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After Losing Appeal, Bennett College Seeks Alternate Accreditation

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you tuned in last weekend, you may remember our conversation with Phyllis Worthy Dawkins, the president of Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C. The school, one of two remaining historically black women's colleges in the country, has been struggling financially but just pulled off an eye-popping fundraising drive. This past week, the college made its case to maintain its accreditation. Bethany Chafin of member station WFDD tells us what happened.

BETHANY CHAFIN, BYLINE: Last Friday was a big day for Bennett College. It was announced that the school lost its appeal to save its accreditation. Within hours, though, Bennett revealed it was filing a lawsuit against the accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or SACS. During these legal proceedings, Bennett will remain accredited. President Phyllis Worthy Dawkins says the community is experiencing mixed emotions right now.

PHYLLIS WORTHY DAWKINS: The students, faculty and staff and alumni are taking it hard and rightfully so. We need to give them space to internalize that, yes, it's bad news and good news on the same day. We are accredited, and we need to give them that time to vent their frustrations.

CHAFIN: Bennett has been fighting the accreditation battle since 2016, when it was put on probation due to a lack of financial resources. The school has struggled with declining enrollment, and as a private institution, it's heavily dependent on incoming tuition. Instead of taking the school off of probation in December of 2018, SACS voted to remove Bennett's accreditation. The school appealed the decision.

To strengthen its case, the college mounted a giant fundraising effort called Stand With Bennett. The campaign gained national attention and ultimately raised more than $9 million, well over the goal of 5 million. School officials also outlined other steps forward, including a five-year strategic plan. The mood was upbeat when final fundraising numbers came in. Many thought this would be enough to convince the creditors, but it wasn't.

In Friday's decision, the appeals committee said Bennett had failed to show resources that demonstrate a stable financial base. The lawsuit doesn't come as too much of a surprise. President Phyllis Worthy Dawkins had said throughout the appeals process that if the school lost, it would pursue legal action. Board of Trustees chair and State Senator Gladys Robinson says the fight is worth it and so is a Bennett education.

GLADYS ROBINSON: I know what it does for young women in terms of building self-esteem, in terms of teaching them how to move broadly across a spectrum of people and issues, et cetera.

CHAFIN: Meanwhile, Bennett College is seeking alternate accreditation. For NPR News, I'm Bethany Chafin in Greensboro, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.