Officials at four colleges announced the abrupt departure of their presidents last week — Marist, Muhlenberg, Auburn and, in North Carolina, Bennett College. Officials at the historically black college for women in Greensboro are not saying why Phyllis Worthy Dawkins is leaving or why the departure was effective on the day it was announced.
Dawkins served as Bennett’s president for three years and led the school’s successful fundraising campaign only four months ago that netted more than $9.5 million. The goal was to raise $5 million, needed to restore Bennett’s accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Dawkins led that charge and spoke of the need to revamp the school. She appeared on numerous local and national news shows in her appeals for support, such as NPR’s 1A program.
“The success of HBCUs is dependent on the size of the endowment,” Dawkins said on 1A. “We need people to contribute to the endowment, and then we just have to continue to get out there and beat the walls and continue to raise funds.”
School officials are not saying why Dawkins left, and why so abruptly. Usually outgoing college presidents remain in office for several months to pave the way for a smooth transition.
Nido Qubein, who is president of nearby High Point University, says he was shocked by Dawkins’ departure. His school gave Bennett nearly $1.5 million during the fundraising campaign. Qubein says he’s spoken with Dawkins but has no idea why she left Bennett.
“When I contacted her she was very professional and careful to say nice things back to me without divulging any information that would be injurious to anyone or the school,” Qubein said. “One has to surmise that they had a disagreement in direction and strategy and that’s what led to all of this.”
Bennett officials and board of trustee members contacted are mum about the reason for Dawkins’ departure. Gwendolyn O’Neal, a Bennett alumna, professor and college administrator, is the acting president.
Natalie Stewart Parker, president of the school’s national alumnae association, says she believes O’Neal will bring the level of calm and direction that students need.
“Here’s an opportunity for us to secure new leadership to bring us to the next phase of our story,” Parker said. “We’re still accredited by SACS. The question that’s really relevant for me is how do we maintain that and continue to operate as an organization while we go through the process of securing our future.”
Bennett was on probation for two years before SACS officials removed its accreditation in December amid concerns about the school’s long-term financial stability. Bennett officials filed a lawsuit against SACS, and the school will remain accredited as that legal process plays out. School officials have also applied for accreditation from the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools.
Parker says she believes those who gave small and sizeable donations to Bennett will continue to support the school and have confidence in its leadership. She says students and their parents have to believe that also in order for enrollment not to be affected. School officials say they expect to name a new president by the fall semester.