Dr. Vernell Bennett-Fairs took the helm of LeMoyne-Owen College on Jan. 5, 2021. The LOC Board of Trustees appointed Bennett-Fairs as the 13th president. Hopes were high that the new president’s 25 years of higher education experience and an affinity to the HBCU sector would bring fresh, innovative, and successful leadership.
Nearly two-and-a-half years in, the LOC Board has accepted the resignation of Bennett-Fairs and appointed an interim president, Dr. Christopher Davis, former Board chair and pastor of St. Paul Baptist Church on East Holmes Road.
LeMoyne-Owen College Board Chair Patricia Covington said the school was on track for satisfying all accreditation issues.
“We had already been renewed accreditation with SACS, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools,” said Covington. “On the accreditation for secondary schools, we were four out of five compliant. So, we were on track there.”
Covington said enrollment was the greatest challenge during Bennett-Fairs’ tenure. It was the issue trustees hoped would be successfully addressed.
“I told the Board, ‘(President) Glenda Glover at Tennessee State is eating our lunch,’” said Covington. “I asked, ‘What are we going to do about it?’ She has done a good job of taking students out of West Tennessee and getting them to TSU.”
Covington recalled an event at Middle College High School on the campus of Christian Brothers University. Tennessee State University offered scholarships to all 86 seniors, many of them full rides. The scholarship awards were presented at a school assembly, where parents and students were supposed to be just hearing more about the college.
“Our challenge was not just simple enrollment,” said Covington. “A more pressing challenge was student retention. After only a short time in college, students are finding it necessary to leave school because of life situations. Most of our students come from impoverished homes and communities.
“We needed to address those issues that made it necessary for students to leave. Dr. Bennett-Fairs tried to shore up wrap-around services to help students. But in the end, it just wasn’t enough.”
Covington said the first year, enrollment was at 800. The number was satisfactory because it was back at the place it was before the pandemic.
“Before the pandemic, we were right at 800, on track to reach 1,000,” said Covington. “But in that second year, enrollment had slipped to 700, and retention was still a huge issue.”
Covington praised Bennett-Fairs, not only for a gracious and affable resignation letter, but her willingness to assist with the transition.
During her tenure, Bennett-Fairs introduced signature events, including the 807 Day Fundraiser and Loving Our Community Day (LOC), a grassroots effort.
Prior to her tenure at LOC, Bennett-Fairs served as Student Affairs vice-president at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi.
“Dr. Bennett- Fairs came to the LeMoyne-Owen College during the height of the pandemic,” said Kristin Hurd, president of the National Alumni Association for LOC. “Maneuvering through a new position, managing faculty and staff, and creating connections with the students and the Memphis community in a virtual environment was tough.
“We appreciate her time and efforts and wish her much success on her next endeavor.”