The public face of Bennett College’s impassioned fight to stay alive is no longer the president of the historic school for African American women in Greensboro.
In jarring turn late on Friday afternoon, the school’s trustees suddenly announced in a news release that Phyllis Worthy Dawkins was “leaving her position as of today.”
It didn’t take much reading between the lines to suspect that this was not a mutual decision. Dawkins, who has led the tiny college’s struggles to stay accredited, seemed as surprised as the rest of us. “Give me time to digest what happened today,” she said in a text Friday to the News & Record’s John Newsom.
Dawkins was appointed as Bennett’s president in 2017 after serving for one year on an interim basis. And while she may be neither a gifted speaker nor a charismatic presence, she has been a force to be admired. She was earnest, steadfast and relentless in doing whatever it took to keep Bennett going. On her watch, the school’s finances and enrollment had improved over the last two years.
As for why Dawkins is leaving, nobody is saying. School officials cordially thanked her for her service and said goodbye.
The release did acknowledge what may be Dawkins’ most remarkable achievement: Bennett raised more than $9.2 million over less than two months in an emergency fundraising campaign.
The school had been placed on probation in 2016 by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges because of its tenuous finances, which the accrediting agency had felt were not sustainable over the long term. But even after Bennett’s impressive campaign surpassed all expectations, the commission was unmoved.
The commission denied Bennett’s appeal. Bennett sued, and was allowed to keep its accreditation while the federal lawsuit runs it course.
Bennett, a Methodist school, also is seeking accreditation from a second entity, the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, whose focus is religiously affiliated schools.
So, Bennett’s path remains uncertain. And Dawkins’ departure, for whatever reason, adds yet another challenge.
Bennett has seen seven presidents since the year 2000: Gloria Scott, Althia Collins, Johnnetta Cole, Julianne Malveaux, Esther Terry, Rosalind Fuse-Hall and Dawkins. Collins served for one year, as did Terry. Fuse-Hall served for three years.
At a time when an air of stability would be helpful, Bennett’s top leadership keeps changing, sometimes at a dizzying pace. And how the public perceives those changes could affect both fundraising and enrollment.
Stepping into a role as interim president is Bennett alumna Gwendolyn O’Neal, a retired professor and former chair of UNCG’s consumer, apparel and retail studies department.
A permanent president is expected to be hired before the fall term begins, which is not a lot of time. For all of its rewards, this is a hard job made that much harder by the extraordinary circumstances.
We wish Bennett only the best; it is one of only two historically black women’s colleges in the nation, and its proud history is tightly interwoven with Greensboro’s.
But these are critical times. The school’s trustees will need to hire very fast ... and very well.