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For one of the nation's only historically black colleges for women, this week will be crucial for survival.
On Monday, Bennett College, in Greensboro, N.C., will argue its case for maintaining its accreditation at a hearing before the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, or SACS.
Bennett has been on probation for two years due to financial instability — SACS does not offer a third year of probation, so Bennett's hearing will either result in its probation being lifted, or the loss of its accreditation. Revocation would cut off Bennett's access to federal funds, which would all but certainly close the school.
Representatives for Bennett plan to argue at the hearing that the school has secured the funds necessary to maintain its accreditation, its president, Phyllis Worthy Dawkins, told Michel Martin in an interview for NPR's All Things Considered.
In December, SACS voted to strip Bennett of its accreditation because the school failed to demonstrate "sound financial resources" and a "stable financial base to support the mission of the institution and the scope of its programs and services." Bennett appealed the decision.
"We were only called on one standard ... and that standard is on financial resources," Dawkins said. "They did not question the quality of our academic programs, the credentials of our faculty and staff, or the leadership on our campus."
In response to the SACS decision, Bennett launched a fundraising campaign aimed at raising $5 million. A #StandWithBennett campaign went viral on social media, thanks in part, Dawkins said, to support from celebrities like Jussie Smollett and his family. Donations soon began to pour in.
"[W]e've raised at least ... over $8.2 million that we announced on February 4th," Dawkins said. Since then, the total has risen to $8.7 million, she said.
Dawkins is depending on this appeal to overturn the agency's decision.
"We will win this appeal. We will remain accredited, as we are accredited right now," Dawkins explains.
But if their revocation is sustained, there is a contingency plan. Dawkins said the college is working to secure accreditation from a second body, the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. The association is smaller than SACS, but is recognized by the Department of Education — meaning the college would still be eligible for federal funding.
Bennett College's financial woes aren't dissimilar to those faced by other historically black colleges and universities, which are notoriously underfunded. In December, Saint Augustine University, just 80 miles east in Raleigh, was removed from probation after demonstrating to SACS that it had addressed its financial concerns.
Bennett is now hoping for a similar successful outcome in order to preserve one of the nation's seminal institutions in educating black women. Dawkins understands this.
"Women's institutions, HBCUs, need to continue to thrive and survive into the future," she said.
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