In December 2018, Bennett College, a historically black women’s liberal arts college in Greensboro, North Carolina, was placed on probation by its regional accrediting body because of financial challenges it’s facing.
To make it worse, the president of the college abruptly stepped down last month. Six days later, Suzanne Walsh ’93 was announced as her replacement.
Walsh, whose term will begin on August 1, will be steering the school through its accreditation and financial struggles. Since the college was placed on probation in February, it has appealed the decision and will remain accredited until it faces the appeals committee. Walsh said she is unsure of when the hearing will take place.
Walsh graduated from Cornell in 1993 with a degree in social work from the College of Human Ecology. She cited her experiences as an undergrad in her plan to navigate the challenges ahead of her as president — the classes she took in school formulated how she now solves problems, and how she sees social work in all different aspects of life, she said.
“Cornell had a profound influence on me cause I think everything is related,” Walsh told The Sun. “As I’m headed into my new presidency I kept thinking, ‘Yeah all of these components are related to helping a student to be successful in life,’”
After graduating from Cornell, Walsh received her masters and law degrees at Case Western University, and soon after found her way into education by working at a community college in Cleveland. Eventually, Walsh entered the nonprofit sector through her work at major foundations, specializing in higher education.
Walsh’s last job before heading to Bennett College was a post-secondary deputy director at the Gates Foundation. During her time there, Walsh worked directly with historically black colleges and universities, where she helped set a vision and direction for schools and develop future plans.
“All of that leadership is the same kind of leadership needed on individual campuses,” Walsh said.
Bennett College has been a topic in the HBCU community because of its historical significance, according to Walsh. Since its founding in 1873, its students have played a large role in local civil rights activism, like joining sit-ins at white-only lunch counters. Its financial struggles are reflected in many HBCUs, Forbes reported, partially due to lower enrollment rates.
“Most historically black institutions are cash poor. Money is not there,” Gwendolyn O’Neal, the interim president, told The Sun.
The previous president was ousted by the board of trustees for unknown reasons. O’Neal said she was not informed of these reasons. Walsh also declined to respond when she first heard about an opening as the college’s president.
When she becomes president, Walsh intends to address the college’s financial difficulties. She hopes to stabilize academic programming and implement an institutional advancement plan. O’Neal said she has full confidence in Walsh’s abilities.
“I felt strongly that she was absolutely the right person to move Bennett to where it needs to be,” O’Neal said. “I have said it before and I’ll say it again: If she can’t do it, I don’t think it can be done.”