Facing Loss Of Accreditation Over Finances, Women's HBCU Raises Millions

Feb 17, 2019
Originally published on February 18, 2019 5:18 pm

For one of the nation's only historically black colleges for women, this week will be crucial for survival.

On Monday, Bennett College, in Greensboro, N.C., will argue its case for maintaining its accreditation at a hearing before the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, or SACS.

Bennett has been on probation for two years due to financial instability — SACS does not offer a third year of probation, so Bennett's hearing will either result in its probation being lifted, or the loss of its accreditation. Revocation would cut off Bennett's access to federal funds, which would all but certainly close the school.

Representatives for Bennett plan to argue at the hearing that the school has secured the funds necessary to maintain its accreditation, its president, Phyllis Worthy Dawkins, told Michel Martin in an interview for NPR's All Things Considered.

In December, SACS voted to strip Bennett of its accreditation because the school failed to demonstrate "sound financial resources" and a "stable financial base to support the mission of the institution and the scope of its programs and services." Bennett appealed the decision.

"We were only called on one standard ... and that standard is on financial resources," Dawkins said. "They did not question the quality of our academic programs, the credentials of our faculty and staff, or the leadership on our campus."

In response to the SACS decision, Bennett launched a fundraising campaign aimed at raising $5 million. A #StandWithBennett campaign went viral on social media, thanks in part, Dawkins said, to support from celebrities like Jussie Smollett and his family. Donations soon began to pour in.

"[W]e've raised at least ... over $8.2 million that we announced on February 4th," Dawkins said. Since then, the total has risen to $8.7 million, she said.

Dawkins is depending on this appeal to overturn the agency's decision.

"We will win this appeal. We will remain accredited, as we are accredited right now," Dawkins explains.

But if their revocation is sustained, there is a contingency plan. Dawkins said the college is working to secure accreditation from a second body, the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. The association is smaller than SACS, but is recognized by the Department of Education — meaning the college would still be eligible for federal funding.

Bennett College's financial woes aren't dissimilar to those faced by other historically black colleges and universities, which are notoriously underfunded. In December, Saint Augustine University, just 80 miles east in Raleigh, was removed from probation after demonstrating to SACS that it had addressed its financial concerns.

Bennett is now hoping for a similar successful outcome in order to preserve one of the nation's seminal institutions in educating black women. Dawkins understands this.

"Women's institutions, HBCUs, need to continue to thrive and survive into the future," she said.

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There are only two historically black women's colleges in the U.S. One of them, Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C., has been facing a loss of accreditation because of shaky finances, and that would lead to a loss of federal funding among other consequences. An appeals hearing before an accreditation board is scheduled for tomorrow. But, going into the hearing, Bennett has some good news to report. After launching a social media campaign at the beginning of this month, Bennett exceeded its goal and raised some $8.7 million. The president of Bennett, Phyllis Worthy Dawkins, told me how the fundraising took off.

PHYLLIS WORTHY DAWKINS: We came up with this slogan - stand with Bennett. And then we secured the Smollett family - Jussie, Jess (ph) and Jake - to wear our T-shirts and to post it on social media via Twitter, Instagram. And really, that really platformed us into national prominence. And so, to this end, we have had a number of supporters from faith-based groups, sororities and fraternities, corporations, foundations - even high school students, elementary kids, a variety of different people coming out to support Bennett College.

MARTIN: So this week, you're going to argue your case for accreditation to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. And, as we noted, that accreditation, you know, matters. I mean, without it, perhaps the student - the graduates' degrees will not be recognized by other institutions if they want to go on to graduate work - and not to mention the federal funding. So what is going to be your argument, if you don't mind giving us a bit of a preview?

DAWKINS: Right. The biggest argument is that we were only called on one standard out of 90 to 95 standard, and that standard is on financial resources or financial stability. We were not called on any other standards. They did not question the quality of our academic programs, the credentials of our faculty and staff or the leadership on our campus. We were only called on financial resources. And, according to the sanction, we can introduce new financial funds to support our appeal case on this Monday.

MARTIN: If you don't win this appeal, what's next?

DAWKINS: We will win the appeal - trying to stay very positive about that. We will win this appeal. But - and we will remain accredited, as we are accredited right now. But, at the same time, we are also seeking another accreditation called TRACS to ensure that we are accredited, whether we are accredited by SACS or by TRACS.

MARTIN: How would people know Bennett? I mean, if people are not familiar with the area, or perhaps they don't have kids who are headed to college or young women who are headed for college, how would they know Bennett? I mean, I know that certainly Greensboro is an historic area, plays a - certainly an important role in the civil rights movement. I mean, give us a sense of how people would know Bennett.

DAWKINS: Well, Bennet was a part of the civil rights movement. And Bennett students promote social justice, and they're also heavily engaged in civic activities. Bennett's history in terms of social justice dates back to 1937, when they protested the Carolina Theatre. And then Bennet was also known in 1958. We hosted Martin Luther King on our campus when other schools turned him away because of potential conflicts at that time. And then, in 1960, when the North Carolina freshman students sat in at the Woolworth's counter, Bennett women were behind the planning of that event.

And so Bennett's history is rich in social justice and civic engagement, located in Greensboro, N.C. And in North Carolina, there are 10 HBCUs, and Bennett is the first all-women's institution among the HBCUs - the other one being Spelman. So Bennett has a rich history of contributions to the Greensboro community and to the U.S.

MARTIN: That was Phyllis Worthy Dawkins, president of Bennett College.

President Dawkins, thank you so much for talking with us.

DAWKINS: And thank you.

MARTIN: Now, you just heard President Dawkins mention that the family of actor Jussie Smollett helped jumpstart Bennett College's fundraising campaign. A quick update on the other Jussie Smollett story in the news. Police have released without charge two men arrested in connection with an alleged attack against Smollett due to new evidence. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.