GREENSBORO — In her five years at Bennett College, Johnnetta Cole balanced the budget, raised millions of dollars and brought new life to a struggling institution.

A decade after Cole’s departure, the college decided on a way to honor its 14th president.

Bennett College on Sunday formally renamed its newest campus building for Cole. The honors dorm is now the Johnnetta Betsch Cole Honors Residence Hall.

“You have given me an incredible honor — to have my name on a building where students committed to excellence, defined as honors students, recommit themselves to soar to the heights of their possibility,” Cole said at a brief ceremony outside the dorm.

Sunday was Founder’s Day at the college, which was started in 1873 in a Greensboro church basement. Bennett used the occasion to thank Cole, who most recently served as director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.

Cole was the keynote speaker at the convocation in the Annie Merner Pheiffer Chapel. She reminded the audience of students, employees and friends of the college of Bennett’s long history of advocacy in times of crisis.

Cole didn’t have to tell the audience that Bennett is facing yet another accreditation crisis similar to the one the college faced during her tenure there. But Cole did note that the nation itself is in crisis — she repeatedly cited the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that left one counterprotester dead — and she said Bennett has a role to play in the fight against bigotry and white supremacy.

“I want to clearly and unequivocally declare that protecting and sustaining Bennett College is a necessary form of activism that each of us is called to do,” Cole said.

In her Bennett tenure from 2002 to 2007, Cole oversaw a $50 million capital campaign, established an art gallery on campus and created women’s studies and global studies programs.

Most importantly, Cole stabilized a school that was in danger of losing its accreditation because of repeated financial deficits.

“She’s our lieutenant in this fight. She’s our advocate and yet she’s our friend who made significant accomplishments at Bennett during another critical time in our history,” said Gladys Robinson, a state senator and chairwoman of the college’s Board of Trustees.

Shortly after Cole left, Bennett in 2010 built its largest dorm, the former Honors Residence Hall. The 151-bed dorm cost the college $7.2 million. It’s reserved for Bennett students in the honors program.

Khloe Hill, a junior political science major who lives there, said Cole’s unwavering support of Bennett has been important to the college.

“This building will stand as a reminder to the Greensboro community, the academic arena and the Bennett family of just how important the investment to our institution is,” Hill said.

Cole’s work on Bennett’s behalf isn’t over. Cole is leading the effort to raise $1.5 million for scholarships for students in the honors program.

She made yet another pitch at the naming ceremony.

“I ask of you — I beg of you — to give to this campaign,” Cole said, “because it is a campaign for the future of all of us.”

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Contact John Newsom at (336) 373-7312 and follow @JohnNewsomNR on Twitter.

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