Assistant Provost and Associate Professor of Mathematics Dr. Donald Cole has lived a truly sensational life full of hope, perseverance and determination.
Growing up in Jackson in the 1950s, Cole lived with his mother, father and eight brothers and sisters. The neighborhood where he lived was fully segregated — including all local businesses, public facilities and local schools.
In his early adolescence, Cole witnessed the University of Mississippi desegregate when James Meredith enrolled as the first African American student in the early 1960s. “It was unbelievable, and [we were] all proud of the brave man who did this,” Cole says.
Inspired by Meredith’s courageous act, Cole decided to enroll at Ole Miss himself to pursue a higher education after high school. “I entered the University of Mississippi as a freshman in 1968, thinking that it had been thoroughly integrated since 1962,” Cole says. “Oh, how naïve I was.”
The atmosphere and environment was very difficult to navigate. As a young man in a new place surrounded by many unfriendly peers, Cole recalls that there were very few who embraced his presence.
“There were still very few people of color here along with staff that had never served people of color, faculty that had never taught people of color and administration who had fought to maintain segregation,” Cole says.
“My wellbeing was constantly jeopardized,” Cole recalls. “Many taunts, slurs and foul language. Quite an unwelcoming environment that was accepted by most.”
More than then name-calling and disapproving stares, Cole says that students’ aggressive rioting to keep campus segregated was the most disheartening. “The hate could be felt whenever we were in the presence of any whites,” Cole says.
Many African-American students regularly protested against these segregationists, including Cole, which led to an arrest, nights spent in jail and his ultimate expulsion from the University for his involvement just two years into his time at Ole Miss.
Dr. Cole persevered during this time and fought to return to the University complete his degree — and he prevailed. Upon graduating with his doctorate in mathematics, Cole left the city of Oxford, but things came full-circle in 1993 when he was hired by the University as an assistant in the graduate school.
This is when Cole’s formal work with diversity and inclusion began. Ten years later, in 2003, Cole became the Assistant to the Chancellor for Multicultural Affairs and the University’s Chief Diversity Officer. In these roles, Cole represented Ole Miss by speaking at various functions across the nation, wrote grants, assisted with appropriate programming and curriculum, advised administration or recruiting students, staff and faculty, and much more. “It is truly an endless list,” Cole says.
Today, Cole is most passionate and involved in issues relating to minority affairs on campus. Cole helps lead the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Program (LSMAMP), which focus on science education for minority students at Ole Miss. Cole also works with the University’s Ronald E. McNair Program, which focuses on graduate-level education for underrepresented students.
Cole says the most rewarding part of his job is being able to help students on a daily basis. Today, Cole spends his time working within the Mathematics Department and Provost’s Office. Each day is different, but many days consist of teaching and meeting demanding deadlines while “responding to thousands of phone calls [and] millions of e-mails,” Cole reveals.
Cole says he strives everyday to help create an institution that one day will lead the nation and the world in diversity efforts, but knows no one can do it alone. “You can’t assign it out, you can legislate it out, you can wish it would naturally happen,” Cole says. “You have to be proactive to help make it happen. Not only do [students] bear the biggest responsibility, but they are in a position to be the most effective tool to make it happen.”
Recently, the new Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Community Engagement Katrina Caldwell took over Cole’s position last fall, and she hopes to follow in his footsteps. Caldwell recognizes and is inspired by the significant advancements toward inclusion and equal opportunity for all students at Ole Miss that Cole has initiated throughout the years.
“Dr. Cole has an extensive track record of diversity work for the university,” Caldwell says. “He truly champions diversity.”
As far as an official retirement day for Dr. Cole, we’ll have to wait and see. “I have not decided on an exact date for retirement, but soon I’ll be over 100 and still going,” Cole shares with a smile.