Bennett College raises more than $8 million

Pat Davis-Thompson, a 1975 Bennett College graduate, gives Bennett senior Brandi Govan a hug after Govan began weeping during a fundraising announcement ceremony in Greensboro, NC on February 4, 2019. (H. Scott Hoffmann/News & Record)

A month ago in this space, I wrote about what might lie ahead for Bennett College, the private women’s college here in Greensboro that has been in the news a lot recently. A merger, closure, accreditation with another agency, a mythical takeover by N.C. A&T — all of those potential potholes still dot the path in front of Bennett.

After last week’s announcement that Bennett beat its $5 million fundraising goal by more than 60 percent, I’d say the odds that the college keeps its current accreditation seem, well, better than they were two months ago.

The reason I say that is this: When I talked last month to Belle Wheelen — president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on College, the accrediting body that moved in December to revoke Bennett’s accreditation — she said only one school in her 14 years at the commission had won an appeal. That school was Brewton-Parker College in Georgia, which lost its accreditation in 2014 for the same reason Bennett did — a lack (in the commission’s view) of sufficient financial resources. Six months later, BPC had raised enough money to convince the commission to reverse its decision.

As Wheelen told me in January: “That’s the only way (Bennett is) getting out of it. They have to find a significant amount of money.”

And that’s what Bennett did: It raised $8.2 million in less than two months, The college was still collecting and counting checks on the day it announced its total. 

Keep in mind that there’s a difference between finding a significant amount of money and raising enough money to satisfy SACSCOC. To continue the road metaphor I started this blog post with, these two things are potentially miles apart. Remember that the commission didn’t set a target. Bennett College set that $5 million target, based on conversations Bennett leaders say they had with folks at the commission. 

(A quick aside: If you want to dig deeper into the details of what SACSCOC considers to be sufficient financial resources, click here and flip to page 123 of the commission's accreditation manual.)

We’ll know more about where Bennett stands later this month. Bennett College leaders travel to Atlanta on Monday for an appearance before an appeals panel made up of former commission trustees. (SACSCOC board members tend to be former college presidents and other high-level officials; the hearing is in Atlanta because the commission’s headquarters is in the suburb of Decatur.)

By Feb. 25, Bennett will get one of two answers from the appeals panel.

One answer is no, which sets in motion one of the scenarios I laid out here a month ago. The most probable involves a lawsuit followed by seeking accreditation with another agency, probably this one.

The other answer is a remand, which is the answer Bennett is hoping for. The appeals committee can remand Bennett’s case for further review if (and I’m quoting from the official SACSCOC appeals procedures) “if (it) finds that an institution, removed from accreditation based solely on finances, has produced evidence that it has available new and verifiable financial information and that the financial information is material to the Board’s adverse decision.”

If Bennett’s case is remanded, it can go to one of three SACSCOC committees for further review. The commission’s Board of Trustees will make a final decision at its next board meeting, which won't be until the week of June 10 in Charlotte.

Even if the commission changes its mind, Bennett still has a rough road ahead. In this Chronicle story, the new president of Paine College, a small Georgia school that lost its SACSCOC accreditation in 2016, said he's focusing on what he calls “the A through E’s”: accreditation, budget, communication and culture, development (fundraising, in other words) and enrollment.

Remember that Bennett is small for a small school — just about 410 undergraduates as of the current spring semester. It needs more students, a larger endowment, more consistent fundraising and a more stable financial picture.

These are not small challenges. The road ahead goes uphill. But as Bennett showed over the past two months, it has a lot of friends willing to help out along the way.

Update, 9:30 a.m. Thursday: I've updated this blog post to correct a typo and delete some notes that I accidentally (and carelessly) included below the "Have something to say" line. 

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