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Bennett College President Optimistic About School's Future Despite Low Enrollment

Suzanne Walsh
Bennett College
Suzanne Walsh, president of Bennett College.

Enrollment has dropped significantly at Bennett College in Greensboro amid its fight to remain accredited. Only about 300 students are enrolled at the historically black school for women, down from about 470 in 2018 and nearly 800 in 2009. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission [SACS] denied renewal of Bennett’s accreditation in 2018 citing unstable finances.

The school responded by raising more than $8 million, but SACS did not renew the accreditation appeal. The school is still accredited as school officials appeal the decision in court. They are also seeking accreditation from the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges or TRACS. Bennett President Suzanne Walsh, who took office six months ago, says she’s not overly concerned about the drop in enrollment.

Suzanne Walsh: I think it's expected to see enrollment declines. What I'm excited about is in the fall we welcomed 88 new students for the spring, we welcomed seven new students, which I know may be compared to large public universities doesn't sound like large numbers, but for us that's significant. It shows that there's still an interest and a market for the kind of education that Bennett College offers, especially for women of color.

Gwendolyn Glenn: And where does the accreditation issue stand now?

Walsh: We're still accredited by SACS and our litigation continues. Its slow-moving, which civil lawsuits tend to be. And at the same time, we're making really strong progress with TRACS.

Glenn: Well, what's taking so long for the TRACS application process? Because I know last year we were told that you guys were applying.

Walsh: The effort to really start the application process just started this fall. There are multiple steps to becoming accredited by TRACS. So it's not just you throw in an application and you're done. You have to gather quite a bit of evidence they call it, so documentation and evidence, that takes awhile. So we're steadily going on that path, but we don't control every aspect of the process. So I don't have a timeline for you in terms of when will it all be done. 

Glenn: So when you're recruiting students, these are the things that parents, I'm sure, want to know. What do you tell them to make them feel comfortable sending their students to Bennett?

Walsh: I just remind them that we're still accredited by SACS and we're on a path to accreditation with TRACS. There's something about this place that still is exciting and attracts students and we're trying to capitalize on that.

Glenn: Have you had to have any staff cuts, fewer instructors, fewer adjuncts?

Walsh: There were a number of cuts that were made before I arrived. And then we've had some people leave recently that have better opportunities at other places. But we haven't thus far, since I've arrived, made those cuts. 

Glenn: What about buildings and dorms? Have any been shut down since the accreditation has been an issue on the campus?

Walsh: This academic year, we have not closed any residence halls compared with last year. It's the same number of residence halls and academic buildings. 

Glenn: Are all of them still being used? 

Walsh: Correct. And we haven't taken any buildings offline. All the same buildings are being used as the previous academic year. 

Glenn: Now, I read somewhere earlier that the school was trying to get a memorandum of understanding with other schools for the worst-case scenario in case the school sometime in the future would lose its accreditation. How is that going? And what does that look like?

Walsh: I’ve had individual meetings with colleague presidents from around this area, which is where I'm starting with North Carolina. We are starting to map out what that memorandum of understanding would look like with those institutions. And so I think we're making good progress. I think the generosity of presidents and chancellors in this area is just unbelievable. And their willingness to say, "Absolutely, we're willing to enter into some sort of an M.O.U. for your students." If the worst-case scenario were to happen, I think it is tremendous. 

Glenn: Let me ask you this: Looking at the future of Bennett, we've seen so many historically black colleges and universities close and people are talking about that being a possibility for Bennett. How are you feeling realistically about its survival, given the drop in enrollment, given the appeals process that you're going through and the other application? What does the survivability of Bennett look like?

Walsh: I think that what's really important is that there is a role for Bennett College, an important role for Bennett College in the 21st century. And our job is to figure out how we very clearly convey that and that we continue to attract women of color who are interested in being leaders in their field, who are interested in social justice, who are committed to civil rights. And it's our job to be able to convey that this is a great place to get that kind of training.

Glenn: Are these still some of your cream-of-the-crop students? Because Bennett was known to attract students, many of whom were at the top of their class. And that's what I was wondering, if you were still getting that caliber of students?

Walsh: We still do. I mean, a majority of our students, they have very high GPAs. We have valedictorians and we have salutatorians. But we also have students who, much like myself, were not at the top of their class in high school, but have incredible potential.