Two Years Ago Bennett Appeared on the Brink of Extinction. Today It May Be the Blueprint for HBCU Anti-Fragility

Last week, Bennett College revealed its Blueprint for HERstory as a foundational document designed to help us better understand the college’s mission, and the possibilities for it to flourish in graduates and throughout the institution.

To save you the journey through the document, here’s an executive summary:

  • Bennett wants to cap institutional costs to match an enrollment of about 200 students

  • Bennett wants to focus on the overall mental, physiological, spiritual, professional, and social health of its students

  • Bennett wants to address issues of industrial equity, with an emphasis on social justice in technology, healthcare, and the environment

  • Bennett wants to be operationally solvent and data-driven; not as a means for survival from year to year, but from generation to generation

One term mentioned just twice in the document says it all: anti-fragile. For HBCU traditionalists among us, it is almost second nature to read that and skeptically assume it to be a fancy translation for resilience or endurance, but it could also mean something quite different for a Bennett culture under active re-imaging.

Resilience suggests a natural capacity, willing or unwilling, to survive difficult circumstances. Anti-fragile, however, suggests a working knowledge of those circumstances and a keen sense of how to avoid or leverage them for the benefit of the school and its stakeholders.

Rosa Parks in a bus seat was resilient. Harriet Tubman with a pistol was anti-fragile. Both important, both groundbreaking, each very different from the other.

Most college leaders, HBCU or otherwise, fail to meet the intelligence of their stakeholders in moments of crisis. When things go wrong, they tend to focus on how to make things right instead of honoring systemic failures of culture, operations or personality.

A lot of people criticized Bennett over the last decade for watching its enrollment plummet, its budget collapse under red ink, its fortunes fast fading, and seemingly doing little to stop it. The critiques rarely accounted for other factors like the rising costs of college attendance, changing trends in industry and workforce development, and the growth of other public institutions in Bennett’s direct geographic footprint.

Bennett languished in the overcast caused by the rise of North Carolina A&T State University as the nation’s largest four-year Black college, and the surges of enrollment at UNC-Greensboro and High Point University. It was cast out by its accreditor in 2019 for chronic debt and cash-flow issues, mostly spurred by its precipitous enrollment declines. It was well on its way to an undignified existence in the mold of Morris Brown; anything but dead.

But Bennett is not extinct. It is very much alive, largely free of the financial burdens that threw the school into the national spotlight by way of a historic fundraiser. Federal funds associated with coronavirus relief, federal loan forgiveness, and continuing philanthropic goodwill from alumnae and well-wishers are helping to stabilize the school even in lean times.

The plan speaks boldly about how the college will avoid inaction, real or perceived. It suggests that Bennett executives, alumnae, faculty and students, all groups either steeped in or supportive of the conservative, southern HBCU tradition are collectively willing to try something dramatically new to get dramatically better results.

It is a pronouncement of moving forward while acknowledging the things which took them backwards and almost off the map.

Anti-fragile.

The key to understanding the resurgence of Bennett College is to first abandon traditional thinking about what a college, and specifically an HBCU, is supposed to look like. We shouldn’t look at 200 students and think that Bennett is a shell of its former self; we should look at the number and consider the opportunity for the school to recruit, finance, retain, and to graduate a dynamic cross-section of women from around the world with world-class education and industrial training opportunities.

Bennett is not in the mold of Morris Brown. No one has tried to burn down campus buildings, or exaggerated its partnerships. The school is taking an anti-fragile approach that we saw just over a decade ago in Dallas at Paul Quinn College.

That private school was 30 days removed from closure and down just a few dozen students until president Michael Sorrell and committed faculty members bought into a similar self-defining ethos that evolved into “We Over Me.” Years later, the school is the nation’s first historically Black work college, has crafted partnerships with some of the city’s most well-connected philanthropists and corporations, and has a growing number of students preparing to use new buildings on campus for the first time in decades.

A resilient Paul Quinn would have found a way to maintain business as usual. An anti-fragile Paul Quinn reinvented itself with an eye towards the future.

Officials at the school say that the future Bennett campus will be as it has always been; welcoming for a special type of woman seeking to craft her future in a unique way. But it will take more than just guile in Greensboro to make this happen. Investments from beyond the campus borders have to continue to pour into the institution.

People have to be willing to send their daughters to learn and to earn degrees from the college. Esteemed faculty have to want and seek opportunity to teach these women, and corporations must have an eagerness to recruit them into jobs.

Bennett earned our affection and it helped its stakeholders to raise $9.5 million dollars a few years ago. Now, the school is trying to earn our trust and this plan shows that the institution may be well worth that investment, too.