Anthropologist, educator, humanitarian, writer and college president Dr. Johnnetta Cole completed her undergraduate degree at Oberlin College and earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in anthropology from Northwestern University. In addition to receiving 61 honorary degrees from various institutions, she served on the faculty at various universities. In 1987, she made history by becoming the first African-American woman to serve as president of Spelman College. At her inauguration, Drs. Bill and Camille Cosby donated twenty million dollars to the college; during her ten-year administration, Spelman was named the number one liberal arts college of the South. Dr. Cole proved to be a dynamic administrator, an energetic fundraiser, and a source of inspiration to both the faculty and the student body. At a time when historically black colleges were deemed obsolete by some, she emerged as one of their most passionate advocates.
Dr. Cole has served on the Boards of Directors of Home Depot, Merck & Co., and NationsBank South and was the first woman ever elected to the Board of Coca-Cola Enterprises. After 10 years as president of Spelman, Dr. Cole returned to teaching in 1998 as Presidential Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Women’s Studies and African American Studies at Emory University, subsequently retiring as professor emerita.
In 2002, she accepted an appointment as president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina. At Bennett College, Dr. Cole founded the Johnnetta B Cole Global Diversity & Inclusion Institute. During her tenure at Bennett, an art gallery was opened and programs were initiated in women’s studies and global studies.
From 2004 to 2006, Dr. Cole chaired the Board of Trustees of United Way of America, the first African American to serve in that position. She advised the Smithsonian Institute on the creation of a National Museum of African American History. In 2009, she was selected to serve as director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, which houses more than 10,000 objects representing nearly every area of the continent of Africa. She currently serves on the Scholarly Advisory Board for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the construction of which will be completed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., by 2015.
Through her work as college president, university professor and through her published works, speeches and community service, Dr. Cole has consistently addressed racial, gender and all other forms of inequality, acting as a mentor to many young women and men.
“The Alumnae of Northwestern University is extremely proud to present the 2013 Alumnae Award to Dr. Johnnetta Cole,” said Alumnae Board president Dee Hanlon. “She joins a distinguished group of women from such diverse fields as business, education, journalism, music, medicine, theatre and public service. Remarkable woman that she is, Dr. Cole has been recognized for her contributions in several fields with numerous awards and honorary degrees. The Alumnae takes great pride in presenting this year’s award to a woman whose life of achievement has brought honor to Northwestern University.”