Bennett College in Greensboro lost its appeal in an effort to save its accreditation in February. The decision came as a surprise to many after the women's HBCU completed a massively successful fundraising campaign called Stand with Bennett. Today, the College remains accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges while in legal proceedings as it seeks alternate accreditation with the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, or TRACS. Leading the way is the school's new president, Suzanne Walsh. WFDD's Bethany Chafin spoke with Walsh about her new position and the school's future.
On what drew her to Bennett College:
It's the opportunity of, in some ways, a lifetime to be able to work with a college that is at a really important and exciting juncture. So, this is a place that has a rich history; everyone in the community knows it. But the other thing about this place is it's ready for change. And there are a number of people — students, faculty, and staff — who are saying, 'Yeah, what does the future look like?' I'm one of those people who loves to live in the future and to think about the future. I also really love uncovering possibilities and looking for hidden gems. And so far, this job has been a lot about finding the hidden gems whether it's on campus or out in the community.
On the student dialogue surrounding accreditation:
I think it probably mirrors the accreditation conversations by their parents, [the conversations] in [the] public, [among] our faculty. It took us a while to be able to say there are three things you need to know about accreditation. Number one, we're still accredited. That takes a lot of wind, you know, out of those arguments where people are nervous. So that's been really important. And I think that that's very helpful. [Also,] understanding we're still working through a legal process, and we're looking at alternatives.
And also there's sort of a fourth thing that we've added to the list, which is this semester I'm exploring opportunities for us to set up a memorandum of understanding with other institutions in the area so that if there is a worst-case scenario we have situations already set up for our students. So, once folks understand those three to four things, they say OK and then we kind of move on because we have so many other things to work on. And then the only other thing I'd say is we're heads down just working on the pieces of the application that we need to for TRACS [Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools].
On her past work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation where she highlighted partnerships among post-secondary institutions:
There is not an institution in the country that can survive on its own in the 21st century and especially not Bennett College. So part of that reinvention or reimagination for me is about, who are the right partners? And those partners could be other higher ed institutions. Also, the opportunity is there to work with businesses in the community, with county, city, [and] state government. There are a lot of opportunities in North Carolina and with our Stand with Bennett campaign. We learned how many folks really care deeply about this institution. There's not a shortage of partnerships. I think what we have to figure out is the prioritization and the order in which we can enter into those partnerships, but it will be key to our success moving forward.
On current and future enrollment numbers at Bennett College:
First of all, I keep saying that our smallness is our strength, and I'm not just saying that to be cliché or to avoid the question. What I love about being here is I was able to shake every single hand of each of the 88 freshwomen as they entered into the college and every single one of the 50 Middle College high school freshwomen as they entered into the college. You don't get to do that everywhere. Amongst our 88 freshwomen for the college, we have seven transfer students. That's significant because as we think about future recruitment, transfer students are really important to us. We have changed our approach. We will be recruiting for the spring. We also have a thing called the "mini-mester" which is here in October. Students can begin a new academic year with us in October. And so we're recruiting for that. We haven't traditionally done that. Our overall enrollment is 298. I think that's the right size for where we are. We expected it to be down because of everything that's going on. But it's the right size when you're trying to figure out how we go through some change management to stabilize.