Bennett College in Greensboro is one of the last remaining women's HBCUs in the country, with a rich history of civil rights activism. For the past several years, the college has fought for its accreditation due to financial concerns. The school remains accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges while in legal proceedings as it simultaneously seeks alternate accreditation with the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools.
WFDD's Bethany Chafin spoke with President Suzanne Walsh about the school's financial future, uncertainty due to COVID-19, and its history of activism.
On Bennett College's role in the fight for racial justice:
I know that people are anxious for the college to make a specific statement, and I don't want to make a generic statement about what the role of Bennett College is at this time. What I started to think about over the last several days and watching what's going on around the country is I think that I continue to see a very important role that builds on our history and our legacy as an institution that's committed to racial and social justice, which is to continue to uplift the role of black women. I think that it's really important to remember that we stand in solidarity and support of protesters who are concerned about police brutality with the George Floyd situation.
But we also are very concerned about Breonna Taylor, whose name is getting lost sometimes in the discussions. It's so important for black women's voices to be heard, for the black woman's struggle to be uplifted and talked about. I think that's part of our role. I think another part of our role is to be part of those protests, to add our voice. Another role that we have is a role that we played back in the sit-ins in Greensboro. And that is to be the leaders in organizing and planning what happens when we leave the streets. So when the protests are done, who will emerge as the leaders?
On how Bennett College has adapted to the changes caused by COVID-19:
Part of what I had already been prepping the board for was [that] we will likely see a decline in enrollment for this coming fall — so, this was before the COVID conversations — given our current work in trying to stabilize the college in four key areas: business and finance, enrollment management, fixing our IT infrastructure, improving facilities. So when COVID-19 hit, it was not really that significant of a change for us because we already had been talking about [how] we will likely see a decline, we will see loss of revenue because, of course, we're tuition-driven. And so the things that really we had to focus on came out of those four pillars. All of the sudden, those four pillars were even more critical. And especially the one related to IT infrastructure.
On what enrollment for the fall looks like:
We're all being cautious because we don't have great numbers — any college or university at the moment — because many of us shifted the deadline for when deposits need to be made. And then even with that, given what's been happening within the country, not just related to COVID-19, but also with protests, I think that what we have to all be prepared for is that some families and some students will not be comfortable being too far away from home. And I think it's really going to depend on, 'What is the vibe of the country?' While HBCUs are places that are seen as safe havens for students, there's still the issue for parents and students of, 'But I've sent my child away. Can I get to my child if something happens? Can my child get home quickly?' And I think that that is playing into a very difficult set of predictions regarding enrollment for any institution.