May 17, 2014

Johnnetta Betsch Cole receives an honorary Doctor of Human Letters at the 2014 Commencement.There are those leaders we watch from afar, and no matter how great the distance, they still appear as giants. Johnnetta Cole, you are one such leader. That reflection about you from Susan Hockfield, former president of MIT, bespeaks your stature in higher education and now, in the arts. Today we salute you for your pioneering leadership and your activism for equality.

You began college at Fisk University at the age of 15, later earning a degree from Oberlin College. After receiving your Ph.D. in anthropology from Northwestern University, you began teaching at colleges and universities. You became a leading voice against discrimination in all forms.

In 1987 you became the first African American woman to serve as president of Spelman College, the nation’s foremost college for Black women. Known on campus as “Sister President,” you were as beloved as you were effective. During your tenure, you tripled Spelman’s endowment and heightened its national stature. In 2002, you took the helm of Bennett College for Women in North Carolina. Bennett was facing fiscal struggles, a dwindling student body, and aging facilities. You tackled it all—and saved the college.

Now you serve as director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, overseeing a collection of more than 10,000 objects, and putting the spotlight on a rich diversity of artistic traditions.

Johnnetta Cole, you inspire and empower us. Today we honor you with this honorary Doctor of Humane Letters.

Read Johnnetta Cole’s remarks

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