‘Our smallness is our strength’: A Q&A with Suzanne Walsh, the new Bennett College president
GREENSBORO — Suzanne Walsh has one of the shortest commutes in Greensboro.
The new Bennett College leader lives in the president’s house, which sits across the street from the main campus quad. If no one’s around, it takes her about 5 minutes to walk two blocks to her office.
Most days, she said, she needs closer to 30. Students want to talk. The neighbors want to chat. Passers-by want a word. Some people even want selfies with Bennett’s 19th president.
“Every morning it’s a cast of characters that I get to interact with,” Walsh said in an interview this week. “And it makes it fun.”
All eyes are on Walsh as she leads the effort to re-invent the troubled 146-year-old private institution. Enrollment declines led to budget woes that triggered accreditation problems. Even after a wildly successful fundraising campaign earlier this year, Bennett had to file a lawsuit in February to hold onto its accreditation. Four months later, the college parted ways with its president.
Enter Walsh, who becomes the fourth president of this women’s college in seven years. Though this is her first job at a four-year institution, Walsh comes to higher education from the foundation world, where much of her work focused on reforming colleges and universities.
In a 45-minute interview Wednesday with News & Record higher education reporter John Newsom, Walsh talked about enrollment, fundraising, accreditation, esports, Bennett’s future and several other topics. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start with a burning question: Why did you take the job?
I knew about Bennett College for a really long time because I’ve been working in higher ed for over 20 years. In my work with foundations, HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) have been a part of my work for a long time. … I’ve been following struggling HBCUs, and I was keeping an eye out for Bennett because its Stand with Bennett campaign was one of the most public (fundraisers) at a national level.
But you had no experience working at a four-year college until now.
I think that is the absolute initial reaction, even for me. Huh, can I do this? But I get calls all the time — I’ve for years had calls to take presidencies. There’s something about the way that the universe sees people who work in foundations. It seems like a natural move.
Not every presidency is interesting to me. In fact, none of them are interesting to me. But what made this particularly intriguing was that when I was first asked about it, I said that I’m not interested in saving Bennett. I’m interested in re-imagining or re-inventing Bennett. That didn’t run anybody off.
I do like a challenge. This is a challenge that’s really important in terms of where we are, not just with higher education but also in terms of race and social justice and civil rights. What an opportunity to be able to re-imagine Bennett College for women of color who aspire to leadership.
The Bennett Re-Engineering Committee turned in its report earlier this month. You called it “tough love.” Explain that.
What I appreciated very much about it is that there are tough messages in there — nothing that was not already on my radar. … What was important was they didn’t shy away from tough issues. They didn’t shy away from coming back and saying, There are things to work on.
I feel like there was a little fear in the community that this (report) was going to come back and not really have a set of recommendations that were going to be as forthcoming. Finance being No. 1 — that’s not a shock. They didn’t just say that finances needed to be fixed. … It has very thoughtful information. They’ve done their research, they’ve looked at the data and then they offered examples. They offered resources to say, Here’s where to look.
I think that’s from a place of love. They could have written a very critical report and not included any helpful ideas.
What is Bennett’s accreditation situation?
We’re still accredited. We continue to work with the courts to resolve our issues with SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges). We’re also pursuing TRACS (Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools). It’ll probably be in 2020, but we’re still finalizing our timeline. There are visits and so forth. … It’s a lot of work.
What the general public really doesn’t understand is that TRACS and SACS are so similar. Standard for standard, there’s only a difference of four standards. (TRACS accreditation) is just as rigorous. It just has some flexibility in it that SACS does not have. If we were to receive TRACS accreditation, we would have the ability to work on some new academic programs that we cannot work on when we’re on probation with SACS.
You mentioned the Stand with Bennett campaign earlier. What did the college do with the money?
First of all, I have to keep thanking everybody. What an incredible campaign — $9.5 million in 60 days. That was made up of 16,000 individual donations, a majority of which were under $100. I love how that shows the interest and the commitment to Bennett College. That means folks are interested and committed to figure out now what.
Those dollars were perfect for helping us to gain a level of stability at that moment in time, which was absolutely needed. Those dollars also were incredibly helpful for helping to retire some of the debt. And then there was a very nice portion of that for scholarships.
It was tremendously helpful. We wouldn’t be here today without that.
Is there another fundraising campaign on the horizon?
We’re almost ready (to start one). I need to get through a few more things. I want to give a set of priorities that are consistent with that vision of re-imagining and re-invention. I think that investing in that future vision is what people are looking for.
As somebody who used to be on the other side (in foundations), the conversations I wanted to have were, where are you going? What are you thinking about? And what makes you so sure you can get there?
I came in with a set of ideas but until I looked around to say, do we have the capability to do that, is that really an opportunity, is that the most important opportunity — I’m almost done with that. It will be coming soon.
How many students are enrolled at Bennett this fall?
I keep saying, Our smallness is our strength. I really do mean that because when you’re in a position like the one we’re in, I think it’s really important to be small so we can be as nimble as possible.
What I delighted in this year was getting to shake hands with every single freshwoman coming across the stage (at convocation). We had 88 freshwomen — that includes seven transfer students. I also got to shake the hand of every single incoming freshwoman in the Middle College (a Guilford County Schools specialized high school based on the Bennett campus). That’s 50 Middle College students.
Our total enrollment is 298 (undergraduates). We expected it to be down given what’s happened in the last year. At the same time, what’s been incredible is that the 88 represents a yield of 77% — 77% of the students we accepted, accepted us back. That yield rate is absolutely — it’s staggering. How exciting is this? It’s the right students for this right moment in time for Bennett College. If you’ve decided to come here now, I think you’re ready to be on a very particular journey.
I think this is where we are — I think we’re moving into being much better at defining who are ideal students for Bennett College, and for whom Bennett College is the ideal place. That’s a part of the future work we’re working on at the moment.
We’re looking to increase the pool of students that we have traditionally been recruiting — not just 18-year-olds. We have minimesters (compressed semesters) — one’s coming up in October, and we’re still accepting students. Our team has been out recruiting since Sept. 4 for the spring semester. We have relationships with community colleges that I don’t think we’ve been taking enough advantage of.
Why is this all important? Usually at Bennett College we have been recruiting once a year. When you’re in a place of struggling for enrollment, you cannot wait to recruit once a year. Fall to fall is too long of a retention period for us to look at. We need to make sure … we keep (students) semester to semester, not just fall to fall.
Enrollment’s down from last year. What effect will that have on your budget?
There were a lot of cuts that were made before I arrived. We are trying to manage within the budget we have and making adjustments given enrollment. A large part of what we’re doing is we’re going through all of our vendor contracts and making sure that they’re right-sized. I know that sounds like that is not a big deal. But when those contracts have been in place for a long time for a different level of service, that might be the most radical thing I’ve done recently — to say, wait a second, are these contracts at the right size given where we are?
You can’t cut your way to change. You have to figure out where do you make the investments and where you can find opportunities for savings that weren’t high on the list previously.
Who is the right woman for Bennett?
We’re actually in the process of learning this. We have a partnership that I’m really excited about with UNCG. We’re part of one of their MBA classes. They’re helping us with some brand research and to understand what our current brand is. I’ve said to them I’m really excited about the women who are here, but I don’t know exactly why they chose us at this moment in time and why students chose to come back. I ask them, but that’s not a real sample. …
I think the women who come here now are women who are looking for a small environment. They are women who often have some level of confidence in academics but not fully confident. This is a place that helps to support them to really find themselves.
Our choir is the metaphor for the college. When I asked people, why is the choir seen as an asset, folks said you both metaphorically and literally find your voice. I think that’s true at Bennett College. For a set of students, this is a place where they really do find that voice. When you’re in a small place, you can’t hide. The ratio is 7 to 1 — seven students to one professor. … When it’s that small, everybody can ask their questions. You get time individually with the professors. That’s a transformative experience.
What will Bennett look like in three to five years?
First of all, we’re stabilized. At its core, the experience for students, faculty and staff will feel very much like a modern experience. By that I mean … I keep talking about how we have this opportunity to reinvent the liberal arts for the 21st century. I don’t know what that means exactly yet, but underneath it for me there’s some combination of the liberal arts and technology.
One of the things I know I really want to do is explore bringing gaming and esports (competitive video gaming) to Bennett. … I was just at the White House Initiative on HBCUs in D.C. and there was a panel on esports and HBCUs. I spoke to a number of people afterward because I was super nerdy and excited about it. I said it was really interesting — do you have many women participating? They said no — just a few here and there. I do have women on this campus who game and who have an interest. I said I’d love to host a meeting or small conference on the topic of black women and girls in esports. We’ll be bringing that (to campus).
What’s more important about that … is it’s not just the playing of those things, it’s the design of those games and the design of esports. The design of those technologies requires liberal arts. What is a video game other than a giant improvisation? It requires some theater. It’s a narrative. And of course it needs coding. Every single one of our departments should be able to have a way of thinking of how do we contribute to this conversation.
That kind of topic where I don’t see anyone else covering it — this seems like the place to be able to bring that topic to the forefront. And that’s where I think the future of Bennett is. It’s Bennett claiming its space to say, You have something you’re interested in and there’s not a place that’s inviting women of color into that conversation or into that kind of work? Come here and let’s explore that topic together.
We have to really be seen as being innovative and being contributors. We have to be a contributor to the community in Greensboro and to the local economy, to the local civic health and life. That means us getting out there.
What do people not know about the college?
We’re just about to kick off our search for two leadership positions (vice presidents of academic affairs and business and finance). The consultants leading that for us did open town halls — I was not involved at all so people could be as frank as they chose to be.
What I found really intriguing is that there is a level of optimism — I really agree with that — among faculty, staff and students that makes this a really exciting opportunity. People are ready for change. They’re really ready for somebody pointing in a direction that feels like forward momentum. That’s hard to find in higher ed. That was across all internal constituents — that’s a big deal. That’s a pleasant surprise.
I did give remarks at the beginning of the year and said to faculty and staff that we’re going through change management, but management is the key word. We can manage, but it’s going to be bumpy. … So far they’re still signed up, and I think that that’s exciting.
This story was originally published in the Greensboro News & Record.