Academic institutions can combat racism by cultivating conversations and supporting research about national racial dynamics, former President of Spelman College Johnnetta Betsch Cole said at an event Wednesday in Riggs Library.

The event was part of the Women’s Center’s Biondi Copeland Lecture Series, which aims to spread awareness about issues regarding women in higher education. The series was established by the Women’s Center in 2014 out of an endowment from Gianna Biondi (CAS ’85) and John Copeland (CAS ’84). In addition to Cole, this year’s lecture featured the provost’s distinguished associate professor of history and African American studies Marcia Chatelain.

AMANDA VAN ORDEN/THE HOYA Former president of Spelman College Johnnetta Betsch Cole criticized higher education for lacking diversity at an Oct. 17 event in Riggs Library.

Cole was the first black woman to serve as the president of Spelman College, which was founded for black women’s education in 1881. She currently works as a senior consulting fellow at the Andrew W. Mellon foundation, serves as co-chair of the American Alliance of Museum’s Working Group on Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion and is a member of the Scholarly Advisory Board for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Events like the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, which led to an outbreak of violence that left one woman dead, are a call to action for universities, which can lead the fight against racism by supporting research on the topic, according to Cole.

“It’s at a time like this — and this really is said with extreme sincerity — that we need universities,” Cole said. “We’ve got to understand [these circumstances]. We can’t just push back against it, we can’t run away from it, we’ve got, in order to change it, to first understand it.”

The Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally mirrored racism of the 1950s and 1960s, Cole said, referencing her experience growing up in the South.

“I grew up, as a very young girl, being very knowledgeable of the Klu Klux Klan,” Cole said. “My safety depended on it. To see such expressions of all of that in the streets of Charlottesville took me to my knees.”

The lack of representation of people of color in higher education hinders universities from engaging in an intentional conversation about race, according to Chatelain.

“When you talk about colleges and universities and museums being the sites of these conversations, in terms of people being able to orient themselves intellectually, we have a serious numbers issue, a serious diversity issue,” Chatelain said.

Historically black colleges and universities — schools founded before 1964 for the purpose of educating black people and other minorities — offer more diverse and welcoming communities for minority students and, according to Cole, can fight discrimination against minorities in higher education.

“If our historically black colleges and universities didn’t exist, we ought to create them,” Cole said. “These are special mission institutions, where what they do and what they provide is what we hope is a great education, but they provide an atmosphere where a student’s humanity is never challenged.”

People who are the first of their identity to serve in a position of power have a responsibility to mentor and help others, Cole said, referencing her experience as the first black woman president of Spelman College.

“Anyone who becomes a ‘first’ has an unusual responsibility to make sure she is not the last,” Cole said. “So one of the things I have enjoyed so much is the opportunity to be a mentor to other African-American women, women of color and white women, who perhaps don’t see in themselves what I can see in them.”

Cole’s success in the academic community empowered women like Chatelain to pursue careers in higher education, according to Chatelain.

“For many of us in this particular moment, we may take for granted that a black woman was president in a black women’s college,” Chatelain said. “But this wasn’t always the story. No one could see it until they saw Dr. Cole do it.”

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