Six days after its president leaves, Bennett College hires her replacement

GREENSBORO — Bennett College has tapped a Seattle consultant and former foundation executive to be its next president six days after announcing the departure of the previous one.

The private women’s college said Thursday that Suzanne Walsh will be its 19th president. Bennett’s interim president, Gwendolyn O’Neal, will remain in that role until Walsh starts work Aug. 1.

Walsh will succeed Phyllis Worthy Dawkins, who left the college Friday after almost three years as Bennett’s leader.

The Bennett job will be the first time in her career that Walsh will work at a four-year institution, but she isn’t a stranger to higher education: She focused on higher education issues in stints at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation, both of which work on increasing the number of college graduates.

In a news release, state Sen. Gladys Robinson, the chairwoman of Bennett’s board of trustees, said the college “had sought a new president to embrace and champion innovative ideas that ensure our long-term viability.” Walsh, she added, “has the experience, passion, fundraising expertise and personal qualities that will ensure she is embraced by our students, faculty, staff, alumnae and community.”

Walsh in that same statement described Bennett as a college with a mission “to produce accomplished young women who are ready to lead. In an ever-changing world that I believe is thirsting for their leadership, that mission feels more relevant than ever, and what excites me is the opportunity to help translate it for a new era.”

A public relations firm hired by the college said Walsh was traveling Thursday and was unavailable to talk to reporters.

Walsh received a bachelor’s degree in social work from Cornell University in New York. She later got a master’s degree in social work and a law degree from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte awarded her an honorary doctorate when she spoke at the school’s commencement in 2017.

Her only direct higher education employment, according to her LinkedIn page, was from 1998 to 2003, when she was an administrator for a community college in Cleveland. After that, she worked for four years at the Heinz Endowments, a Pittsburgh charity established by the heirs of the food company, for three years at the Lumina Foundation in Indianapolis and for eight years at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle.

At Lumina, Walsh worked on an initiative to make college more affordable. At the Gates Foundation, where she was deputy director of postsecondary success, she helped lead projects to help students do better in college and assist institutions in making changes to help their students graduate.

One of those projects was the Frontier Set, a group of 29 colleges and two state university systems working together on issues of student success and institutional change. GTCC and UNCG are two of the six North Carolina schools that are part of the Frontier Set.

Walsh left the Gates foundation in December, according to her LinkedIn page. She has worked as a higher education consultant in Seattle since then. In January, she was named to the board of the Trellis Foundation, a Texas charity that helps low- and middle-income students attend college.

At Bennett, Walsh will find herself helping a college that’s struggling to survive. After years of budget deficits and enrollment declines, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges revoked Bennett’s accreditation in December because it doubted that the college had sufficient financial resources to continue.

Though Bennett raised $9.5 million in less than two months, the commission rejected Bennett’s appeal in February. Bennett then filed a federal lawsuit against the commission, which agreed to keep Bennett’s accreditation in place while the two sides fight it out in court.

In the meantime, Bennett is seeking to be accredited by a national group that regulates religious colleges and universities. It’s also trying to increase enrollment, which stood at about 460 students last fall.

Earlier this year, the college convened the Bennett Re-engineering Committee to help make Bennett viable for the long term. Walsh will be working with this group of business, community and higher education leaders and Bennett alumnae that’s scheduled to deliver its report in September. Tom Ross, who has served as the president of the UNC system as well as Davidson College, and Greensboro Mayor Pro-Tem Yvonne Johnson are the committee’s two co-leaders.

Dawkins, hired as Bennett’s provost in 2015 and promoted to interim president a year later, steered the college through rough waters for her three years in the president’s office. When Bennett announced her departure on June 21, it didn’t say whether she resigned or was fired.

Bennett’s trustees picked O’Neal to be the college’s interim president. O’Neal, a 1969 Bennett graduate, was on faculty at Bennett, The Ohio State University, Kansas State University and UNCG, from where she retired in 2014. At both UNCG and Kansas State, she served as chairwoman of the university’s apparel and textiles department.

Bennett said that when Walsh starts work, O’Neal will become the chief operating officer, a new position at the college.

Walsh will be Bennett’s seventh president since Gloria Randle Scott retired in 2001 after 14 years. Since then, Johnnetta Cole and Julianne Malveaux tied for the longest presidential tenures at five years apiece. Bennett’s other four presidents during that span served three years or less.