Salute to

Spelman's "Sistah Prez"

Dr. Johnnetta Cole

On September 5th 1996, the atmosphere changed in Atlanta. The sun didn't shine as brightly, the birds didn't sing as loudly, as Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole announced her resignation as President of Spelman College. Effective June 30, 1997, Spelman will lose the best president it has ever had. And our community of Historically Black Colleges and Universities will lose our most stellar leader. Her influence has made history.

It is all but impossible to turn down an invitation from Johnnetta Cole. Her timing is perfect, her enthusiasm is overpowering, and her instincts for ceremony are unerring. That is why, on a sultry summer morning, to the accompaniment of a trio of African drummers, she was leading a power-suited procession of alumnae, corporate benefactors and philanthropic heavyweights, plus assorted students, faculty, guests and press, in a trek across the Spelman's campus. At a press conference and "victory celebration" at the school's new Cosby Center, Cole, president since 1987 of this small liberal-arts college for women, had just announced that Spelman's capital campaign had raised $113 million -- more than $20 million over its announced goal -- the largest amount ever raised by a historically black college.

"The good Lord, she has brought us from a mighty long way," Cole beamed to a cheering audience, many of them hugging each other and crying as she borrowed words from a famous spiritual, then proclaimed this "...the beginning of a new era of African-American philanthropy."

Not quite just another day at the office for Johnnetta B. Cole, but close. Since leaving the classroom at Hunter College in New York for the Spelman presidency, Cole, an anthropologist with a Ph.D from Northwestern, has been one of the most visible of a new breed of college presidents who are redefining what it means to lead small private institutions of higher learning as they approach the 21st century. It is no longer sufficient to bring only scholarship and moral direction. What is also required is a clear vision and the fiscal savvy to turn that vision into reality. A college president has to be as comfortable in the boardroom as in the ivory tower: good at raising money, schmoozing corporate bigwigs, commanding their attention, enlisting their loyalty.

When Cole's predecessor, a African-American man, was chosen by the Board of Trustees in the mid-1970s, students protested by attempting to the lock the trustees in the administration building. In contrast, Cole's selection as the first African-American woman to head Spelman College reverberated joyously throughout the African-American community -- and soon thereafter, the philanthropic world. Before she was appointed, Cole was asked about fund raising. Her response was both honest and prophetic: "I have never raised a dime, but I think I am capable of raising millions."

On her inauguration day, Cole accepted a gift of $20 million from Bill and Camille Cosby, the largest individual gift ever made to a historically black college. Instantly she was launched on her path as super-fundraiser.

In the ensuing years, Cole has taken her 115-year-old institution, started as a school for freed female slaves, from its longtime position as a good college with a particular cachet in the black community and steered it to dizzying national prominence. Spelman competes successfully with the Seven Sisters schools for top black women students. In a recent year, there were more than 4,000 applications for 450 freshman slots, giving it an acceptance rate the rivals Harvard's.

"It's hard to be modest," she says. "The student body here -- they really are the best and the brightest young African-American women, profoundly intelligent, deeply engaged in the world around them."

One of two remaining black women's colleges in the country, Spelman, with an enrollment of less than 2,000, ranks eighth in Money magazine's 1996 "Best College Buys", and its faculty ranks 21st among top liberal-arts colleges in this year's U.S. News and World Report listings.

Thanks to the recent capital campaign, Spelman now has an endowment of more than $128 million, which the college says is the largest of any HBCU and puts Spelman among the top third of all private colleges.

Undeniably, the school's most potent fundraising asset is Johnnetta Cole herself. "The main reason we are here is Dr. Cole," said Dr. Harold Advise, a top official of Amgen and one of the corporate partners. "I can't imagine how any senior executive an any corporation could say no to Johnnetta Cole."

Truthfully, not many of them do. She has brought 77 blue-chip corporations -- Coca-Cola, Goldman-Schools, Home Depot, Monsanto -- into Spelman's Corporate Partnership program. She makes them part of her family, brings them on campus to interact with her students and holds celebrations to drape them with Spelman's signature black and turquoise African Kente-cloth stoles.

Cole believes passionately in Spelman's mission. Her answer to the question Why a separate college for black women? is pragmatic. She speaks to results. "Only 16 percent of all African-American students are in historically black colleges and universities, but we graduate over one-third of all black students. There are no revolving doors here like there are on some majority campuses. Black colleges tend to be smaller, with faculty who are biologists, physicists or anthropologists, but also people who care about the students.

"But if you are looking for a shorthand," she says, "I could tell you what a student said to me. 'Dr. Cole, I just want to do my physics. I don't want someone around who's asking, Are you sure black women can do physics?"

The relatively new level of fiscal responsibilities that preoccupy the president of a college like Spelman do not free Cole from the traditional president's role. She is unquestionably the inspiration, the moral force that guides her school and her faculty, staff and students.

"I could not and would not leave this special institution if Spelman was not in such splendid shape." Under Dr. Cole's leadership, Spelman has instituted innovative programs that have helped to mold students into African American leaders. These programs include a community service program which was recognized as a "Point of Light" by former President Bush, a corporate partnership program, a mentorship program and a Corporate Women's Roundtable.

Her kind of pace setting demands great inner strength as well as personal courage. Members of her staff tell this story with great reverence: During the unrest that immediately followed the verdict that was announced on he Rodney King case in 1992, a strange man showed up on the campus that Spelman shares with five other historically black institutions. The stranger, not affiliated with any of the schools, was stirring the students up, urging them to take their anger to the streets -- while he remained behind in safety. It was Cole who confronted him directly, her gaze level and her voice clear, demanding to know: "Brother, why are you here?"

That night, she called a meeting of her students -- still outraged and bewildered -- and even as she warned them against violence, she told them they must never allow someone else to speak for them. She kept the president's home open through the night for students who needed to talk.

Cole's consistent charge to her Spelman students, repeated throughout the four years on campus, is Go out and make this a better world! Be involved! Most of them don't wait until graduation to take up that challenge. The Atlanta University Center sits in at the midst of an area riddled with crime and poverty. Despite the fence that surrounds Spelman's idyllic-appearing campus, its students cannot help but be aware of the harsher realities just outside. And that is as Cole believes it should be. Nearly half of all Spelman students participate in some form of community service -- working with homeless shelters, soup kitchens, tutoring programs. She herself has assisted in the building of a Habitat for Humanity houses and sits on a wider variety of corporate and philanthropic boards.

Still, it would be a mistake to see Johnnetta Cole only as a towering figure, a larger than life manifestation of feminist triumph. She is all that, but she is also a warm, compelling human presence, with a genuine affinity for people -- and a knack for leavening formality with friendliness.

At the Spelman graduation last May, which fell in he middle of a smothering spring heat wave that brought record high temperatures and humidity levels, nearly 7,000 people packed a huge Atlanta cathedral the school had borrowed for the occasion, while another thousand or so watched on closed-circuit TV in an adjoining building. It was a handsome, well-dressed audience that included, as Cole acknowledged from the podium, "our she-ro, Coretta Scott King," as well as two college presidents there to watch their daughters graduate and, on the stage, awaiting their honorary degrees, a former poet laureate, the Chair of the Board of the NAACP and an eminent heart surgeon. It was a day blending institutional ritual and social distinction. It was also miserably hot: The building's air-conditioning system was hopelessly overwhelmed. Cole, impressive in her academic robes, welcomed guests, saluted graduates, acknowledged honorees and invited her brothers to remove their jackets for comfort's sake. "And, my sisters," she said with a grin, addressing the women in the congregation, "you are in church -- you may fan."

Thus, academic pomp made room for the circumstance of real people, and the gentle fluttering of hundreds of blue-and-white commencement programs rippled the air as 463 Spelman women accepted their diplomas and prepared to follow in Johnnetta Cole's footsteps and change the world.

As she gave final remarks about her difficult decision to leave Spelman, Dr. Cole expressed "What a great feeling it is to know that when I leave Spelman on June 30, 1997, she will simply carry on in the magnificent way that she is now moving. The College has soared to new heights and is poised to continue on the trajectory in the next decade."

Written by Susan Percy
Edited by Donna Askew
This page came from

World African Network's Education Page