Having been born to a black mother and white father at a time when interracial marriages were still rare and often dangerous, Suzanne Walsh says she is no stranger to challenges.
“I saw that in my parents,” she said in a recent interview, “and they instilled that in me.”
Now, in a stunning change that hardly anyone saw coming, Walsh is the new leader of Bennett College.
Effective Aug. 1, she will be Bennett’s eighth president since 2000, which makes you wonder whether a Yankees manager has more job security.
And she seems absolutely thrilled to take on a task that she acknowledges won’t be easy.
First, there was the sheer suddenness of it all. On June 21, the school announced that Walsh’s predecessor, Dr. Phyllis Worthy Dawkins, “will be leaving her position as of today.” Six days later, the trustees announced that Walsh would lead the small college for women in east Greensboro.
Then there is a court battle to maintain Bennett’s accreditation, fragile finances, enrollment issues ... and more.
Walsh not only was a surprising choice; she was an unconventional one. Walsh, who received her undergraduate degree in social work from Cornell and master’s and law degrees from Case Western University, has never been an administrator at a four-year college.
But she has worked for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation and the Heinz Endowments, which suggests she may be an effective fundraiser. Further, she has consulted with a number of area institutions, including UNCG and GTCC, and spent 15 years working with historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, like Bennett. One of her specialties: increasing retention and graduation rates.
That’s a topic she knows from personal experience. As a college sophomore, she flunked out with a .75 GPA.
In an interview posted on the Gates Foundation website, she recalled sharing that story with University of Central Florida students:
“I said, ‘I was kicked out of Mount Holyoke; I was fired from a job,’ and there were those who looked really terrified, and I said ‘No, no, no, it all works out.’ And when I saw those students a few months later, they thanked me. Because I think that there’s a presumption that if you work here, at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that you took a clearly defined path through education, everyone nailed it, A-plus. And that’s just not everyone’s story.”
As for Bennett, she believes it has to “re-invent and transform.”
During an interview, she brimmed with ideas. But she also said she had no illusions.
“I expect that at some point every single person will be resistant,” Walsh said. “Change is hard. Change is about loss.”
Among her priorities : Data-driven decisions and planning as well as expanding Bennett’s “boundaries to a larger universe of potential applicants,” including nontraditional students. She wrote in a 2012 essay for the Gates Foundation: “Nontraditional is the new traditional at America’s community colleges — most students work while attending classes, have dependents of their own, enroll in college part time, and are financially independent.”
But clearly her toughest challenge may be balancing Bennett’s fierce devotion to tradition — from attending chapel to not cutting corners by walking across the campus lawn —with its need to change.
How will she manage that?
“Carefully,” Walsh said. “You don’t move into a community and start blowing things up.”
She deeply respects those traditions — especially Bennett’s heritage in social justice. “How do we bring that back to the forefront? What are the incredible opportunities for us to reclaim that space?
In some we’ll be going back to go forward.”
Amid renewed hope, the aftertaste of Dawkins’ departure lingers. Bennett’s leaders won’t say much about it. The trustees chair, Bennett alumna Gladys Robinson, did not return a call last week.
It had to be difficult — telling a woman who had poured her soul into an emergency campaign that raised $9.5 million in a matter of weeks, that she was being replaced. It seemed an odd way to say thanks.
But it may have been unavoidable. Bennett is fighting for its survival.
And it takes both vision and courage to realize that the way things have always been at Bennett is not the way that they will be.