Staying the Course at Bennett

Johnnetta Cole -- at the behest of students and faculty -- agrees to continue on as president, rescinding her resignation.
May 2, 2005

For 48 hours last week, students at Bennett College -- a historically black women's institution in North Carolina -- led an unusual activist movement. They were rallying to keep their president. They raised money -- hundreds of dollars from a student body without much wealth. The called alumnae. They held prayer vigils.

And on Friday, they got their wish. Johnnetta B. Cole announced that she would remain at Bennett.

Cole had announced on Wednesday that she was resigning due to an unspecified splinter group -- apparently of faculty members -- which she said was holding back the college. Cole has been president of Bennett since 2002.

During her tenure, she has raised more than $20 million for the college, which was struggling financially when she took over. In an era of mega-campaigns, that may not seem like a large sum. Indeed Cole, during her presidency of Spelman College, led a campaign there that raised $114 million, a record for black colleges when the campaign concluded in 1996. But Bennett had been in bad shape for years, and alumni and other supporters were divided about its direction, with some questioning whether the college could survive.

The funds Cole has raised -- together with her management -- are credited with turning around the college. Bennett was on probation from its accreditor when she took over, and that sanction has since been lifted.

Apparently, though, Cole angered some faculty members. She froze tenure, and she eliminated several faculty positions as part of a restructuring of the college. Her critics have not spoken out in the last week, however, and the faculty passed a resolution of confidence asking Cole to stay on. So did trustees and student leaders.

A statement by Bennett's student government went even further. After pledging "undying and unwavering support" for Cole, the students called for the resignation of faculty members "who are creating an atmosphere of strife and instability." The statement acknowledged that these (unnamed) faculty members are "excellent educators," but said that it was necessary to weigh "the effects of Dr. Cole leaving versus the effects of these individuals leaving. It is obvious that the consequences do not compare."


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