Johnnetta Cole, who took over as president of troubled Bennett College for Women in 2002, plans to end her five-year term with a bang, announcing Tuesday that Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou will headline a benefit gala for the school this fall.
In remarks at a state-of-the-school briefing, Cole said she will stick to her original plan and retire from the school's presidency in June. She said she first wants to see the historically black school finish off a $50 million fundraising campaign to secure its future.
That effort is being co-chaired by Angelou and former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., and has passed the halfway mark, Cole said.
Now, Cole said, she hopes Winfrey — who she called an "extraordinary force in American and international affairs" — can help give a big boost to the effort.
During four years as president, Cole, the former president of Atlanta's Spelman College, has helped stabilize Bennett. When she took over in 2002, the school was running a $2 million budget deficit and was on academic probation.
She scored an early coup when she recruited Dole to lead the big fundraising campaign; Dole's wife, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., had become concerned about Bennett after visiting the school during her 2002 Senate campaign.
Frustrated by internal dissent at the college, Cole said in April 2005 that she would resign as president. But an outpouring of support changed her mind and she decided to stay.
Last fall, Bob Dole and former President Bill Clinton — on whose transition team Cole served in the early 1990s — hosted a fundraising event for the campaign at the college.
In her remarks Tuesday, Cole said the U.S. Department of Education recently gave the school's financial aid program an excellent rating and that the school has seen significant growth in alumnae giving and has renovated three historic campus buildings.
"How privileged I am to be the president of this ever so special institution that has such an important mission, and that has come this far by faith, by hard work and by the support of so many friends," she said.
Bennett was co-educational when it was founded in 1873, but became a private school for black women in 1926. The school has a current enrollment of 570.