Officials at Bennett College in Greensboro are racing to meet a Feb. 1 deadline to raise $5 million to convince their accrediting agency that the private, historically black college for women is financially sound. Last month, Bennett’s accreditation was revoked, based solely on financial shortcomings.
School officials have appealed that decision and remain accredited during the appeal process.
This past week, Bennett officials received two major boosts to its fundraising campaign. WFAE’s Gwendolyn Glenn discussed those donations and the state of Bennett’s fundraising efforts with “All Things Considered” host Mark Rumsey.
MARK RUMSEY: Gwen, before we get into the fundraising campaign, let’s get a sense of how the school ended up with its’ accreditation revoked.
GWENDOLYN GLENN: In 2016, Mark, Bennett was placed on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or SACS, for being out of compliance with the agency’s financial stability rules. There was concern about whether the school had enough finances to operate on a long-term basis. The school had budget deficits for seven of the last 11 years. Enrollment was down from a high of about 750 students to 465.
Bennett’s President Phyllis Dawkins says that represents a 16 percent increase from the previous year. She says they also have a budget surplus of more than $400,000 last year. But SACS officials wanted to see more progress, especially where fundraising is concerned.
Rumsey: Now, Bennett’s finances have been a cause for concern before right?
Glenn: Yes, its accreditation was also threatened in 2002. Dr. Johnetta Cole came to Bennett then from Spelman College in Atlanta — the country’s only other all-women’s historically black college — where she increased the school’s endowment five-fold. Cole raised more than $20 million in about two years.
After Cole left in 2007, fundraising lagged and today some Bennett students and alumnae blame the board’s chairman North Carolina Sen. Gladys Robinson for not being more aggressive in fundraising and have called for her resignation.
Rumsey: So, Bennett officials say this $5 million campaign is crucial to getting their accreditation reinstated. How is the campaign going?
Glenn: Well, last week the private, family-operated, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem donated $500,000 to help Bennett reach its goal. Also, Papa John’s pizza chain gave the school a $500,000 grant. That brings the campaign up to $2.7 million.
Officials with both organizations say they will push to get others around the country to give to Bennett. Now, I should mention that Papa John’s was in hot water with the African-American community this summer after the company’s founder, John Schnatter, used the N-word in a telephone conversation. He resigned as the company’s chairman shortly afterward and they’ve been trying to regain trust since.
Rumsey: Are Bennett officials expecting more large donations to come in and where are other contributions coming from?
Glenn: LaDaniel Gatling, the Bennett vice president who’s overseeing the campaign, says United Negro College Fund officials referred them to several large potential donors who they are waiting to hear from. Here Gatling talks about how former Bennett graduates are giving as well:
“38 percent of the money we’ve raised has come in from alumnae and they are beating the streets and doing what they can do to save their institution and keeping it alive.”
Glenn: Bennett has a twitter slogan of #STANDWITHBENNET that’s being reposted on people’s accounts all over social media and Gatling says a large portion of the donations have come from those online appeals, with amounts ranging from $1 to $10,000.
Rumsey: They’ve also received substantial donations from black sororities and fraternities and churches haven’t they?
Glenn: They have. Last week they say they received about $80,000 dollars from churches and more than $130,000 from fraternities and sororities. There seems to be a lot of energy picking up around the campaign off and on campus as the deadline nears. Students are wearing the #STANDWITHBENNETT t-shirts with the proceeds going to the campaign. President Dawkins and others say they are confident they will reach the $5 million goal.
Rumsey: In addition to fundraising concerns, what are SACS concerns?
GG: SACS officials won’t discuss specifics behind their concerns. President Dawkins says they have about $8 million in debt. They were able to get their federal loan debt, which they used to construct three buildings, deferred for six years without interest being accrued during that time. They say that deferment will give them time to do some cost cutting and implement a new business model and aggressive enrollment campaign. They also want to increase their $13 million endowment to about around $50 million. They say if they can do these things, investors should feel confident in investing in Bennett.
Rumsey: Feb. 18 is when they will have the appeal hearing before SACS. How is that looking?
Glenn: Mark, I talked to SACS Chief of Staff Larry Earvin who says any increase in financial resources will be a positive for Bennett when they go before the hearing committee elected by the SACS board. Earvin says a few schools that lost their accreditation solely due to finances have successfully appealed a SACS decision. Schools that lose their accreditation often close because they can no longer receive federal student loan money. Ninety-eight percent of Bennett’s students receive financial aid. Here’s President Dawkins speaking on their options if they lose in the appeal:
“If we are not successful we will sue SACS, enter into a lawsuit and they expect that and we will maintain our accreditation. We have applied to another accreditation body to ensure we are accredited by TRACS or SACS or both, transnational Association for Christian schools.”
Glenn: Bennett can apply to TRACS because they are a United Methodist college. I’d just add, Mark, that this effort to save Bennett has almost gone viral with national shows targeting African-Americans such as the Tom Joyner Show, Rickey Smiley and Roland Martin calling for donations.
Five HBCUs have closed in the past 30 years and others — such as Barber-Scotia in Concord — went down to about 50 students once they lost their accreditation. The HBCU community doesn’t want to see that happen to Bennett.