Tom Ross 2017

Former UNC System president Tom Ross speaks at a League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad forum in 2017.

If you follow higher education, Tom Ross doesn't need much introduction. He's the former president of Davidson College and the UNC System. More recently, Ross was one of two co-chairs of the Bennett Re-Engineering Committee, the group charged with recommending a path forward for Bennett College. (Yvonne Johnson, a Bennett alum and Greensboro's mayor pro tem, was the other co-chair.)

I wrote about the committee's report here and here last week. The first "here" ran in the print edition of the N&R and is a bit more conventional in tone; the second "here" is a longer look, with links to Bennett's version of events (i.e. its press release) and a video that shows Johnson, Ross and Bennett's new president, Suzanne Walsh, presenting a broad outline of the report to the Bennett community.

Because Ross had led both a private college and a state university system, I wanted to ask him a little more about the BRC report. I talked to Ross by phone on Thursday, when he was in Washington, D.C. to accept an award on behalf of former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker. Ross is now president of The Volcker Alliance, whose mission is to improve government, and Volcker was formally inducted into the new Government Hall of Fame last week.

Here's a much-condensed version of our conversation. The quotes below are all from Ross; I paraphrased the rest and added some context, mostly in parentheses.

What's the top-line takeaway of the committee's report?

Finances and academics will be key for Bennett. Shoring up the college's finances will keep the place going, and strong academics will help attract students. "I think all of us understand the difficult circumstances that Bennett faces as well as what other institutions across the country are experiencing," Ross said. "There are no silver bullets to those issues. They all require a number of different approaches."

Bennett's president said the BRC report was "tough love." Does Ross agree?

Ross said he does. He called the report an "honest and straightforward" attempt to blend optimism for Bennett's future while reminding Bennett's board that there's "a clear sense of urgency" to tackle its myriad issues. "This wasn't an effort to put lipstick on a pig," Ross said. "It was a hard-core look at the situation."

Bennett hasn't (and doesn't plan to) make the report public. Walsh has told the Bennett community that the college is already working on finances, facilities, enrollment and academics.

Will Bennett College survive?

Ross didn't answer this question directly but noted that Bennett faces many of the same issues as other small private colleges that are tuition-dependent — that is, because they don't have huge endowments, their annual budgets depend almost entirely on how many students they bring in. 

A couple of those issues are demographics (which include an expected decline in the number of high school graduates starting in 2025); and smaller number of international students, partly because of recent changes to U.S. immigration policy and partly because China and other countries are improving their colleges and universities. Bennett also is one of only a handful of women's colleges that steadfastly remains single-sex. Most women's colleges over the last generation or two have gone completely co-ed (like UNCG and Greensboro College) or admitted small numbers of men (like Salem College).

Ross noted that there has been a rash of college closings during a relatively good economy. (Inside Higher Ed says 20 private nonprofit colleges have closed since 2016; the Chronicle says 129 private nonprofit college have shot down from 2014 to 2018, but its list includes a bunch of schools that were for-profits at one point.) If the economy goes south, Ross added, "that will be a time when many tuition-dependent colleges will be tested."

In Bennett's case, developing a sustainable financial and academic model "would be a big help and would send a good message."

What about Bennett's new president?

Ross said he has been impressed by Walsh, who took the Bennett job this summer without ever having worked at a four-year college. (Most of her higher ed background comes via her work with some large national foundations.) Ross called her "a strong leader who's in touch with reality and sees the challenges and who is courageous enough to track them." He also called her a "quick study" and someone's able to communicate with students, faculty and alums.

Ross admitted to a bit of bias in his assessment: "I didn't have any higher education experience" when he took the Davidson College job in 2007, he said.

Now that the report is done, what's the BRC's role?

There is none, Ross said, at least not a formal one, though committee members have said they'll advise the college if they're asked to do so. Ross said several committee members plan to talk with the college's Board of Trustees when it meets this week. He also noted that Martin Eakes, a BRC member and founder and CEO of community development lender Self-Help, is helping Bennett develop a financial plan.

• • •

That's it for my chat with Tom Ross. I'm supposed to interview Suzanne Walsh this afternoon, so I should have more on Bennett over the weekend.

Have something to say about the blog post above? Email me at john.newsom@greensboro.com. You can also follow me on Twitter at @JohnNewsomNR.

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