GREENSBORO — In a whirlwind Friday, Bennett College lost its accreditation and got it right back.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges announced at midday Friday that Bennett had lost its appeal to hold onto its accreditation despite raising nearly twice as much money as it set out to.
By Friday afternoon, Bennett had sued the commission, and a federal judge in Atlanta had granted the college a reprieve: a temporary restraining order that lets Bennett keep its accreditation — vital to both students and the college — while the lawsuit remains active.
"Our fight continues, ... " President Phyllis Worthy Dawkins said at a nighttime news conference. "The negative decision ... to remove Bennett from membership will not interrupt the daily operations of the college. ... We urge everyone to keep the faith and know that Bennett College is standing strong."
Dawkins also said the college has taken preliminary steps to seek accreditation from the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. Representatives from TRACS are scheduled to visit Bennett on March 14. It's possible, Dawkins said, that Bennett could end up being accredited by both agencies.
Though Dawkins and Sen. Gladys Robinson, the college's Board of Trustees chairwoman, thanked supporters for donating nearly $10 million to the college in just two months, they said that Friday was a sad day on campus. More than 500 Bennett students and employees packed the college's chapel to hear Dawkins talk about the commission's most recent decision.
Throughout campus and on social media, the reaction from Bennett students and supporters was largely shock and disbelief. Some tears were shed. Some students talked of transferring. At the all-campus meeting, Dawkins urged them to stay. Bennett remains accredited, Dawkins told them, and their financial aid, student loans and degrees won't be affected.
"We told them we need you to stay with us," Dawkins said. "And many indicated that as I was walking out today that they would stand with Bennett."
Bennett senior Brooke Kane had a message for her classmates who are thinking about leaving:
"Don't give up on Bennett because she didn't give up on you, ..." said Kane, the school's Miss Bennett College. "Just like Dr. Dawkins said, the fight is not over. We have to keep fighting."
How we got here
The commission in December revoked Bennett's accreditation because it said the college didn't have sufficient financial resources, a violation of one of its standards. Bennett had been on probation for the two previous years — the most allowed under the commission's rules — for financial concerns and other issues.
Bennett had posted six straight years of annual operating losses, a trend that stopped in 2016-17, the year that Dawkins became president. The losses stemmed largely from a 40 percent decline in enrollment from 2010 to 2016 and led the college to lay off employees and cut some academic programs. Bennett's endowment remains small — only about $13 million — and it owes roughly $30 million for new buildings and building renovations made over the past decade.
The college has about 410 undergraduates enrolled for the spring semester, down from about 470 in the fall. Bennett says it has received more than 4,000 applications for admission next fall — about twice as many as normal thanks largely to the intense news and social media spotlight that has shined on the school.
Before the fundraising campaign, Bennett projected a budget surplus for the year of close to $700,000.
So the college appealed the commission's ruling.
Bennett leaders were confident heading into Monday's hearing in Atlanta. As of Feb. 4, the college's "Stand with Bennett" campaign had raised $8.2 million in just 55 days — well above its $5 million goal. Churches, foundations, companies, college students, fraternities and sororities, local residents and Bennett alums and their family and friends across the nation had stepped up. It seemed like the blue "Stand With Bennett" T-shirts were all over the community and social media.
Two weeks later, on the day of the appeal hearing, Bennett's fundraising total had swelled to $9.5 million from about 13,000 different donors.
Losing the appeal
But it wasn't enough in the eyes of the appeals panel, which this week upheld the December vote of the commission's board of trustees.
The commission in a news release said its appeals committee "examined additional financial information provided" by Bennett but "found that Bennett College had 'failed to show that the institution possesses resources demonstrating a stable financial base to support the mission and scope of programs and services.'"
The commission also said that the appeals board found that the trustees applied the commission's rules fairly. The panel further ruled, according to the commission, that the trustees' original decision was "reasonable, not arbitrary, and based on the standards cited."
The commission accredits nearly 800 two-year and four-year higher education institutions in 11 Southern states. Based in an Atlanta suburb, it evaluates colleges and universities on a number of standards, including finances, academic programs, faculty, student achievement and governance.
In its 30-page lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Bennett disagrees with the commission's decision and how it reached it.
Bennett argues that the commission failed to follow its own rules and failed to offer the college adequate due process when it decided to revoke accreditation. It further says that the commission's decision is "arbitrary, unreasonable, and unlawful" and says the college "will suffer catastrophic and irreparable harm" if accreditation is not restored — up to and including "the likely demise of Bennett College."
U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen signed an order late Friday that restores Bennett's accreditation, but leaves the school on probation — just as it was before the commission's December decision. The judge's order notes that the commission agreed with Bennett's request to restore its accreditation for the time being. In accreditation disputes, SACSCOC traditionally has agreed to extend accreditation while the court case proceeds.
The college has hired two attorneys — one in Atlanta and one in Research Triangle Park — to work on its accreditation suit.
The suit also provides more details about Bennett's financial situation. The college said an undisclosed lender forgave a little more than $1 million in outstanding debt. It said it plans to sell at least two pieces of property that it's not using by June. And a New York art gallery is selling "an important and significant painting." Bennett did not identify the artwork but said it could net more than $3 million from a sale.
A new accreditor?
Bennett is taking steps to seek membership in TRACS, which accredits more than 70 schools in 23 states, U.S. territories and other nations.
The schools accredited by TRACS are private Christian colleges, including Piedmont International University in Winston-Salem and several other schools across North Carolina. Several former SACSCOC members, including Paul Quinn College in Dallas and Paine College in Georgia, have sought TRACS approval. Bennett is affiliated with the United Methodist Church.
TRACS membership carries the same benefits as its current SACSCOC accreditation. A Bennett College accredited by TRACS still would be able to accept federal Pell Grants and federal student loans as payment for tuition and other school expenses.
Dawkins said it might take a year for Bennett to become a TRACS candidate, the first step to full membership. She said she has asked the group to expedite the process.
As Bennett gears up for a court fight and a TRACS visit, it's also deciding what to do with the money it raised.
Dawkins said the college plans to use it "in the way it was intended to be used": for student scholarships, student programs and daily operations; for the college's reserve fund; and to pay down the college's debt.
Next week, Bennett plans to reach out to prospective students and let them know that the college remains open and accredited.
"Our goal is to restore the campus back to normal and to provide confidence in the women — that we're here for them — and continue to meet with them as needed," Dawkins said. "But really, (we want) to get back to normal."
Watch video of Bennett College's Friday night press conference:
Reactions to Friday's announcement that Bennett College has lost its accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges:
High Point University President Nido Qubein: “We are saddened to hear the news about Bennett College and don’t have access to the specifics of the accreditation decision. HPU and I worked diligently to assist and support our neighborhood sister school that is also associated with the United Methodist Church as we are. We have no regret about stepping up and stepping out to partner with Bennett in their fundraising campaign. HPU is a God, family, and country school and being helpful is what we do whenever we can.”
U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, a retired Bennett College professor: “I am disappointed and saddened by the committee’s decision. I firmly believe Bennett College deserved a favorable review. The institution has been an invaluable asset to our community. I will continue to give my full support to the college and the students they serve.”
Gwendolyn Mackel Rice, president of the Bennett College National Alumnae Association: "We are devastated and must work toward surmounting this obstacle."
N.C. A&T Chancellor Harold Martin: "We are very disappointed with this outcome for our colleagues at Bennett. We will continue to stand with Bennett as they decide how they will move forward in the days ahead."
UNCF (United Negro College Fund): "UNCF continues to #StandWithBennett. We are working to understand the decision released by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges as it relates to Bennett College’s accreditation. However, in the interim, we have unequivocal support for Dr. Phyllis Worthy Dawkins, president, students and the entire Bennett College community."
Maurice "Mo" Green, executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, which donated $500,000 to the college: "The (foundation) is disappointed to hear the news of Bennett College’s accreditation status. Despite not knowing the complete details of this decision, the Foundation continues to stand by its support of Bennett given its historical significance and the critical role it plays in providing a high-quality education to women."