March 19, 2019

Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole to Speak at Commencement and Receive Honorary Degree


Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole, a globally recognized anthropologist, educator, author, and humanitarian, will be the featured speaker for Guilford College’s Commencement exercises on May 4, 2019.

In addition, Dr. Cole, President Emerita of Spelman College and Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, will be presented with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. She will be the fifth person to be recognized with an honorary degree by Guilford College.

Dr. Cole gained national prominence in 1987 as the first African-American woman to serve as president of Spelman, a historically black women’s college. Under her leadership, Spelman was named the top liberal arts college in the South. At Bennett, from 2002-07, she helped catalyze an intellectual renaissance while leading a $50 million development campaign.

Dr. Cole’s numerous contributions beyond higher education include serving as director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art from 2009 to 2017. She continues to play a vital role on the Scholarly Advisory Committee of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Africa American History and Culture.

“Johnnetta Cole is a diversity trailblazer who has left no stone unturned in the pursuit of access and affordability to higher education for all who want to receive it,” says Jane K. Fernandes, President of Guilford College. “We are honored beyond measure that she has accepted our invitation to receive an honorary degree and speak to the graduating Class of 2019.” 

As a college president, university professor, and through her published works, speeches, community service, and consultations with corporations and not-for-profit organizations, Dr. Cole has addressed racial, gender, and all other forms of inequality.

Born in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1936, she enrolled at Fisk University at the age of 15 before transferring to Oberlin College, where she completed a bachelor’s degree in Sociology. She conducted research in Liberia in the early 1960s and earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology at Northwestern University in 1967.

Cole taught at UCLA, Washington State University, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Hunter College, and Emory University. She retired from Emory where she held the position of Presidential Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Women’s Studies, and African American Studies.

In honor of her broad civic involvement, Dr. Cole has received more than 60 honorary degrees and numerous awards, including the TransAfrica Forum Global Public Service Award; the Radcliffe Medal; the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal; the Alexis de Tocqueville Award for Community Services from United Way of America; the Joseph Prize for Human Rights presented by the Anti-Defamation League; the Straight for Equality Award from Families and Friends of Gays and Lesbians (PFLAG); and the Alston-Jones International Civil and Human Rights award. 

In 2010, Ebony magazine listed her among the 100 most influential African Americans, and Washington Magazine listed her among Washington, D.C.’s most powerful women in 2011.