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Radcliffe Medal Given to Former Spelman Pres.

Cole is honored for her years of service to women


Johnetta B. Cole, the celebrated former president of Spelman College, a historically black women's institution in Atlanta, Ga., will be this year's recipient of the Radcliffe Medal.

The medal, which is presented annually by the Radcliffe College Alumnae Association (RCAA), honors individuals "whose life and work have had a significant impact on society," according to a press release from Radcliffe's Office of Communication.

Mary M. Carty, executive director of RCAA, said that while the honor's criteria are flexible, its standards are high.

"[The award] is meant to honor someone who has made an outstanding contribution, primarily to the lives of women. As a cultural anthropologist [Cole] has a long record of service...She has made significant contributions to the cause of justice," Carty said.

Pointing to the fact the Cole was the first African-American woman to serve as president of Spelman, Carty said, "it's really the quality of her personal and professional achievements that just make her an inspirational figure."

Known as "Sister Prez" on the Spelman campus, Cole's decade-long tenure was marked by a tripling of the school's endowment and a capital campaign which attracted financial support from Oprah Winfrey and a $20-million gift from Bill and Camille Cosby.

Spelman is the only historically black college to rank number one in any category of U.S. News and World Report's annual college issue. Spelman was also ranked first in a Black Enterprise listing of the top 50 institutions "where African Americans are most likely to succeed."

Harvard placed 28th in the same Black Enterprise survey.

Cole retired from Spelman in June 1997 and is now the presidential distinguished professor at Emory University in anthropology, women's studies and African American studies.

The Radcliffe medal will be one of many accomplishments in Cole's long list of honors. She has already received 41 honorary degrees and been inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Yale University. The author of two books and mother of five children, Cole's "abridged" curriculum vitae runs to three full pages.

Still, Cole said she was pleased to be honored with the Radcliffe prize.

"I refuse to imagine accepting an award from an organization that I do not respect," Cole said in the press release. "In the case of Radcliffe, it's not just respect or admiration, it's also sisterly love."

A'Lelia P. Bundles '74, first vice president of RCAA, said Cole was selected because of her enduring commitment to women's education.

"I think she's a fantastic woman, she showed true leadership as president of a women's college. She moved Spelman into a new realm. I think she has an incredibly charismatic personality, she is a warm person," Bundles said.

Bundles, whose grandmother had attended Spelman between 1916 and 1920 "when she was unlikely to get into Radcliffe," noted that Cole's selection couldn't have happened 75 years ago." Still, she downplayed the significance of Cole's race.

"I really am not attaching a whole lot of significance to the racial aspect," Bundles said. "This is really much more about Johnetta Cole being one of the premier women educators in America."

A number of other black women are among past recipients of the Radcliffe Medal, including Marian Wright Edelman, the head of the Children's Defense Fund; singer Jessye Norman and author Alice Walker.

Attorney General Janet Reno won the award last year.

Cole could not be reached for comment yesterday. She will receive the medal in a presentation in Radcliffe Yard June 11.

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