Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Career Shift: Becoming a College President

BOND: But let me come back to your academic career. You become an administrator. Is that a big, big step? Surely it's an exercise of leadership of an entirely different kind than in the classroom.

COLE: It was the second time for administering for me. The first was when I helped to start one of the first black studies programs in our country.

BOND: Back in Washington?

COLE: Back in Washington. And that, it was hard for me to think of myself as an administrator. I mean, I really thought of myself much more as an activist and an advocate. An activist with black students, and progressive white students, black and white faculty, demanding that program. And then an advocate for the program. And so all of the trappings of, "Well, she's an administrator" never really grabbed me. I felt more of that at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. But interestingly, because I was in the post of associate provost for undergraduate education, with the primary assignment to help develop general education, I was again in the mode of an advocate and an activist. And so what I was doing more than almost anything else was trying to find allies, trying to organize faculty, trying to advocate for a form of education that a lot of folk weren't interested in having. I hope that I'm not being disrespectful of what I think is the day-to-day work in the bursar's office or the vice president for financial affairs. But I'm saying that those two roles, were because of the time and the space, were not typically administrative roles.

BOND: Well, I'm wondering if this provost position is naturally preparation for being a college president later?

COLE: I sure didn't think of it.

BOND: No, you didn't think of it then, but I'll bet you, like me, knew when you were younger, both because of your mother's job at Edward Waters and because of the community in which you lived that you knew the names of black college presidents?

COLE: Oh, absolutely.

BOND: In a way that we do not know their names today. In fact, I bet you were, at Spelman, the only black college president that most people ever knew or heard of. But when we were young, you knew Benny [Benjamin] Mays at Morehouse, you knew somebody else here. You knew somebody else there. You knew all their names.

COLE: Of course I did.

BOND: And having known these names as a youngster and then having moved over many, you know, life changes and so on to this administrative position, surely way here in the back of your mind there must have been an idea when you look at the president of UMass, "I can do that."

COLE: Well, I sure at times thought I could do a better job than that. But in all honesty I never thought of myself in a college presidency. It's true I was very aware of HBCUs. Look, I knew Mary McLeod Bethune. Literally had sat on her lap. And though folk have asked if I didn't at that moment have this great inspiration to one day be like Mary McLeod Bethune, the truth of the matter is I was awestruck by her. But largely because she wore such fabulous hats! I mean, I wasn't thinking I want to be like Mary McLeod Bethune. I knew about HBCUs. My mother went to Morris Brown College as a high school student and then to Wilberforce. I mean, it was unusual in a sense that I ended up at Oberlin. At least I came by way of Fisk. My father worked for a number of years at Howard.

But I really never -- I never thought of being a college president. I was too busy being a very, very rewarded professor. It's a -- it's a way of looking at the world and moving through the world that I think is my natural stroke. So much so that I think the parts of presidenting where I was best were those parts where I used the worldview, the strengths, the almost instincts of a college professor, not an administrator. So when the letters would come, as they began to come, when I was at Hunter -- "Dear Professor Cole, we have an opening for a college president. We would invite you to be a candidate -- " I had a place for those letters. I mean, that was simply not something that I planned.

BOND: But surely one letter must have come some day and you said, "Hey, this is something."

COLE: Well, it wasn't a letter that came in quite that way. It was pretty dramatic in the sense that I had gone to Brazil, and had agreed, willingly, to go for a divination -- anthropologists can't resist these opportunities. And ended up in a room where Maruca "read" my life and told me that I would shortly change my career. I said "This woman has got to be meshugganah. I'm a professor. I'm going back to Hunter. I like my work." She also told me that I would shortly remarry. Then I knew she was off. That was not an institution that I intended to be engaged in again.

I returned -- oh, she also said -- she was a black Brazilian woman, holding her hand to her other hand she also said " -- and you will do great things for our people. And you will do work that women in your country rarely do." So I thought "Well, this has been interesting, but come on."

I leave Brazil, São Paulo, actually went into Bahia and then back to Hunter, when I walked into my office my desk was filled with little notes saying "call Donna Shalala" about the presidency of Spelman. Donna at that moment was the president of Hunter. "Call Marian Wright Edelman about the presidency at Spelman." So I thought, "Why do I have all these notes?" Well, when I began to return the phone calls it was clear that I was being asked to consider being a candidate for the presidency of Spelman. The rest is "herstory". Except -- that I need you to know that, before I began the presidency, I had one more trip to Brazil that I had to take. It was a promise that I had made to take Betty Forbes, who you may know is married to James Forbes of Riverside Church --

BOND: Right.

COLE: -- to take Betty and the Ecumenical -- Ebony Ecumenical choir to Rio. So I did. And I had a window about like this. And I got on a plane and I flew to Sao Paulo and I went right back to the home of Maruca. And I'm getting out of the car screaming "Maruca, Maruca, wait 'til I tell you about the presidency of Spelman!" because I had been appointed -- and she just said "Shhh -- I know."

Now do with that as you will. I can only tell you that I did not consciously think I want to be a college president. And when the presidency of Spelman was at least a possibility for me, it was not a college presidency that I was interested in. I was interested in Spelman.