When Bennett College named Phyllis Worthy Dawkins as permanent president in 2017, officials praised her as a tenured leader with special expertise in accreditation matters.
Two years, $9 million and a heartbreaking loss of, and lawsuit to retain accreditation later,Dr. Dawkins was fired and her replacement named less than a week later. Former nonprofit executive and educational access expert Suzanne Walsh is now charged with writing the next chapter in Bennett’s future.
She will do so with a slate of co-authors who have proved with her hiring, and all of the events which led up to it, that they are less than capable assets in whatever formula will spare this school from an inglorious existence.
Bennett leaders praise Walsh, an attorney with years of experience working with institutions to help boost college access and completion, as the logical pick to lead the college back to prominence.
“Bennett College sought a new president to embrace and champion innovative ideas that ensure our long-term viability. We were committed to having an exceptional leader in place when our students returned for the 2019-2020 academic year,” said Dr. Gladys A. Robinson, chair of the Bennett College Board of Trustees. “Suzanne Walsh has the experience, passion, fundraising expertise and personal qualities that will ensure she is embraced by our students, faculty, staff, alumnae and community.”
But Walsh, whose biography doesn’t showcase any executive experience or fundraising highlights specific to HBCUs, is not an ideal fit for what Bennett needs. Much in the way that Dr. Dawkins did not appear to be the accreditation expert officials made her out be, Walsh, at least on paper, doesn’t appear to be the one who is going to walk through accreditation in the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, raise millions of more dollars for a school that has already done so without the satisfaction of actually saving itself, and which remains plagued most by the growth of other college options in its immediate geographic footprint.
Bennett is in debt, with one of its biggest bills owed to the federal Department of Education. Walsh’s ties to the Heinz and Lumina foundations likely won’t earn grants to pay off construction loans to the federal government; loans which some inside the department won’t say publicly, but which Bennett may have defaulted on years ago.
Walsh will have to be the chief negotiator with the feds and other creditors to broker less painful repayment obligations that haven’t already been satisfied with the money Bennett raised in recent months. And while this is her top priority, it is not the most pressing responsibility.
She will have to oversee the transition to TRACCS accreditation, a multi-year process that itself involves a stringent monitoring and reporting process even during the conditional admission phase.
She’ll have to be the peacemaker on campus to explain how the board was clearly negotiating with her to be president while Dawkins was still employed and largely unaware of when she was going to be removed from campus.
She’ll have to deal with divergent perspectives from her board, alumnae, students and community members about what Bennett’s future looks like. Does it remain as a four-year degree-granting college? Does it consider becoming an asset to another institution?
She will have to be the primary spokesperson and public-facing advocate for a school and a culture she is just getting to know, but within its own borders is changing dramatically with firings, resignations, retirements and new appointments.
But most of all, she’ll be the working to find a way to resist the same problematic impulses of the board that over the years led to Bennett being in this financial crisis, while stretching to enact its will in strategic and operational vision.
All of this would be a tall order for an experienced president, let alone a first-time college CEO with no extensive executive apprenticeships on a campus prior to her appointment.
Walsh will be Bennett’s third permanent president in the last six years. Her predecessors each brought a unique set of experiences and intellect to the position. Each one had successes and missteps in the position, particularly with navigating the board and its oversight responsibilities.
The thing that clipped Rosalind Fuse-Hall and Dr. Dawkins will prove to be an extraordinary challenge for Walsh, who from all accounts is a solid professional, advocate and “sister” in the vein of Bennett’s mission. It’s the thing that many of us have refused to say publicly for years, to avoid dragging the name of a good school educating extraordinary black women through the mud; but now is clearer than it ever has been even in recent months of strife and uncertainty.
Bennett’s board just doesn’t know what it is doing. And this hire, and the way it was executed, proves it beyond any doubt.