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Cole Spearheaded Change in Diversity, Inclusion at Ole Miss Throughout its Complex Past

By Alyssa Schnugg
News Editor
alyssa.schnugg@hottytoddy.com

Don Cole is retiring from the University of Mississippi after 25 years. A reception will be held Dec. 12. Photo by Alyssa Schnugg.

Sitting in his office Monday surrounded by shelves filled with books and keepsakes from over the years, Don Cole gently rubbed his forehead while thinking about all the packing that still needed to be done.

Yet, he smiled and said it was going to be a bittersweet chore.

Cole, the assistant provost, assistant to the Chancellor for Multicultural Affairs, and associate mathematics professor is hanging up his many hats in January and retiring from the University of Mississippi after 25 years.

A reception will be held for him at 5 p.m. today, Dec. 12, in The Inn at Ole Miss ballroom.

“Don will be greatly missed,” said Larry Sparks, Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance and who will become Interim Chancellor in January. “From his unwavering commitment to make the university a better place than he found it, to his never-ending infectious smile. He is a person of great integrity and passion, a skilled administrator, and a faithful friend.”

Math-Made Friends

Growing up in Jackson, Cole found a love for mathematics at an early age. It was something that couldn’t be questioned. It was a fact.

“Math is clear,” he said. “I didn’t particularly like debating and I wasn’t very good at it. Arguments came up and people could easily out debate me. But math, there’s no debating math.”

A cute, third-grade classmate named Carolyn Sue also help fine-tune Cole’s math skills.

“I had a plan that if I learned the whole math book I could offer to help her and she would fall madly in love with me,” Cole said, chuckling at the memory. “She fell madly in love with my best friend instead. But I learned the whole math book that year.”

Fellow classmates started to look to Cole as a “math genius” and often came to him for help.

“It helped me make friends,” he said. “They would gather around me as if I was an expert and that I could lead them down the path of mathematical righteousness.”

When it came time to consider which university he wanted to attend, Cole started looking at his options. With integration taking place at many universities around the country he looked outside of Mississippi first. Then he came to the University of Mississippi.

“I fell in love with it,” he said. “After I visited other campuses, nothing measured up. However, my naivety on my part was the assumption that the school had been thoroughly integrated and I expected to see many people of color when I arrived to start school.”

Protesting Racial Inequality

While some progress had been made with race relations since the school was integrated in 1962, Cole said there was still much to be done.

“We found ourselves very uncomfortable on campus,” Cole said of himself and his fellow African-American classmates.

In 1969, he and several others joined with the Black Student Union to hold a protest demanding more opportunities for black students and staff and the hiring of more black faculty members.

“Everyone was protesting back then—Civil Rights, the Vietnam War,” he said.

Cole was arrested and eventually expelled from the school in 1970.

He would later learn the expulsion was technically a suspension and would be allowed to return to university several years later to pursue his doctorate in mathematics in 1977, after earning a bachelor’s degree from Tougaloo College and master’s degrees in mathematics from both the State University of New York and the University of Michigan.

Back to Ole Miss

Cole went to work in Texas after receiving his doctorate from Ole Miss and later worked as a math professor at Florida A&M. In 1993, he was invited back to Ole Miss to become an assistant dean in the Graduate School and an associate professor of mathematics.

A reception honors Don Cole’s service as he stepped down from the chancellor’s staff in 2017. Another celebration is scheduled for Dec. 12 to mark his retirement from the university. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services.

“There were all types of mixed responses,” Cole said about his return to UM. “I had a position of authority but I was a person of color teaching. But I never had any real trouble in the classroom. I suspect some may have transferred out.”

Lucy Schultze, who worked as a journalist in Oxford for more than 10 years, said she can’t think of anyone in Oxford who was more universally admired than Cole.

“He could easily have left behind the prejudice he experienced here,” Schultze said. “Instead, he has spent his career working to help this university become a place where people from all backgrounds feel welcome and respected. And he did it with so much patience, wisdom and grace. Everyone who lives here is in his debt for his role in shaping this community.”

For 20 years, Scott Davis worked as the Macintosh computer specialist on campus. He describes Cole as a man of “towering intellect.”

“But what always impressed me most was his sensitivity and kindness,” Davis said. “He is, quite simply, one of the kindest, most gentle men I’ve ever known…and he came up in times of horrible bigotry that could easily have had the opposite effect.”

Looking Toward Tomorrow

Today, the University of Mississippi is a different world for Cole than it was when he first stepped on the campus in 1968.

“So much has changed,” he said. “I like looking at all our victories rather than focus on the defeats. We are now a fairly diverse institution. I would like to see that diversity become more diverse – there are still a few pockets where it is not as diverse as it could be. But the school continues to work on making that happen.”

Cole, 68, said he is looking forward to spending time on his interests outside of work — helping his church, New Hope Mississippi Baptist Church, with its goal to build a new church and working with Habitat for Humanity and other charitable organizations.

“The first week, I’m telling everyone I’m going to sleep,” he said, smiling widely. “Then I will wait on the Lord to tell me. If he doesn’t tell me something soon, I’ll just start doing.”

Cole is also looking forward to walking Mariah down the aisle in a few weeks and spending time with future grandchildren.

“I can’t wait for that,” he said, nodding.

However, he won’t stray too far from Ole Miss.

“I will watch from a distance,” he said. “I will watch the university continue to grow. I won’t be directly involved in their victories, but I’ll be contributing on a different level.”

And of course, he will always remain an Ole Miss Rebels fan.

“I’ll still be going to the games and tailgating,” he said. “That’s the life of this institution and I will be a part of that.”

Steve Stricker, who earned his Ph.D in counseling from Ole Miss, calls Cole his brother and his hero.

“He is one of the finest, most humble, giving, family-oriented, Christian individuals I have ever known,” Stricker said.

Cole has been married to his wife Marcia for 38 years and the couple has three adult children—Don, Mariah and William.


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