Jewel P. Cobb H’83

Jewel P. Cobb H’83 died on January 1, 2017, in Maplewood, New Jersey.

(The following appeared was published in The New York Times, January 12, 2017:)

Jewel Plummer Cobb, who became the first black woman to lead California State University, Fullerton, after being passed over for the presidency of Hunter College — a decision that led to accusations of racism and sexism against the City University of New York’s trustees — died on Jan. 1 at her home in Maplewood, N.J. She was 92.

Her son, Jonathan, said the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

When Dr. Cobb was appointed president of Fullerton in 1981, she was widely reported to be the first black woman to head a major university in the western United States.

She had previously been a dean at Rutgers University and at Connecticut College in New London, and before that had taught biology and had studied melanoma and cell physiology at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.

As president of Fullerton, Dr. Cobb oversaw a period of substantial growth as she aggressively pursued state and private financing. During her tenure, the university branch’s first on-campus housing was built; its schools of communication, computer science and engineering were established; and its enrollment increased. She retired in 1990.
Dr. Cobb arrived in Fullerton after being considered for the presidency of Hunter College, in Manhattan, in 1979 in a contentious atmosphere. She was dean of Douglass College at Rutgers at the time and would have been Hunter’s first black president had she been appointed to succeed Jacqueline G. Wexler, who was retiring after nearly a decade as the college’s president.

Initially, the CUNY trustees were also considering Robert S. Hirschfield, chairman of Hunter’s political science department, for the post.

Robert J. Kibbee, the CUNY chancellor, recommended Dr. Cobb, but faculty members, students and alumni preferred Dr. Hirschfield, a popular figure on campus. Unable to choose between the two, and with classes resuming, the trustees in September appointed an acting president.

They also began to consider other candidates, including Donna E. Shalala, the assistant United States housing secretary, and Clyde H. Wingfield, executive vice president of the University of Miami.

An outcry ensued. Supporters of Dr. Hirschfield said he had been overlooked against the wishes of the Hunter community. Supporters of Dr. Cobb, including black civic groups and a group of female scientists, argued that she had been rejected because of racism and sexism. They organized a protest at the college and circulated a petition to academics around New York City seeking to have her appointed.

In December 1979, the board chose Dr. Shalala, though students and faculty members said she lacked academic experience. The New York Times later reported that political figures, including former Mayor Robert F. Wagner, had intervened on her behalf.

The decision rankled Dr. Cobb, and she eventually went to California.

Once at Fullerton, she pushed for greater inclusion of minorities and women in science, technology, engineering and math and helped increase minority enrollment.

Jewel Isadora Plummer was born in Chicago on Jan. 17, 1924. Her paternal grandfather was born into slavery and became a pharmacist after being freed. Her father, Frank V. Plummer, was a doctor, and her mother, the former Caribelle Cole, was a physical education teacher.

Dr. Cobb was taught from a young age not to let her race or gender hinder her ambition.

“I was raised to think that no career was out of bounds,” she once said. “It was always understood that my friends and I would go to college.”

After graduating from high school, she attended the University of Michigan but, because black students were not allowed to live on campus there at the time, soon transferred to historically black Talladega College in Alabama.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology, then received a fellowship to New York University, where she was awarded a master’s degree and, in 1950, a doctorate in cell biology. She returned to Chicago, where she taught and headed the tissue culture laboratory at the University of Illinois.

In 1954 she married Roy R. Cobb and moved east, eventually becoming a biology professor at Sarah Lawrence. The marriage ended in divorce.

Dr. Cobb was a dean at Connecticut College from 1969 to 1976, when she accepted the position at Douglass College.

After retiring from Fullerton, she was president emeritus at California State University, Los Angeles, until 2004, when she returned to the East Coast.

In addition to her son, she is survived by a granddaughter.

Dr. Cobb received numerous honorary degrees and other honors, and Douglass and Fullerton both named student housing for her. The Fullerton building that bears her name was the campus’s first student residence.