From higher ed neighbor to Bennett College benefactor

How a challenge gift helped in the campaign to save a college

As the last week in January began, Bennett College was an institution in flux, fighting for its life. As the following week closed, the North Carolina liberal arts college serving women of color had raised at least $8.2 million in its #StandWithBennett campaign. That’s well more than the $5 million minimum needed for its appeal to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, which removed Bennett from membership in December for financial reasons.

Neighboring High Point University sits high on the long list of donors who stepped up to stand with Bennett. President Nido Qubein spearheaded his university’s $1 million pledge, announcing it on Bennett’s Friday deadline as a challenge to others. And he didn’t arrive at Bennett’s press conference on Feb. 4 empty-handed. Over the weekend, he had helped raise an additional $357,500.

“People rallied,” says Qubein. “Our challenge gift was able to multiply into a lot more for Bennett.”

“When Nido announced his big gift, I did not see it coming, but it is completely in character for him,” says Richard Ekman, president of The Council of Independent Colleges. Ekman had been following the Bennett news with concern, and had written to CIC members to encourage contributions.

Bennett is one of only two all-women’s historically black colleges and universities in the nation.

“Even though it is a very small institution, its loss would have been widely felt,” says Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. “This gift helps validate and underscore the value of Bennett College, and it shows that High Point recognizes the contributions that Bennett makes to its local community, the state and the nation.”

Gaining support for the gift

With a shared United Methodist tradition but little else in common, High Point and Bennett have had no formal partnerships. But Qubein recalled his own institution’s challenging times when he arrived in 2005, and felt a call to action. “I know it’s unprecedented, but that never really crossed my mind,” he says. “What crossed my mind was that we need to step up. What crossed my heart was, what if we don’t step up? My goodness, we need to step up.”

Yet, of course, a college president couldn’t make a decision like this unilaterally. Or, as Ekman puts it, “You don’t just give away a million dollars without checking.”

With the clock ticking in the days leading up to February 1, Qubein talked individually with the board chair, past chair and incoming chair, and then called a faculty meeting. “I laid the case before them and told them we’re going to need their support to do this,” he says.

He also made a key point: The donation would not be redirected from their budget, nor would it in any way be harmful to them. It would come from High Point’s community engagement fund.

The $1 million gift to Bennett does represent a significant portion of that fund, which is an operating budget line item the university allocates annually to invest in community resources, says Pam Haynes, assistant vice president for communications at High Point.

High Point teaches students to reach out through stewardship and philanthropy, across the city and region, so Qubein saw the funding source as keeping in line with its mission.

He gained support from board leaders and faculty, with 94 percent of faculty voting in favor of the gift. “I knew they would be giving and kind and respond warmly to my recommendation, but I completely underestimated the level of enthusiasm and the positive discussion of the issue,” says Qubein.

That’s a testament, says Ekman, to the “solidarity that all of us in the private college world have with one another.”

Qubein can envision being very open to any future request from Bennett to collaborate, such as through an academic partnership or to talk about enrollment strategy.

As for any direct benefits from the gift, he says they would only be on the spiritual level. “Are we looking for a return on investment? Yes, we are, but that will be realized when Bennett College gets accreditation,” he says.

Still, says Ekman, the attention paid to the gift will certainly “remind the world that High Point is here, and if people have forgotten what’s distinctive about its program, this will create an opportunity to learn about it.” Admissions, fundraising and alumni relations could benefit, but, he says, “that’s not to take away from the generosity of the act of giving away this money.”

A model move?

Ekman also views the move as having a ripple effect in higher ed. “We may not see other million-dollar donations to neighboring colleges that are hurting, but what Nido has done is establish the responsibility of all of us to preserve the diversity of the opportunities of our institutions collectively,” he says.

However, there is a tradition of institutions helping other institutions. For example, predominantly white universities have hosted HBCU faculty and sent some of their faculty to HBCUs, he says.

Institutions doing good work, Qubein says, are called on to help other institutions “that through adjustment and realignment could do this work.” He sees it as stepping into the circle to be “cooperative, collaborative and compassionate to make good things happen.”
“I’m not looking for High Point University to get credit,” he says. “We’re interested in Bennett’s future.”

Growth in giving spirit

All the momentum of the week leading up to February 1 may have prompted others to act. Bennett received a $1 million surprise gift from the daughter of an alumna—a gift they had received notification about the day before that deadline. And High Point parents, students, faculty and staff “somehow over the weekend got in line to send checks or deliver checks,” Qubein says, adding that he has “every confidence” the commission will accredit them.

Meanwhile, higher ed is left with a feel-good happy ending. “High Point University’s gift to Bennett and Bennett’s success in smashing its fundraising goal is an inspirational and uplifting story that comes at a time when such news seems to be in short supply,” says ACE’s Hartle. “Bennett College will now have the breathing room to restructure and redirect itself, so that it can continue to serve generations of women who will make a lasting difference in their community, the state of North Carolina and the nation. All of higher education should rejoice at that possibility.”

Qubein revels in the fact that Bennett’s fundraising wasn’t just about a high-profile person writing a $5 million check to solve the whole problem. “This isn’t about money,” he says. “This is about the spirit of stepping up for a good cause.

“What I hope will come out of it is a sense of inspiration for us all. We are placed on this earth to make a difference. We can influence both events and people in positive ways.”

UPDATE: Bennett presented evidence of having raised $9.5 million to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges’ appeals committee at a February 18 hearing. The committee rejected the appeal and Bennett filed a lawsuit against the commission and a motion for a temporary restraining order to prevent the commission from revoking the college’s accreditation. On February 22, the college’s accreditation was restored by a federal court for the period of time in which legal proceedings take place. That period is expected to last several months.

Editor’s note: Nido Qubein will deliver a keynote address at UBTech 2019 in Orlando, Fla., June 10-12;

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