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After a fundraising blitz, Bennett College hits a major milestone in its battle for survival

Bennett College surpassed its fundraising campaign, with an announcement Monday that it had raised $8.2 million on a quest to restore its accreditation.

The eight-week social media blitz surpassed its $5 million goal, eliciting cheers at a lengthy ceremony at the college’s chapel that was broadcast on YouTube.

Bennett will appeal its accreditation revocation to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, which acted in December to remove Bennett’s membership. The accrediting body cited financial problems at the private, historically black college for women — one of only two such schools in the nation.

Bennett President Phyllis Dawkins said the checks rolled in with increasing speed in the past week, ranging from a $20 cash donation from a stranger on the street to two $1 million gifts last Friday. Students from colleges across the nation, especially other historically black institutions, sent money through mobile applications. Children collected quarters. Alumnae worked on the campaign, and banks, corporations and Papa John’s Pizza Foundation gave large donations, Dawkins said.

“We appreciate each and every gift that we were given, no matter how small or how large,” Dawkins said. “What matters most is that people gave, and they gave from the heart.”

“Some,” Dawkins added, “might even call it a miracle.”

The money may not, in and of itself, guarantee Bennett’s future. But in the past year, enrollment has grown and the college posted a surplus.

Going forward, the college’s Board of Trustees will create a committee to “re-engineer” Bennett, to put it on solid footing for the future, said Gladys Robinson, a state senator from Guilford County and an alumna who chairs the board.

Later this month, the college may find out the results of its appeal to the accrediting body.

A turning point in the campaign came last week when a Bennett supporter, singer and “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett, reported he was assaulted in Chicago in what police have called a possible hate crime. Fans and supporters of Smollett donated to Bennett in his name.

Then on Friday, High Point University came forward with a challenge grant of $1 million, pushing Bennett to 95 percent of its goal.

High Point President Nido Qubein stood at the chapel podium Monday and presented Dawkins with checks from HPU staff, students, parents and supporters totaling $357,500. On Friday, Qubein had provided a bus to transport Bennett staff from Greensboro to his campus in High Point for the $1 million announcement.

“This is not about money,” Qubein said. “This whole campaign is not about money. I believe that God has ordained Bennett in a very special way, to say to the world that there is a reason why Bennett was founded and there is a reason why Bennett must continue to sustain itself with both success and significance.”

Another $1 million gift was announced at the event from Kwanza Jones and Jose E. Feliciano, a Los Angeles couple who have a philanthropic organization known as the Supercharged Initiative. Jones is a pop singer whose mother and several other relatives attended Bennett.

Dawkins said Monday that the idea for the campaign was launched at the airport in New Orleans in December, when she and her staff were waiting for a flight after the accrediting decision there.

“Our spirits were low, to be sure, but we didn’t wallow in pity,” she said. “We got right to work, right there in that lounge. We began to strategize about what we could do.”

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Jane Stancill has reported on higher ed for The News & Observer for 20 years. She has won state and national awards for her coverage of education.

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