More than 70 percent of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities are accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC). As of this afternoon and pending a possible lawsuit, Bennett College for Women is no longer one of them.
This is a difficult blow for the HBCU community, and not for the obvious reasons like losing a second campus in two years and being at the forefront of other closures which will be coming in the next few years. It is because for more than a decade, we have seen this coming and pretended as if a combination of willpower and faith without good works would be enough to save our most vulnerable schools.
Bennett has many paths from which it can choose to survive as an accredited four-year campus. It can sue SACSCOC in order to maintain its accreditation through legal action. It can apply for accreditation through another organization, or it can merge with another institution.
These are paths that could and should have been taken years ago. All of us who have long been paying attention to the dramatic shifts and swings in higher education as an industry knew that after spending the better part of a decade on SACSCOC warning or probation for financial instability, Bennett’s survival would ultimately be tested and eventually succumb to the harsh reality of the changes.
But seemingly, most of the families who care deeply for Bennett were not aware of her great struggle, mostly because campus leaders never fully disclosed the great scope of danger to the public.
Millions secured over the course of a month were not enough to save Bennett in the eyes of SACSCOC – a reflection of the same judgment passed down over the years by students who chose other campuses for enrollment, donors who chose other charities for giving, and Bennett campus leaders who made choices beyond cutting budgets to meet enrollment challenges.
Bennett is not and has not been able to survive under the power of its own mission; that is, as a four-year campus dedicated to the education of black women. Bennett’s ranks of gloriously dedicated and accomplished alumnae simply do not have the wealth or the network to pull the college from the depth of its own debts and obligations. The city of Greensboro does not have a financial stake in the college surviving, as much as it has in being a college town with thriving campuses and growing industries around them.
In the weeks where it appeared national goodwill would empower Bennett to do the impossible, that goodwill built against the tragic irony that the one thing which gave this historic and important institution a fighting chance at life was the threat of imminent death. It was the only time that the public had any inclination that Bennett could very well cease to exist.
This secret and silent suffering is what is killing our HBCUs. The unwillingness of leaders to be honest about enrollment and finance, the lack of instinct from most boards of trustees and the severe unawareness of students and alumni leaves many of our schools to live and die based upon the work of a few people with all of the information, who inevitably turn to the community when their ideas and luck inevitably run out.
SACSCOC and its decision to expel Bennett from membership is not a cruel death blow to an undeserving school. This is the most severe symptom of the kind of struggle that with or without accreditation could lead Bennett and HBCUs like it to suddenly close their doors, and to displace employees and students who would have no alternative for their lives and careers.
Bennett as an institution and an idea deserves to live, but it also deserved our best efforts in preserving both. Our leaders failed to inform us, and we as stakeholders failed to demand the information.
Several HBCUs throughout the country will face a similar fate in short order. If we wish to save them, it is time to stop waiting on leaders to do what is best and to demand that we see what the plan for the best looks like; along with details about finances and leadership decisions.
A national campaign wasn’t enough to save Bennett. And because of that, heaven help every other school which will have to raise even more money from a goodwill-weary public which will wonder if it is still worth even trying to save these black colleges if their leaders can’t be trusted to tell us that they need to be saved.