Attending an HBCU tends to unlock one’s awareness about the other hundred or so HBCUs that you’re not attending. Some of us get to school and know the big name ones, but our football and basketball schedules put schools like Benedict College, Paine College, Lane College and Lemoyne-Owen College (to name a few) on the map. Such was the case for me after becoming a student at Morehouse College and learning that our sister school was not Spelman College but a school I’d never even heard of up I-85 North in Greensboro, N.C.—the other all-women’s HBCU, Bennett College.
While Spelman will always have my heart because of how vital it was to my college experience and because of the many Spelman women I call friends, I’ve long maintained love and admiration for Bennett, even if I only know a handful of women who graduated from there. And for that reason, I’ve been paying special attention to the recent news that Bennett College is facing financial and accreditation issues. According to Insider Higher Ed:
One of only two historically black colleges for women in the country approached the brink Tuesday when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges announced it intends to revoke Bennett College’s accreditation.
Bennett, a private institution in Greensboro, N.C., related to the United Methodist Church, had been on probation for two years. The college was out of compliance with its accreditor’s rules on financial resources, and its probation cannot be extended for a third year.
The college, which has undertaken significant cost-cutting and fund-raising efforts in an attempt to shore up its financial position, is appealing the decision. Its president, Phyllis Worthy Dawkins, told the News & Recordshe plans to make the college’s case at a Feb. 18 hearing.
The school is trying to raise $5 million by Feb. 1, 2019, and according to the school’s president, Dr. Phyllis Worthy Dawkins, the school has received an outpouring of support from other institutions such as Morehouse and Spelman. Even celebrities like Jussie Smollett have joined in to offer their support through awareness and visibility. To date (and according to the school’s donation graphic), it looks like the school has raised just under $1.5 million towards its cause.
Now this entire conversation and cause brings up a few issues we need to address in the HBCU community, but chief among them: Should we save every HBCU that is struggling enough to be on the brink of closure? I’m not so sure that answer is a straightforward yes.
Back in 2002, Morris Brown College, then one-fifth of the Atlanta University Center, and the one HBCU in the AUC that was actually founded by black people, lost its accreditation (and federal funding) after years of financial mismanagement. I remember at one point the school needed something like $23-plus million to right the ship. It never happened. I always found that perplexing, too. While Morris Brown didn’t necessarily carry the same name recognition as Morehouse, Spelman or Howard University, it was still an HBCU of some renown, and much like Bennett College, its role in history was often cited as a reason to save the school.
Despite national attention, I don’t remember any large-scale financial support from anybody. To be fair, $23 million is a lot to overcome, but I also wondered if the lack of financial support was because keeping a school open and preventing it from closing are two entirely different problems. And any struggling school would have to deal with that conundrum. Maybe those who could help figured that the money needed to keep the doors open wasn’t going to be enough to do so permanently. You can rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, but it’s still the Titanic. Morris Brown College is still unaccredited and has about 40 students in attendance.
While the de facto loss of Morris Brown was a tremendous blow to the HBCU landscape, I do wonder if it prevented a population of students from attending school, a narrative we tend to sell when our schools are struggling. More likely those students went to other HBCUs. And really, with the issues they were having, those students’ degrees would have been in jeopardy the entire time they were there. I can’t imagine hoping that my degree means something when I graduate.
As a matter of principle, I want Bennett College to be saved because all HBCUs are important. The education we get there is unparalleled, especially in today’s climate. Being in an environment that allows us to live unapologetically and proudly in our blackness while being educated is empowering. Does that mean that all the HBCUs must be saved for that goal to be achieved? No. And I hope Bennett isn’t hoping to kick the can down the road should it reach its fundraising goal.
While I hate the idea of any HBCU having to close its doors for financial reasons, or any other reason, really, my biggest concern, and one that I think all HBCUs need to grapple with, is their vitality for the long haul. I hope that the $5 million Bennett needs, should it raise the money, puts it into position to remain fully accredited and continue to educate the women who will become Bennett Belles. As a matter of course though, Bennett, just like most HBCUs, has to wrestle with whether or not it has the ability or the cache to continue to perform a mission it has done so well since 1926 as a women’s college. I hope so. I really do.
I #StandWithBennett, and I’ll even support it financially. And I hope that Bennett is able to stand on its own in the aftermath.