Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Evaluation of Spelman Experiences: Intellectual,Cultural, Service Climate

BOND: In this country we measure success of college presidents: "Did the SAT scores go up? Is the endowment richer than it was when you came?" And using those measurements, you're a fabulous success as president for ten years at Spelman College. What other way would you like to be judged, looking back on your tenure, what other measurement can we apply to you, success, failure?

COLE: Well, I would again give voice to a more active intellectual climate. Number two, I'd like to think that those Cole years led to a far greater openness to difference. When I arrived at Spelman I was rather surprised by what I would call the inhospitable climate. For example, for Muslim students, who really were being told, with too many messages, that they ought to consider Christianity. I was shocked by the depth of homophobia on that campus. I was surprised by the absence of -- of questioning of different ways of explaining the world. And so I'd like to think that in a number of ways, Spelman has a greater interest in and respect for human diversity.

BOND: Those are hard to quantify. You know, you can measure endowment. You can look at SAT scores. Is it possible to quantify that in some measurable way? I know that you can walk around the campus --

COLE: Only by vignettes. I can only give you vignettes that Audre Lorde had been so insulted on that campus that she vowed she would never, ever, ever return. While I was at Spelman, sister Audre not only gave me the greatest gift of returning to that campus. Julian, the majority of her papers are in the archives --

BOND: Really?

COLE: -- of Spelman College.

BOND: All right.

COLE: You know, Spelman under my administration -- that's a word that sounds so funny, but I'm supposed to use it -- permitted the establishment of the lesbian and bi-sexual organization. You see that is measurement.

BOND: It had been previously prohibited? Not only prohibited, but frowned upon.

COLE: It did not exist. So these things again --

BOND: So black women were not lesbians?

COLE: Oh, no, no, no, no. That's white women stuff. No, that's white women stuff. Black women aren't feminist either. So these are things that are very meaningful to me. The intellectual climate is more agitated. Respect for difference became higher. And then, thirdly -- and this was always there -- and I think that I simply had the gift with others to lift it up, and that is that whole question of service. You know, which -- which is so fundamental to being a race man and a race woman. This idea that, yes, these students should do everything in their power to be successful -- get money, have great jobs -- but they need to think about what they're going to do to make life better for most black folk. And so making service a centerpiece of my administration was very important to me. When I left, and the board asked if there was anything that I wanted, I said, "Yes." I didn't want a building named after me. I wanted a program. And so there is at Spelman, the Johnnetta B. Cole Office of Community Service and Community Building.