Dr. Johnnetta Cole - "Continuing to talk the talk of higher education diversity and inclusion"

“One of the most critical tasks of this moment in history is for us to discover and celebrate the great diversity” said Johnnetta Cole, PhD, in her keynote address celebrating the 30th anniversary Women of Color Task Force career conference on Friday, March 2, 2012. Speaking to a crowd of over six hundred in Rackham Auditorium, Dr. Cole charged the audience with countering the “destructive myth…that excellence in education is impossible if there is diversity,” saying that in fact excellence is only possible with diversity.

An accomplished anthropologist, fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the holder of an honorary degree from the University of Michigan, Cole made history in 1987 when she became the first African-American woman to serve as the President of Spelman College. She later served as President of Bennett College for Women and currently directs the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.

Dr. Cole noted the essential role that staff play in higher education as critical partners to help create an environment outside of the classroom that includes the joy of working with, understanding and exchanging views with people of different communities, thus supporting the fundamental academic mission. Saying “We cannot teach what’s needed for productive citizens without taking on the creation of, sustaining, and profiting from diverse environments” she called on academic institutions to recognize the critical need for inclusiveness and of gaining insight into the locations of power and privilege.

Exploring the issues of power and privilege, Cole called upon her listeners to acknowledge their own multiple identities, including race, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, and so forth. “Each of us is capable of practicing bigotry,” she noted, based on those multiple identities and she charged her sisters in the auditorium to confront their multiple identities including being women of color. In parallel fashion, she charged those white faculty and staff to develop empathy, work at understanding the experience of African-Americans, and to take on the responsibility of bringing people of color to the campus–to do the hard work necessary to change academic environments, to embrace diversity.

Working Toward an Environment of Inclusion

The Women of Color Task Force (WCTF), a staff professional development network comprised of 43 women from all three U-M campuses, chose Dr. Johnnetta Cole as this year’s conference keynote because throughout her career, Dr. Cole has consistently addressed the issues of racial, ethnic and gender parity.

The WCTF supports the academic mission by creating career development and mentoring opportunities for University of Michigan employees, which results in a more skilled and engaged workforce. The Women of Color Task Force is supported by the Office of the Provost, University Human Resources, and the UMHS Human Resources Office. Additional corporate support for the 2012 conference was provided by TIAA-CREF.

Note: A podcast of the 2012 WCTF conference opening session including Dr. Johnnetta Cole’s keynote address will be available on the CEW website in April.