The Presidential Mystique: Finding and Keeping Leaders for Historically Black Women's Colleges Is Becoming a Growing Challenge. (Special Report: Women in Higher Education)

By Fields, Cheryl D. | Black Issues in Higher Education, March 28, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Presidential Mystique: Finding and Keeping Leaders for Historically Black Women's Colleges Is Becoming a Growing Challenge. (Special Report: Women in Higher Education)


Fields, Cheryl D., Black Issues in Higher Education


African American women have played key roles in the leadership of this country's historically Black colleges and universities for more than a century. Women like Elizabeth E. Wright, who founded Voorhees College in 1897; Mary McLeod Bethune, who in 1904 founded a normal school for girls that eventually became Bethune-Cookman College; and Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, who up until a couple of years ago held the distinction of having led the most successful HBCU capital campaign, have blazed a remarkable trail.

Today, there are two historically Black institutions specializing in the education of women, Spelman and Bennett colleges. Both are currently in search of new presidents. Whoever is chosen to lead them will inherit a rich legacy. But the two institutions couldn't be further apart in terms of where they are, where they' re going and the type of leadership they will need for the future.

Spelman, founded in 1881 by two White women, Sophia B. Packard and Harriet E. Giles, enjoys a reputation today as one of the nation's most prestigious women's colleges. With an endowment of roughly $229 million, a full-time enrollment of 2,106 and an annual budget of $58 million, it is a prospective president's dream. The outgoing president, Dr. Audrey Manley, has only been there for five years, but is credited for shepherding to completion several infrastructure improvements and increasing the college's already handsome endowment by approximately $63 million during her tenure.

In contrast, Bennett is an institution in trouble. Originally founded as a coed institution in 1893 by the United Methodist Church, Bennett became a women's college in 1926. Its last president, Dr. Althia F. Collins, lasted barely seven months before the board of trustees accepted her letter of resignation. Before Collins, Dr. Gloria R. Scott, led the college from 1987 until last spring, when she resigned amid growing dissatisfaction with her leadership as well as allegations that her husband, Will B. Scott, a retired social work professor, had engaged in an affair with a student. Enrollment is down to just above 500 students and the college is carrying a $2.5 million deficit.

Jacqueline E. Woods, executive director of the American Association of University Women, says both institutions are essential to providing African American women with the full army of higher education options they deserve.

"I can't imagine our higher education community being without these mainstay institutions for Black women," Woods says. "Not only do they have historical significance ... but they also fill a need for many in today's society who want to connect with their culture but also have access to mainstream opportunities."

CLIMBING OUT OF A PIT

No one would have predicted that Bennett would be in the hunt for a new leader so soon after appointing Collins as its 13th president last summer. The college's 36-member board of trustees gave her a unanimous vote of confidence as they, faculty, alumnae and students alike believed she would breathe new life into an institution that was sagging under the weight of dwindling enrollment, budget woes, a deteriorating physical plant and student discontent (see Black Issues, Feb. 14). Collins, a career higher education administrator who three years earlier had launched her own educational consulting firm in Northern Virginia, felt up to the challenge. Her goal for Bennett, as spelled out during her inaugural message, was to transform it into "a first-class college." As it turned out, that was easier to say than do.

It wasn't long before Collins concluded that she was a mismatch for the North Carolina college. She submitted her letter of resignation last December, only weeks after the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placed the school on a 12-month probation because of its financial difficulties. The board had not solicited her resignation and many members were, in fact, surprised by it. …

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