a sound financial footing.

During the following 15 months, she raised $14 million and brought the school back from the brink. And on Oct. 11, she was finally inaugurated as the 14th president of Bennett, a four-year liberal arts college for African-American women.

The former president of Spelman College in Atlanta, Cole came out of retirement in June 2002 to accept the presidency at United Methodist-related Bennett. Spelman and Bennett are the only two colleges predominantly for African-American women.

More than 2,500 people gathered to hear Cole speak of a "new day" at Bennett.

"We must connect the glorious past with where the college must go in the future," Cole said. She used the words of a traditional African proverb: "You can't know where you're going if you don't know where you have been."

"We have an incredibly important mission," she said. "We are bound to the African-American quest for knowledge. Bennett was born out of the crucible of slavery and the struggle for women's equality. Our connection to the United Methodist Church is still with us today, as our students develop spiritually while they advance intellectually."

A week of benefits surrounding the inauguration - including a gala with comedian Bill Cosby - raised more than $2.75 million for the school. That included a $50,000 check from former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, who will lead the "Revitalizing Bennett Campaign" with a goal of $50 million. The college's alumni group, the Bennett Belles, raised more than $1 million in the past year.

In a news conference following the inauguration, Cole said funds would be used for scholarships for students, attracting new faculty and addressing the school's physical needs. Each of Bennett's departments has a plan to recruit students, and the college hopes to enroll 600 women - compared with 429 currently, she said. Cole also announced the creation of an African Studies major.

With a balanced budget and a positive financial audit in hand, Bennett is awaiting a decision in December on whether or not the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, an accrediting body of academic institutions in the southeast and Latin America, will lift a two-year suspension for financial problems that predated Cole's arrival.

The inauguration ceremony was part testimonial to Cole and part pep rally to keep the school's newfound momentum going.

Special guests included Coretta Scott King, Maya Angelou, U.S. Reps. Mel Watt and Brad Miller, and Western North Carolina Conference Bishop Charlene Kammerer. Representatives from more than 150 colleges and universities also attended. Angelou read a special poem in honor of Cole for the occasion. Recording artists Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson performed the song "Reach Out and Touch Somebody's Hand."

Cole entered the ceremony in a "Bennett blue" robe with gold highlights, including African symbols and quotations from Angelou's poetry. The robe was a gift from friend Donna Shalala, the former Clinton administration cabinet secretary who is now president of the University of Miami.

Bennett was born in the basement of nearby St. Matthews Methodist Episcopal Church in 1873. Cole recently became a member of St. Matthews United Methodist Church.

"There are some among us 'to which much has been given and much will be required,' and Johnnetta Cole is just such an individual," said the Rev. Jerome Del Pino, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry. "She comes uniquely gifted to offer leadership to all of higher education and especially those which are historically related to the United Methodist Church."

Many of the speakers credited Cole with saving Bennett from closure.

Bennett Trustee Gregory Barmore of Maine said that in the spring of 2002, "the prospects seemed hopeless and we could have given up. But we took a leap of faith, and God answered our prayers. He sent us Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole!"

"In such a short time, Dr. Cole has saved Bennett," said Akosua Barthwell Evans, a trustee and a great-niece of David Dallas Jones, a former president. "But more importantly she has inspired all of us to fulfill the mission of Bennett College. She has devoted 24/7 to this institution and to these students."
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*Caldwell is a journalist residing in Lincolnton, N.C.

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