Bennett President to Resign

Rosalind Fuse-Hall is the latest executive casualty of an industry in danger and a culture in crisis.

Rosalind Fuse-Hall is the latest executive casualty of an industry in danger and a culture in crisis.

Three months ago, Bennett College President Rosalind Fuse-Hall was on a roll. Alumnae of the 143-year-old institution had just given more than $700,000 in support of scholarships and capacity building at the school, and the college was six months removed from announcing a new partnership with Wells Fargo Advisors to train women for the financial sector.

Next week, she will step down as president after three years at the helm of an institution with $29 million in economic impact to the State of North Carolina, and generations of social and professional impact on thousands of women around the world.

She says she’s leaving to pursue opportunities. Industrial wisdom tells the observer that probably, she’s being forced to resign. The reasons aren’t secret — Bennett’s double burden as a historically black college for women has been heavy to carry in the swirling changes in higher education.

Black women, one of the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic groups in terms of educational access, have the largest cross-section of college choice, scholarship opportunities, and statistical probability of completing college on time and getting a job. Cruelly and bluntly, they no longer need Bennett College to stand in the gap for their professional development.

The heart wants to ache for that stinging reality, but the head makes a difficult case against it. Sweet Briar College, a predominantly white women’s liberal arts college in rural Virginia, tried to close last year but had its doors pried open by stubborn alumnae, who raised money, sued the board of trustees, and literally traveled to campus to rehab facilities and to recruit new students.

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First, they (alumnae) kept the college open by pledging $28.5 million in 110 days and delivering $12 million by Sept. 2, 2015.

This year, they raised $10.25 million to help cover costs incurred by the near-closure.

And it’s not just money. Our alumnae staffed 400 college fairs this year. They come to campus in the hot summer in overalls to paint, hammer and weed as they maintain historic buildings and gardens. They even rallied enough votes for Sweet Briar to win the national online Sports Illustrated mascot contest.

This year, our community was forced to adapt to extraordinary circumstances. But adapting is crucial to thriving in a higher education marketplace dominated by a single question: What will tuition money buy?

And that’s the biggest question facing Bennett and so many HBCUs: how to adapt to the new industrial imperative of higher education? If our graduates, who are comparatively low in number even against schools like Sweet Briar, and who don’t have transformational wealth to donate millions in a span of weeks, is there anything that suggests oblivion can just be sidestepped?

If we don’t have the vision to amend or create programs that attract research funding, top high school students and corporate partnerships, are we maintaining tradition or singing our own funeral dirges disguised as school songs and hymns?

Bennett has faced accreditation warning three times since 2000, cited each time for financial issues. Six presidents have guided the institution over that same period, and following a peak in 2010, enrollment at the school has plummeted following the Pell Grant/PLUS Loan Crisis of 2011.

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And now, with just over 10 days before the start of the fall semester, circumstances and culture have claimed another HBCU president, pushing the total number of black college presidential transitions to near 40 over the last two years.

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You can only hope for Bennett, and other HBCUs to survive the economic and political onslaughts which threaten, according to some estimates, more than a third of our four-year institutions with extinction.

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But even if they survive today, it is only for the tormenting delay of an inevitable truth: America doesn’t want HBCUs, and the niche groups in Black America willing to send their children and gifts to schools like Bennett aren’t large enough to save them.