Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership Challenges at Spelman: Southernness, HBCUs and Change

BOND: It's very different to be the president, and particularly to be the president at this Southern, black, women's school.

COLE: Yes.

BOND: -- that's used to doing the things a certain way. A good way, I'm guessing. But those may not be your ways. What kind of challenges did you meet and face and when?

COLE: Well, because you know the South, you will know that one of the first challenges that I confronted at Spelman was stonewalling. You know, Southern folk -- and I want to say particularly Southern black folk -- really don't like conflict. As opposed to, and I'm really using huge stereotypes -- I'm coming from a northern school, I'm coming from Hunter, I'm coming from New York City where a lot of it is "in your face."

BOND: That's right.

COLE: And, "You want to fight about this theory? I'll take you on about this theory." "And you want to have this change in the administration? I'll tell you why it's wrong." Not at Spelman. Very, you know, "Let's not have any conflict here. Let's just -- " And so I'm raising ideas. I'm suggesting things and I'm just getting -- I'm not getting resistance in the sense of taking me on. I'm just getting "let's just avoid this."

BOND: They don't want to engage --

COLE: "Let's not engage in this." And so in many ways I had to reconnect with my southernness. I had not lived in the South since that one year at Fisk, 1953 to '54. And so I really took some counsel there with myself, and I started reading about and thinking about "What is the nature of being Southern?" And once I reconnected with a good deal of that, I'm not saying that it solved the problem, but it helped me to administer far better. Secondly, I really think that my own openness was useful. It made me accessible. It diffused some of the sense of "Here comes the president." Which is somewhat assumed to be the proper stance within our HBCUs. And it made for an early, I hope I'm not overstating this, it made for a kind of early affection that I admit I took full advantage of. It was so clear with the students, I mean the love affair that I had with my young sisters, I think, is to rarely be matched. A faculty ain't the same thing.

BOND: I was just thinking that the students naturally would be happy to see you. Change for them is four years. And so whatever you do can't be very upsetting or threatening to them and you're a welcoming person. But the faculty, they have a longer view than four years.

COLE: Absolutely.

BOND: And the administrators --

COLE: And some very peculiar things happened as a result of Spelman's history and mine coming into the same place. For example -- this may be my best example, in fact -- I remember saying to colleagues from around the country "You know, I am surprised, to tell you the truth, shocked, by how little faculty governance there is at Spelman. There must be more faculty governance." People are saying, "Johnnetta, now wait a minute. Do you know what you're asking for? You've got a situation of, in quotes, "power and authority," and you're asking to share this?" And the answer for me was, "Yes." Because my long-term view of that school and of the academy is that without genuine faculty governance, not over- exercised, not exploited, but appropriately engaged in, is essential for the health and the success of a college or university. So who becomes the major proponent of faculty governance? The president.

BOND: But what else did you find lacking at Spelman or missing at Spelman that you had expected to find from your experience at other institutions? What was the norm elsewhere that wasn't the norm at Spelman?

COLE: At the risk of reducing things to simplistic lines, there wasn't as much intellectual fervor, as much intellectual agitation, as much intellectual life as I had been used to. And this is not to say that all professors were just sort of taking the, you know, the easy road and not really raising questions and moving to points of real change in terms of their thoughts. But it did grab me as being pretty -- as a pretty quiet place intellectually. I'd like to think that I was able to stir that pot a little bit.