Trustees | Trusteeship

The Syllabus: Bennett College’s part-time* president

GREENSBORO NEWS AND RECORD   |  August 23, 2019 by John Newsom

An online publication called Diverse Issues in Higher Educationran a detailed story about Bennett College and its new president earlier this month. I thought it was a pretty thorough write-up of the rough waters Bennett has been sailing through recently. 

The story (“New Bennett President Suzanne Walsh Optimistic Amid Crisis“) starts out this way:

“Bennett College, one of only two remaining historically Black colleges for women, has been here before.

“At the start of a new academic year, it’s a precarious place. For the tuition-driven college, fall enrollment numbers are in flux. And contingency plans are being put in place if a legal battle to stay accredited fails, debts can’t be paid and the doors have to shutter. These are among the large and looming challenges confronting the 146-year-old institution — and that now belong to Suzanne Elise Walsh, Bennett’s surprising and unconventional choice for its new president.”

So far, so good. But 10 paragraphs later I read something I hadn’t expected (emphasis mine):

“Walsh … assumed her presidency on Aug. 1, but on a part-time basis until January 2020. Her press office confirmed that during this critical first semester, the board approved time for Walsh to relocate from Seattle, Wash. and wrap up ‘her existing contracts and commitments,’ which means travel and time away from the urgent issues facing campus.”

That … was unexpected to say the least. Nothing in the college’s hiring announcement suggested that Walsh would be anything less than full time. And it’s not a question I’ve ever thought to ask any incoming college president. The modern college presidency is a full-time full-on experience. Fundraising doesn’t stop at 5 p.m., and there’s a reason it’s called Alumni Weekend (or in the case of Bennett, a women’s college, alumnae).

News & Record editorial page editor Allen Johnson had some thoughts right after the Diverse Issues story came out: “Again, we affirm our support for Bennett … (b)ut doesn’t the urgency of the school’s challenges demand a new president who is singularly focused on Bennett?”

Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a D.C. nonprofit that the Chronicle once describedas “often critical of trustees for lax oversight or overly deferential relationships with presidents,” called this part-time arrangement “highly unusual. A college — especially a college in a situation as dire as Bennett’s — needs a president who will dedicate 200 percent of his or her time to the demands of the position.” (I reached out to ACTA for comment, in case you were wondering.)

You might have noticed that I used an asterisk in the headline atop this blog post. That’s because “part-time” in this case isn’t like delivering pizzas or driving an Uber. It’s something a little more complicated.

In the typical college presidential transition, there’s usually a gap of several months between taking the job and starting the job. GTCC announced its new president earlier this month; Anthony Clarke will start sometime before Nov. 1. Carol Folt, the former UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor, was hired by the University of Southern California in March and started work July 1. Elon University gave new president Connie Book a five-month transition period in 2017. At UNCG, Chancellor Frank Gilliam had four months in 2015 to get from Los Angeles to Greensboro.

Bennett, meanwhile, announced Walsh’s hiring on June 27. She started Aug. 1. That’s a gap of just five weeks — a mere eyeblink in the glacially paced world of higher ed.

Instead of giving Walsh multiple months to report to her new office in the Global Learning Center, Bennett elected to fold her transitional period into her presidency. College spokesman Monty Hagler told me last week that Bennett’s trustees wanted a new president on board ASAP.

“(Walsh) asked the board to have some flexibility for her to finish the commitments she had from her consulting business and to make the move from Seattle,” said Hagler, president and CEO of local PR firm RLF Communications.

    Walsh, he added, “is leading the college whether she’s sitting at the (president’s) desk or not. She really is completely engaged.”

    Hagler said Walsh will work no less than 30 hours a week on Bennett stuff through the end of the year. Most weeks, he added, it’ll be 40 or more.

    Walsh has been in Greensboro since Aug. 1, Hagler said, and was on campus last week when Bennett students arrived before the start of the new academic year. On Monday (the first day of fall semester classes) and Tuesday, however, Walsh was in Utah, where she was the keynote speaker at the opening convocation at Salt Lake Community College.

Walsh, remember, is a non-traditional choice as a college president. Until Aug. 1, she had never been employed by a four-year school. Her prior work with higher ed had been through jobs at a couple of national foundations, Lumina and Bill & Melinda Gates. Her non-traditional transition further suggests that it’s not the same ol’ same ol at Bennett College.


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