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Education

2 Organizations Donate To Bennett, Bringing College Closer To Goal

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Bennett College in Greensboro struggles to raise $5 million to help re-establish the historically black women's college's accreditation

Updated: 5:20 p.m.

Two major donations have brought Greensboro's Bennett College more than halfway to the $5 million goal officials say they need in their efforts to have their accreditation reinstated.

The Winston-Salem based Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation announced a $500,000 donation to the college Thursday. Papa John’s officials also donated $500,000 to the private historically black college for women Wednesday. Officials with both say they hope their contributions will spur other individuals to also make donations to help the college.

Last month, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or SACS, revoked Bennett’s accreditation, citing low enrollment and unstable finances for its decision. School officials appealed that decision and will present their case to a hearing committee Feb. 18. Bennett’s accreditation is still intact during the appeal process. 

Originally Published: 5 a.m. 

With its accreditation on the line, officials at Greensboro-based Bennett College face a Feb. 1 deadline to raise $5 million in order to convince their accrediting agency that the private historically black college for women is financially sound.

Bennett officials were informed last month that its accreditation was revoked because of financial shortcomings.

Bennett’s president, Phyllis Worthy Dawkins, said, "Right now we are accredited."

Bennett was placed on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or SACS, in 2016 for not complying with the organization’s financial stability rules.

Then came last month’s decision to revoke Bennett’s accreditation. School officials appealed.

During the appeal process, Bennett will maintain its accreditation. School officials believe raising $5 million will sway SACS in their favor, but Dawkins said only $1.7 million had been raised so far.

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Bennett College in Greensboro is one of the nation's two historically colleges for women

"It’s stressful but I feel confident we will reach the $5 million goal," Dawkins said.

According to Dawkins, HBCU officials, alumni, churches and people across the country are sending in donations ranging from a few dollars to $100,000. In the past week, online calls for help from black fraternities and sororities have netted more than $130,000.

"We’re asking people and organizations and foundations to stretch their giving," Dawkins said, "And I think a lot will come in at the last minute because people have to meet with their boards and then flow the money into the institution."

Related Story: Bennett College On The Verge Of Closing, Former President Says Broad Standards Are To Blame

According to LaDaniel Gatling, a Bennett vice president who is overseeing the fundraising campaign, they are also asking for large donations from corporations referred to them by the United Negro College Fund, which provided references as to Bennett’s financial soundness.

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Bennett College President Phyllis Worth Dawkins, a graduate and former Dean at Johnson C. Smith University

"No one said no, so that’s always a good sign," Gatling said. "So what we’re against now is just time. Many of these asks are situations where people are doing their due diligence and having all questions answered to make a decision to invest in Bennett. If we get one or two of those large asks to come through, we’ll be in good shape."

A lot of Bennett’s funding comes from tuition.

Enrollment was close to 800 students ten years ago. It stands at 465 now, up 16 percent from last year. If Bennett’s accreditation is not reinstated, it would lose all of its federal student loan money — which 98 percent of students receive — and face potential closure.

Over the last 11 years, school officials say they had budget surpluses for four years and ran deficits in seven. Last year’s surplus was more than $400,000.

"You can have a surplus but still not be in a favorable cash position when it comes to operating the college long term," Gatling said. "SACS would want us to have enough cash in hand, access to cash to be able to operate the institution for multiple years."

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LaDaniel Gatling, vice president of Institutional Advancement at Bennett College

President Dawkins said Bennett’s current endowment is $13 million, but her new strategic plan calls for it to increase fourfold. Debt that needs to be paid now stands at about $8 million.

Additional federal loans received through the HBCU Capital Financing program have been deferred by the education department for six years, with no interest accrued during that time. Gatling said that will give school officials time to stabilize financially and implement cost-cutting plans. He said that that, coupled with the $5 million campaign, will put them in better standing with SACS.

"Bennett has been here before, so now we have to demonstrate to our investors that it won’t be the same thing over again. We have got to answer the question about how we will be different going forward," Gatling said. "It is not business as usual. There will be change."

A lot of students around Bennett’s campus wear t-shirts with a fundraising logo that reads #StandWithBennett. Proceeds from the t-shirt sales go to the campaign.

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Bennett College students Constance Staley and Jamie Rose proudly wear their #StandWithBennett t-shirts. All proceeds for the shirt sales go to the fundraising campaign

"I have two," said Jamie Rose.

"My mom bought five," Constance Staley chimed in.

"I have 11 in my family. My whole family bought them when they came out," said senior Brook Ashley Kane. "They were Christmas gifts."

"It’s like when you see #StandWithBennett, it's bam, in your face, a good idea," Staley added.

Kane, the reigning Miss Bennett, said students are proud to see college officials fight for the 146-year-old institution’s survival and are getting involved.

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Senior Brook Kane, the reigning Miss Bennett, says she is proud to be a 'Bennett Belle' and is confident the school will meet its' fundraising goal of $5 million

"Students are trying to think of ways on their part even if can’t give money, 'Can I write a letter to Beyoncé [or] the Obamas and tell them why I feel my school needs to be saved?'" Kane said.

Senior Constance Staley said her feelings about Bennett have not changed but said a few students have talked of leaving out of fear that the school will close.

"In those moments, we sit and talk about it and be honest with each other," Staley said. "But most of the time, we encourage students to stay because we are still accredited and I believe everything will be okay."

Down the hall, Robert Kinzer, a Maryland-based financial expert, was finishing up a seminar. He said that with all of the chatter nationally about Bennett’s struggle, he’s surprised they are behind on their goal.

"I know there are individuals as well as institutions that drop $5 million for a product for a short period and I’m shocked they haven’t raised that money because a lot of people know the history of Bennett college and what they trying to do: support women. It’s sad someone is not stepping up to pay it," Kinzer said. "I want to believe someone will step up."

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Conducting a seminar at Bennett, financial expert Robert Kinzer of Maryland says he is surprised that someone has not given Bennett the money it needs to reclaim its' accreditation

Bennett has received fundraising help from The Tom Joyner and Rickey Smiley shows, both nationally syndicated radio shows targeting African Americans.

Dawkins said that if they don’t reach their goal, they might liquidate some of the school’s assets.

"It’s not popular to do, but we’re looking at some of our art and some of our land by Feb. 1," Dawkins said. "We don’t want to go either route, but we’d rather save Bennett than the land or a piece of art on the wall."

Bennett’s appeal hearing is Feb. 18. If the school loses its appeal, Dawkins said they will sue SACS. She’s confident the school can keep its accreditation during that process.

Bennett is a United Methodist College. Dawkins said that as a backup, they have applied for accreditation through the Transnational Association for Christian Schools.