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Bennett College works to secure funding to save accreditation

Bennett College president, Dr. Phyllis Worthy Dawkins, put out a call to action to the community to help the college raise $5 million in order to save the school’s accreditation. Charles Edgerton/Carolina Peacemaker
[/caption]Bennett College leaders announced last week that the school was under probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) and was facing the loss of accreditation.

At a news conference on December 14, Bennett leaders say they need to raise $5 million in 45 days to be able to reach financial stability under SACSCOC guidelines, the regional accreditor which monitors, evaluates, and accredits education institutions across the southeastern United States. Leaders have already begun to reach out to potential donors.

“We’re asking the Greensboro community, the state and the nation to help us,” said Dr. Gladys A. Robinson, a Bennett College Board of Trustees member and a ’71 alumna. “We are committed to the women of Bennett.”

Robinson noted that loss of wealth in the African American community, mostly tied to homeownership, during the economic recession contributed to some of the school’s struggles.

“The population most impacted were African American women — the very students and the women that we serve. We serve a very important population of African American women, some of whom otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to get an academic degree that corporations and institutions are looking for as they progress,” said Robinson.

The 145-year old college had its humble beginnings in the basement of the Warnersville Methodist Episcopal Church (now known as St. Matthews United Methodist Church). The freed slaves who founded the college were initially set on educating both men and women, but later shifted to a goal to educate only women. In 1926, Bennett became a higher education institution for Black women. Bennett is now only one of two all-women HBCUs in the country, which includes Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia.

Bennett Belles are also known for their participation in the Civil Rights Movement and in the Greensboro sit-ins at the F.W. Woolworth lunch counter.

The college was first placed on probation in 2016 because of financial instability, and SACS does not allow schools to be on probation longer than two years. Although the college has struggled with fundraising and admitting new students in years past, over the last three years Bennett has been able to successfully address those issues. According to leaders, Bennett generated a surplus of $461,038 and had no audit findings during fiscal year 2018. Enrollment has also trended upward for the past two years, from 409 in 2017 to 471 in 2018, and earlier this year, the college was approved for an HBCU Capital Finance loan deferment over a six-year period with a financial benefit of nearly $9 million.

Bennett has also steadily increased fundraising from $3.37 million to $4.25 million over a three-year period, which is why Dawkins said she was “shocked” to learn that the college had not met the SACSCOC financial guidelines.

“Our academics are in order. Governance was not an issue. They did not question our leadership, or our faculty or the quality of our students. We were only cited for financial resources,” said Dawkins. “We are still relevant and still needed. We will fight for our accreditation and our survival.”

Bennett College leaders were notified on December 11 by SACSCOC and by the next day, students and alumna had joined with Dawkins to create the social media hashtag #IStandWithBennett to help raise support and funds. Former and current Belles posted videos online talking about their experience at Bennett. The young women who attend Bennett say the school has given them an environment where they can thrive not just in the classroom, but globally as well.

“I was devastated when I heard the news,” said Ebony Duelle, a journalism major and the junior class representative. “But I am hopeful. Especially after going online and seeing all the support we have from the community, alumna and from students at other HBCUs. I feel things are going to work out.”

Freshwoman Zaria Dawkins, a journalism major noted that she came to Bennett for the sisterhood and does not want to lose that.

“There really is a sisterhood on campus. I’ve met a lot of good people here and I would hate to see it go down,” said Dawkins.

In addition to giving back to the community through student-led initiatives or community service projects, President Dawkins said the college contributes $36 million annually to the Greensboro economy. Leaders plan to submit financial documentation to SACS by February 1, in an effort to appeal the decision, and Dawkins will appear at an appeals hearing on February 18. There has been no discussion of a shutdown, according to Dawkins, but she noted the school may initiate a lawsuit if it loses the appeal.

While a school can still operate without accreditation, without it could mean losing access to federal grants and loans to cover student tuition, and could pose employment issues for students who have already earned a degree.

During the appeals process, Bennett will remain accredited by SACSCOC. However, the college isn’t just relying on donations. Dawkins said leaders will also reevaluate the school’s line of credit and look at restructuring assets in order to save the institution. Dawkins said she hopes the agency will see a successful fundraising campaign along with a supportive community.

“We are determined to do everything we can do to continue to graduate phenomenal women leaders,” said Dawkins.