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The ‘Belles’ are Back

by KENDRA HAMILTON

Bennett College for Women is ever mindful of its place in history while preparing students for their future in a global society.

The “Bennett Belle.” The words conjure an image that is genteel, old-fashioned — hats and gloves, brown-skinned women in flowing white dresses beaming as they take that final walk to graduation. The Bennett College for Women campus certainly reinforces the image, with its broad, tree-shaded lawns and quadrangle and its historic buildings — fully 15 of the 29 total have National Register status, from the majestic Annie Merner Pfeiffer Chapel to the Carnegie Negro Library facing busy East Washington Street.

But the pleasant paradox of Bennett College is the way in which old and new are meeting there in such intriguing ways – in, for example, the poised personage of Mesha White, student government president and campus ambassador. “We say at Bennett that you come here to meet the woman you’re going to become,” White says, as she guides a visitor across the Greensboro, N.C., campus on a brisk, sunny late winter morning.

White has all the grace and poise one would expect of a “Belle,” but she’s also a global citizen, speaking with passion about her semester in Ghana, her interests in business and communications, her hopes of getting into Columbia University’s international studies program — or perhaps a job in Washington, D.C. — next year.

White is also, according to Bennett President Julianne Malveaux, one of the most dynamic student activists on the campus of 689 students — a young woman who, one weekend before, had organized a peace and justice march that drew upward of 700 students from Bennett, North Carolina A&T State University and the University of North Carolina-Greensboro to commemorate the lives of two young N.C. A&T students murdered in random acts of violence. “The young men had been shot at [N.C.] A&T, but it’s not an [N.C.] A&T problem — it’s a young people’s problem. So Mesha was fantastic — she simply stepped up and organized it. I marched with them for a little while, and it was incredibly inspiring to see so many young people gathered on a Saturday,” Malveaux says.

 Implementing a 21st-century Vision

Malveaux is quick to draw connections between Bennett’s present and its past, reminding visitors that Bennett’s iconic president, Willa B. Player, gave the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. his first pulpit in Greensboro — when “all the ministers were too frightened;” that for every A&T student who sat at a lunch counter, there were 10 Belles outside holding placards, marching and singing as they went to jail; that Player demonstrated her own commitment by entering the jail herself to take the girls their homework.

“Which, if you think about the South and the times, sends such an interesting signal,” Malveaux muses. “She was letting the powers- that-be know: Don’t mess with my girls.”

Malveaux admits that she thinks a lot about history at Bennett. As one of only two women’s historically Black colleges in the nation (Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga., is the other), “this is a critical place in the annals of Black history, not to mention the annals of women’s history,” she says. But hers is no simple exercise in nostalgia: Malveaux, with the advantage of an edgy commentator’s persona, an incisive intellect and a sweeping grasp of national and international perspectives, is in the process of crafting a 21st-century vision for Bennett, a vision that involves “seeing Black women in a context, and teaching our students to see themselves in those terms as well.”

In addition to Bennett’s core areas of education and science, Malveaux has begun laying a foundation for her vision of renewal for the college that includes four academic cornerstones: global studies, communications and media studies, leadership, and entrepreneurship.

She explains: “If there’s anything we know about the 21st century it’s that these are the key areas. Women in the 21st century must be global. They must be communicators — they must be able to talk, write, present and represent. They must be leaders — and there’s been a lot of research on leadership and women’s colleges, how they teach women to stand up in the world, though of course those leaders have not traditionally been conceived to be women of color. That’s something we’ll be changing.”

“And finally,” she adds, “this administration has also chosen to embrace entrepreneurship because, in this economy, no matter whether you work for General Motors, Diverse Issues or Bennett College for Women, you’re going to have to figure out how to do a little work for yourself.”

In those four areas, Malveaux has begun to assemble a team composed of dynamic new hires both at the administrative and department level, including the interim provost, Dr. Millicent Rainey; Dr. Stanley Viltz, associate provost of student affairs directing the leadership program; and a filmmaker and new media specialist now overseeing journalism and media studies, Dr. Yvonne Welbon. They join trusted “old hands” such as Dr. Gwendolyn Bookman, the associate provost of academic affairs whose portfolio of duties includes the global studies program, along with Assistant Professor of Business and Diversity Rhonda Butler and Assistant Professor of Mathematics Eric Cole, longtime faculty who are taking the reins of the entrepreneurship program.

Adjusting to Financial Realities

These efforts are moving hand in hand with an ambitious program to overhaul operations, turn historic white elephants into thriving centers for teaching and technology, and generally move from the “rescue” mode under which the campus operated during the legendary Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole’s tenure into a strategic and master planning mode that can ensure the college’s future into the next century.

Dr. Julianne Malveaux, President, Bennett College for Women

“We’re fortunate to be able to say, in terms of the deficit situation from 2002, when Dr. Cole was hired, the institution has recovered from that,” notes Dr. LeRoy Summers Jr., the fiscal whiz recently added to Malveaux’s team as vice president of business, finance and technology.

“But there still remain challenges,” Summers adds. Bennett is, after all, a tuition-driven private institution that relies heavily on donations and contributions. In addition, its small endowment of $12 million — a figure that, by rights, should look more like $40 million, Summers explains — took a hard hit during the financial meltdown, dropping to around $8 million.

But Summers is moving aggressively forward with plans to use technology to assess, streamline and overhaul operations. One small change being implemented this year — converting the college from paper to online procurement processes — is expected to yield a tremendous increase in efficiency and decrease in labor.

Such reassessments are occurring at every level, notes Andrena Stoddard Coleman, the chief administrative officer and vice president for administrative services at the college. Recently, she notes, the college made the strategic decision to outsource its maintenance, custodial and grounds management to Sodexo Inc. and it’s been delighted with the results.

“The company does all the routine upkeep of the buildings. It’s installed energy efficient lighting. There are new flowerbeds, and the company has addressed immediate maintenance issues such as broken windows. In addition, they do all the training and maintain all of the certifications of their employees. For a small college, it’s definitely the way to go,” Coleman says.

The move has additional benefits, allowing administrative services to concentrate on the massive task of restoring and upgrading the physical plant on a campus on which more than 70 percent of the buildings are designated — or soon to be designated — historic. Coleman notes that compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act is a challenge because of the age and design of existing buildings. But she points with pride to the fact that, in six years of concentrated effort, the college has managed to clear out nearly 60 percent of its deferred maintenance backlog, and with the conversion and renovation of the heating plant into the journalism and media studies facility — another National Historic Landmark site — the campus will have completed renovations on six of its most historic buildings.

“I don’t think I had any illusions about the challenges we face in the HBCU world,” Malveaux says of her two-year tenure at Bennett. “I knew we would have to maintain enrollment, we would have to raise money, we would have all these constituencies we would have to please.”

But at the end of the day, she adds, it’s all worth it, because through that effort “what we’re saying to these young women directly and indirectly is that we care about you.” Quoting college trustee Maya Angelou, she adds, “You are the best we have; you are all we have.”



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