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Diversity in classrooms encouraged

Katlyn Smith | Monday, February 18, 2008

The only woman that has served as president of both of America’s historically black colleges for women urged Saint Mary’s and all schools to take steps to improve both diversity and the sense of inclusiveness on campus during the closing keynote address of the Diverse Students’ Leadership Conference (DSLC) Friday.

Johnnetta Cole – who has led Spelman and Bennett College – focused her address on issues of diversity and inclusion in higher education.

“It is not our differences. It is our silences about our differences that harm us,” Cole said.

The first woman ever elected to the Board of Coca-Cola Enterprises, Cole said she decided to adopt a hands-on approach to deal with this problem, or what she calls the “Noah Principle.”

“No more credit for predicting rain. It is time to build an ark,” Cole said. “It is time for me to offer at least a few planks.”

She said minority enrollment at colleges is up – but that despite this significant gain, “students of color” still lag behind.

“There is absolutely no contradiction between excellence and diversity,” Cole said. “But more black men are entangled in the criminal justice system than in the dormitories of our classrooms.”

Even with decades of affirmative action programs in place, colleges across the country remain predominantly white. And monumental changes in minority faculty representation are necessary to correct that, she said.

“[Minority faculty members] fear bringing their whole self to their profession,” Cole said. “We cannot sit around and wait for professors of color to teach experiences of color.”

But the power to fix problems of underperformance among minority students also lies with the students. Students have to choose schools that are right for them to make sure they will be able to succeed there, she said.

“If she is a woman and wise, she can choose a small women’s college,” Cole said.

Spelman College has a student body of about 3,000, while Bennett serves fewer than 650 undergraduates.

Cole drew parallels between businesses that benefit by promoting diversity and reaching out to diverse customers, and colleges embracing students and professors from other races and backgrounds to improve the quality of education.

Without a diverse student body and faculty and an inclusive atmosphere, education will fall short, Cole said.

To improve that feeling of rounded inclusiveness at Saint Mary’s, Cole said, the Office of Multicultural Affairs needs more support. In addition, she proposed visiting professorships and mini-residencies at the College.

Cole also spoke of the financial discrepancies at premier institutions that hinder diversity and inclusiveness.

She talked about the schools’ moral obligation to address issues of racism and socioeconomic barriers.

“Doing for others is the rent you pay for living on this Earth,” she said. “Living a good life means learning to embrace those who are different from you.”

Cole serves as the chair of the board of the Johnnetta B. Cole Global Diversity and Inclusion Institute at Bennett. She has received more than 50 honorary degrees.