BACKTALK with Johnnetta B. Cole

Johnnetta B. Cole made history in 1987 by becoming the first African American woman to serve as president of Spelman College. At her inauguration. Bill and Camille Cosby made a $20 million donation to the school-at that time the largest single gift from individuals to any historically black college or university.

Under Cole's leadership, Spelman was the first HBCU to be named the No.1 liberal arts college in the South by U.S. News & World Report. After a decade at Spelman, Cole became a professor of anthropology at Emory University in 1998. She retired in 2001 but later accepted an appointment to Bennett College for Women as the school's 14th president.

Cole, 68, successfully brought Bennett College-a small, residential, four-year college affiliated with the United Methodist Church-from the brink of a $3.8 million deficit. Today, the school operates debt-free, and Cole has turned the tide of its declining enrollment. BLACK ENTERPRISE caught up with Cole to get her perspective on the state of education for young people.

What is the significance of a gift like the one the Cosbys gave to Spelman?

Enormous. When a historically black college receives that kind of gift, it means everything to our students. Let me give you a figure. If you take the endowments of the 105 historically black colleges, both public and private, you will reach $1.7 billion. The endowment of Harvard University is $22 billion.

It is difficult to get our community to give to HBCUs in general?

There is a long-standing tradition of philanthropy among African Americans, but we have tended to concentrate our philanthropy in giving to our churches. Giving to our alma mater has not been, in my view, as important as it should be. On the other hand, I want to say that we can do better. For example, when I came to Bennett College for Women in 2002, alumni were giving maximum $300,000 to $350,000 a year. That year, Bennett women gave 1.1million.

You recently held a diversity conference at Bennett. What were you trying to accomplish?
We can to add value to the work that is being done in corporate America around diversity and inclusion. And we figured out that inviting chief diversity officers from the top 500 publicly traded companies across industries would, in and of itself, make a contribution. We figured out that the chief diversity officers are looking to learn from each other.

What is the state of education among African Americans?
Clearly, it is possible to find K-12 community schools that are doing well, but if one takes a sweeping look at the state of education for African Americans, it is really not a good sight.

People have been critical of education in America because students are not getting the basic skills that lead to well-paying jobs. Is this a fair assessment?
My view is that education-and I mean from kindergarten through the baccalaureate degree- has two roles: certainly to prepare students to make a living, but it also must prepare students to make a life, to have a good life. And so the focus should not be on getting a student ready for a particular job. We need to fully educate our students in the fundamentals of critical thinking, of computational skills, of communications skills, of writing concisely and speaking well, so that they are prepared to do well in several careers over a lifetime.

How can our community help improve education?
There are simply some things that we know. We know that parental engage in an individual's education is truly essential. And in our community, when there isn't a parent in a position to be so engaged-possibly because working conditions prevent it- then somewhere from within our community, we have to find surrogate parents. Secondly, we know that trying to educate individuals who are hungry, who are not well housed, who may suffer from some form of abuse, whose health is not being watched after is a hard row to hoe. So we have to be conscious of the conditions that surround a young black girl or boy who goes off to school. And it's our community's responsibility to address those issues. How? By whom we vote into offices, by the demands that we make of our government,. A third thing that we know is that a teacher's expectation strongly influences student performance. We must have teachers who believe in our children, who believe that every child is educable. Yet another thing we know is that money is a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition for good schools. Therefore, we have to ask ourselves why is it that schools that are predominantly black are funded so far below the schools in white neighborhoods.

How effective do you find President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Initiative? Are children being left behind?
In large numbers. There are a number of claims in No Child Left Behind that we have to examine. For example, the claim that yearly standardized testing is the key to improvement in educating our youngsters. The reality is that you can teach to the test and still have children who are not educated.

Black Enterprise, July 2005, Vol. 35, Issue 12, p. 176 www.BLACKENTERPRISE.COM