In 2003, when she was not chosen as president of Bennett College, Rosalind Fuse-Hall set about preparing herself to rise to the top in such a search, sometime.
She had applied for the Bennett job at the urging of some academic mentors. "I was quite surprised," she says, "that in my first crack at it, I was in the top three. I wasn't selected, but it motivated me to prepare myself for the future. There were key areas of experience that were not in my tool kit."
In the decade that followed, she involved herself in as many aspects of higher education as she could—in such operational and academic areas as fund raising, teaching, academic affairs, town-gown relations, and construction management.
She would finish in the top three in three other institutions' presidential searches before she achieved her goal this May—back at Bennett. In July she took the reins at the small liberal-arts college in Greensboro, N.C. With Spelman College, it is one of only two historically black colleges for women.
Given higher education's uncertain future, "what we wanted to do was to go after the perfect candidate," says Charles Barrentine, a retired vice president at Eastman Kodak who is chairman of Bennett's Board of Trustees. When Julianne Malveaux, an economist, businesswoman, and syndicated columnist, stepped down last year after five years as president, then-provost Esther Terry became Bennett's first alumna president. She took the post with the intention of remaining for only as long as it took to identify that "perfect candidate."
What the board would ask of that person, says Mr. Barrentine, was that she would "help us move forward academically," be able to work with foundations, businesses, and other "investors in the college," and would know, coming in, "how to get stuff done in the academic arena."
Ms. Fuse-Hall, 55, started her working life as a lawyer, but soon followed her academic father, teacher mother, and five teacher aunts into education. After working for eight years at the University of North Carolina system office, she became executive assistant to James H. Ammons chancellor at North Carolina Central University. She followed him to Florida A&M University in 2007, the year he became president there, and served as his chief of staff until he stepped down last year.
She says that part of Bennett's appeal, for her, is its long history of dedication to educating African-American students. With ties to the United Methodist Church, the institution began in 1873 in a church basement, as an elementary and secondary school. Five years later, a group of emancipated slaves bought its present site and started offering college courses. Bennett shifted from co-educational to women-only status in 1926.
While it no longer describes as part of its mission one early Bennett goal—training young women to be good wives—it still advocates others: helping young women to develop socially and culturally. To those was added, along the way, encouraging them to aspire to leadership roles—44 percent of its graduates this year were accepted into graduate or professional schools.
But the college's six-year retention and graduation rates fall well below the best among its peers. That, says Ms. Fuse-Hall, is not surprising because its students are, more than at other historically black colleges, poor, first-generation collegians. She observes: "Among that population on any campus, more often than not students are going to have to stop out at various times."
To increase student financial aid and end dependence on tuition revenues, Bennett must increase fivefold its $11.2-million endowment, Mr. Barrentine and Ms. Fuse-Hall agree. That will require finding new sources of support, because already an unusually high proportion of its graduates—20 percent—contribute to the college's coffers. Still, says Ms. Fuse-Hall, increasing enrollment from 730 to about 1,000 is part of a strategy for improving financial health.
As for whether the strategy might include going co-ed, "that's not on the table," says Mr. Barrentine. Certainly, he allows, the board is considering adding evening and weekend courses that would "leverage our assets" and enroll men. And, he says, "if Dr. Fuse-Hall does everything we think she will do, we're not going to have too many problems."
During her decade away from Bennett's presidential pool, "I never lost my enthusiasm for the college at all," she says. "I'm a big advocate of women's education, and being Bennett's president seems like the ideal job for me."