Smithsonian speaker stresses the importance of campus diversity

Saturday’s rededication of the Multicultural Center as the Davis Center culminated in a keynote address by Johnnetta B. Cole, formerly a renowned professor of anthropology and the current director of the Smithsonian Museum of African Art. Introduced as a “humanist, visionary and a woman of action,” Cole, who holds an honorary degree from the College, spoke about the important role of diversity on the modern campus.

Cole covered a number of prominent issues including the state of affirmative action in education, the importance of collaboration and education in battling bigotry and the power of human empathy. She also emphasized her personal connections to the College: She was awarded an honorary degree in 1989, and her son is a graduate of the College and helped found the campus’ black alumni network. Cole also took time to honor the Davis family for their lifetime of accomplishments. “I wouldn’t mind if my final job was here at the Davis Center,” she said.

Cole began by complimenting the Davis Center’s “not just righteous, but sacred work” that will continue to embrace the “mighty and distinguished” legacy of W. Allison Davis ’24 and John A. Davis ’33. She explained that she felt “a deep kinship with both of them,” having grown up, like the Davis brothers, in a world of legal segregation in which “even cemeteries came in two colors.”

Cole continued by praising the College for its commitment to diversity in its curriculum, but reminded her listeners that “the journey toward a diversity-reflecting America has a ways to go to reach its destination.” She noted that there is clearly observable progress but that “American higher education is still too much about the three ‘W’s: Western, white and womanless,” which was greeted by a mix of laughter and support from the crowd.

She then addressed a basic but vital question: “Why bother putting in the time and genuine hard effort to diversify? Because it’s the right thing to do,” she answered. Cole continued by explaining her belief that “excellence in education is only possible if there is diversity in the curriculum.” According to Cole, learning takes place when students interact with one another, allowing exposure both inside and outside the classroom to “different truths that come from different experiences and attributes.”

“[Campus diversity leads to] innovative and sometimes outrageously out-of-the-box ideas,” she explained. Cole went on to call on members of the College, particularly faculty, to use “human empathy” to teach students of color and maintain diversity in curriculum. She stated that, “as a student of anthropology and a practicing human being,” she has experienced firsthand the power of human empathy, understanding and collaboration in fostering systems of equality and diversity and positive change. In conclusion, Cole said “one flower doesn’t make a spring,” but that collectively, even a “small group of committed citizens” has the power to change the world.