When I went to Bennett College for Women in 2007, I declared that I was “on fire” for the institution. I still am. And I also yield to the biblical verse that says, For everything there is a season, a time for everything under heaven. I had a season to build four buildings in four years, to increase enrollment, to influence curriculum shifts, and to assemble an awesome senior team, to engage with most of my students, and to influence young lives.
I also managed the development of a new strategic plan, and I’ve been privileged to be a national Bennett brand advocate. I’ve maintained a speaking schedule partly because it enhances Bennett’s visibility, and wherever I go, I meet potential students, parents, and others, who want to engage me in Bennett matters.
I most value the ways we have looked at our campus foci-entrepreneurship, leadership, global studies and communications. If a young sister masters these, she can operate in almost any arena. The number of students who have traveled internationally has increased exponentially during my leadership.
Personally, I’ve taken students with me to Copenhagen, Haiti, and Nigeria, as well as to many places in the United States. I am also grateful to have had support for the development of our entrepreneurship program. Given the job market, there is a point in time when many of us will be entrepreneurs, whether we want to be or not. I have had a team to develop this concept and to integrate it into Bennett’s curriculum.
So why go? Things are going well. We had a bump and were put on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), when a major donor defaulted on a large pledge, and when we had to pay (go figure, and that’s another column) the government more than a million dollars on a prepayment penalty.
We overcame that in just six months and are in the clear with SACS until 2014, when we have a five-year review. We celebrated the removal of SACS probation in January and it was, indeed, an exciting moment.
Why go? Because it’s time. Because leading the college is easy and fun, but raising money is hard. In order to move into the next phase at Bennett, somehow we need to both enhance our endowment and raise enough money to implement the strategic plan I led. Do I have the stomach for spending 80 percent of my time raising money? When asked the question, I had to go into deep prayer and meditation. The answer? No.
External forces work against HBCUs. President Barack Obama has been great in managing to keep the Pell Grant level, but it needs to be larger. In North Carolina, the private colleges have been excluded from state lottery funds, reducing the money Bennett students can bring to the college. Key stakeholders committed for four years and may or may not renew the commitment.
The United Negro College Fund has slashed its appropriations to private colleges by more than 50 percent. When I looked at the factors in play, I saw an uphill climb. And five years of working at full speed, wearing myself down, convinced me that I didn’t have the energy for another uphill climb.
When I first came to Bennett, a valued staff member chuckled at my pace. It’s not a sprint, she said. It’s a marathon. I replied that it is a sprinting marathon. Now I yield to her wisdom.
Impossible. You can’t run at the pace that I tried to run without paying a price. I did. I so fully appreciate the difference between being 53 and being 58. I fully understand the toll that stress, sleeplessness, and diabetes can take on one’s life. I fully understand that while I talked about balance, I never practiced it. And I fully understand that my need to go is as much a result of my own exhaustion as anything else.
I am not an HBCU graduate, and had I been, I would likely have been a very different person. At my undergraduate college, African American students fought to establish their intellectual chops, while at Bennett, the development of intellectual chops is applauded and encouraged. Without being an HBCU graduate, I am an HBCU fan, and my experience at Bennett convinces me that I will always be. I love my college so much that I hate to leave it, but it’s time.
When I say that I have never had a job for more than five years, I’m being flippant. I wrote for Black Issues for 15 years, have been affiliated with USA Today since 1986, and have written columns (my first love) since 1984. But I am a free sprit that rebels against structure, and when I accepted the structure of leading a college, I realized that conformity would be a stretch goal. I stretched for five years. Now I need to exhale.
There is a Japanese haiku that my sister, Mariette, shared with me: My barn has burned down, now I can see the moon.
Bennett has been the space that I chose to come to because I am committed to African American people, to our education, to college access. I thrived at the college, and yet I am mindful of the concept of season. My barn has burned down, and the moon that I see is spaceless and endless.
Bennett will always have a piece of my heart, and yet, for so many reasons, this is the season for my departure. I am leaving my college with satisfaction about my accomplishments, and with a sense of poignant reflection on that which has been done, and that which might have been done. I leave my college enriched, informed, and regarded in the fight for social and economic justice.