I was heartbroken to learn today that Bennett College for Women, one of North Carolina’s jewels of higher education and an important institution within the universe of historically black colleges, had lost its accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges. While most HBCUs face extraordinary challenges with enrollment trends and financial management, I was certain that even the face of some difficult times, the institution would be able to reclaim its place as an irreplaceable resource for the career training of black women.
We need a school like Bennett to survive. It is the antidote for a society grappling with how to deal with some of the most vile traces of inhumanity in our national DNA; sexism, racism and classism. The women who enter Bennett and depart to lead are infused with a sense of personal excellence that extends in their roles as leaders in their careers, communities and homes.
Very few institutions can do what Bennett does for its graduates and the surrounding community; and you can tell just how important the college remains today in light of this harrowing news by the pouring out of affection and concern from thousands of stakeholders on social media and beyond.
Much in the way that black women face a ‘double whammy’ in the labor force because of their race and gender, historically black women’s colleges have faced the same issues. Spelman College is one of the nation’s best HBCUs, single-sex or co-ed, because it has been able to meld its mission with the growth of Atlanta’s metropolitan identity in culture and industry. It has benefited from stable leadership at the board and presidential levels, has fundraised well and created important partnerships with corporations and the federal government. While it has confronted its share of challenges, these factors have helped the school to grow exponentially over the last decade.
Bennett, without the backdrop of a major metropolitan city like Atlanta, has suffered in the wake of North Carolina’s proliferation of higher education. Greensboro, while developing its imprint as a destination for industry and society, is home to six colleges and universities and two of the state’s fastest growing public institutions in North Carolina A&T and UNC-Greensboro. The availability of scholarships and competitive programs for black women at these schools, combined with the flexibility to create undergraduate and graduate programs in competitive fields, created a nearly impossible equation for Bennett counter, even with all of its history and value.
Historically black colleges are at a perilous crossroads where their leaders must contend with very real issues of debt, student access, political acuity, technological change and intersections of learning and workforce development. Many of our campuses are up to the task of meeting these challenges, but are hindered by a clear lack of resources to adapt their campuses to a higher education market that is quickly becoming defined by sets of outcomes instead of lives changed.
Bennett faculty are committed and more than capable at producing esteemed graduates. Bennett alumnae give at levels that are extraordinary by any definition of alumni participation. Hopefully, college leaders will be able to make this case in an extended period of review and consideration as they formally appeal their accreditation status to SACS in the months ahead.
As a former president, I know what it is like to face sleepless nights in an accreditation review cycle. I know too well the feeling of having to explain to stakeholders the nuances of what accreditation warning and probation means, and working with staff and faculty for endless hours to pull an institution out of these classifications. And I know the joy associated with the work resulting in a full reaffirmation without recommendations.
We’ve lost too many institutions in too short of a period of time. Morris Brown, Saint Paul’s, and Concordia are just a few of the names which stand out to many of us whom have led institutions and who are able to visualize the answer to the question “what if?” What if the entire HBCU community pulled together to imagine how articulation agreements, shared resources and services, and partnerships amongst HBCUs could helps us to avoid this kind of heartbreaking news?
What if we could take a unique position on the concept of merging or consolidating smaller or struggling institutions with larger or more stable schools, instead of allowing outside stakeholders to influence the assets and wealth attached to our campuses, even before closure?
There is a way forward for Bennett and many of our HBCUs. I just pray that we can find it sooner than later.
Dr. Dianne Boardley Suber was the tenth president of Saint Augustine’s University.