GREENSBORO — A committee charged with recommending a path forward for Bennett College says the women’s school should shore up its finances, secure accreditation and improve the quality of its leaders, professors and academic programs.
Those are among the broad-brush recommendations made by the Bennett Re-Engineering Committee, an 18-member group appointed by Bennett’s board of trustees in April. The group turned over a 75-page report to trustees Friday.
“I actually think this report should be subtitled ‘tough love’ because that’s really what this is,” Bennett President Suzanne Walsh said Friday. “There’s some tough stuff in there, but it comes from a place of love for this institution and its students.”
The committee’s report is based on feedback from five focus groups and a survey completed by more than 500 people affiliated with the college. The committee also drew on its own expertise: Many group members have many years of experience in the higher education or nonprofit sectors.
The committee’s charge was simple: recommend changes without departing from Bennett’s core identity as a college that serves both women and African Americans. Founded in 1873, Bennett is one of just two all-female historically black colleges in the nation.
Bennett’s trustees formed the committee two months after the college nearly lost its accreditation. Bennett has struggled financially for years, a result of enrollment declines and other factors. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges put Bennett on probation for two years and, in December, revoked the college’s accreditation.
Though Bennett raised $9.5 million in two months and garnered national attention for its fight to survive, the commission in February denied Bennett’s appeal. The college immediately sued, and the commission agreed to extend Bennett’s accreditation while the legal battle plays out. Bennett is now pursuing accreditation from Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, a national organization whose 80 member schools include numerous Bible colleges and seminaries.
The Bennett Re-Engineering Committee made four general recommendations:
- Bennett should stabilize its finances, continue to raise money and ensure its accreditation.
- The college should have visionary leadership and governance that can manage change.
- Bennett should increase enrollment and improve student success; and the college should operate more efficiently and strengthen its faculty and staff to better serve students.
“As a proud Bennett Belle, I could not be more excited for this moment,” said Yvonne Johnson, a Bennett graduate, Greensboro’s mayor pro tem and one of the committee’s co-chairs.
“It was worth every bit of the work,” Johnson told Bennett students, employees, alumnae and other supporters Friday. “It was important to everyone on the committee to keep Bennett alive and thriving. That’s what we want to do.”
Walsh said the college already has taken several steps before the committee finished its work. They include starting work on a five-year financial plan, more aggressive recruiting of first-year and transfer students, and working with local colleges and universities to place Bennett students in some classes where Bennett lacks faculty and other resources.
Walsh asked for patience as she and Bennett’s trustees review the report.
“Don’t expect a plan tomorrow. … It takes time,” Walsh said. “Give us some time and some space to be able to gather the data and put forth those plans.”
“Bennett,” committee co-chairman Tom Ross said. “has something unique to offer to young women” and said he’s bullish on the college’s future.
“It’s not over. It’s not an easy road,” said Ross, a Greensboro native and former president of Davidson College and the UNC system. “There’s a lot to be done for Bennett to be the place that we all want it to be.”
The college declined to make the report public. A spokeswoman for the college said it’ll stay private “due to the confidential nature of some of the information it contains.”
The college outlined some of the report’s findings in a news release sent out Friday. Johnson, Ross and Walsh spoke to Bennett students, employees, alumnae and other supporters Friday afternoon in the college’s chapel. A Greensboro News & Record reporter did not attend that session but reviewed a video of it.