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Dr. Vernell Bennett-Fairs: How a ‘classically trained’ vocalist became LeMoyne-Owen College president

Dr. Vernell Bennett-Fairs sat down this week with The New Tri-State Defender to give a vivid account of her journey to the LeMoyne-Owen College President’s Office.

“I was going to be the first vocalist to be successful across all the genres,” said Bennett-Fairs, who began her tenure as LOC’s 13th president on Jan. 5.

“I had to be classically trained. I love secular music, I love R&B. I was going to Broadway, while I recorded an album. I was going to grad school for music in New York City. 

“But days after I got the scholarship in New York, I learned I was expecting. There was no way I was going into New York City with an infant.”

New LOC President Dr. Vernell Bennett-Fairs said the college is moving toward a new vision, with the early steps including a campaign to “re-introduce” the historic college. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

Bennett-Fairs said her move to Memphis is both the fruition of a dream and the greatest challenge of her life.

“Becoming president here was my full-circle moment,” Bennett-Fairs said. “I went from nontenure track instructor to president. I had always aspired to be president, but this is the first presidency I ever applied for.”

By looking at Bennett-Fairs’ resumé, perhaps she is one of the most unlikely college presidents.

Her degrees are in music. Bennett-Fairs taught music classes required for music majors and music appreciation courses for others. 

She expanded her involvement with student life on campus by getting involved with the band at Kentucky State University, a historically Black institution in Frankfort, Kentucky. Involvement with the band meant getting with the dancers.

A funny thing had happened on the way to a career on Broadway. Although Bennett-Fairs was a show-stopping consummate performer, had planned to sing her way to fame, she fell in love with campus life. 

Over a span of two decades, she had served in every administrative capacity, except president, at Kentucky State. 

Even as a vice-president, Bennett-Fairs would work a full school day in her office, then pull on her leggings and get down on the field where she could easily be mistaken for one of the student dancers.

(Before accepting a job as a college administrator, Bennett-Fairs mulled over an offer to join the Ebony Fashion Fair.)

All of those positions on African-American college campuses taught Bennett-Fairs how to immerse herself in student life and touch thousands of lives over the years — not only with her administrative savvy, but in guidance and mentoring.

“I still sing, and I will always sing. It’s just a part of what I do,” said Bennett-Fairs. “But I love campus life, and I love the opportunities to impact so many students. 

“I was at Delta State (University in Cleveland in the Mississippi Delta), coming here to Memphis every Saturday to get my hair done.

“I wanted to be a college president, but I was waiting for the right opportunity. And when I saw that description and read up on the institution’s mission and vision and what the institution stands for, I knew LeMoyne-Owen College was right for me.”

After Bennett-Fairs formally applied for the school’s presidency, she would drive, after her Saturday appointment, to the LeMoyne-Owen campus and just park. 

Bennett-Fairs was married for the first time last year on March 7, 2020, to Patric Fairs. She has one adult son, Jeffrey, who is 30.

“I would drive as far onto the campus as far as I could get, and I would just sit there and think about what I could do here,” said Bennett-Fairs. “I told myself, ‘I could really be impactful here. I was meant to be here.’”

Bennett-Fairs had fallen in love with LOC and Memphis long before becoming president. Now, her dreams are comprised of what the college could be in her administration.

“I am still talking with stakeholders, constituents, and people in the community,” said Bennett-Fairs. “So, our vision moving forward is still taking shape. I am on our ‘re-introduce LeMoyne-Owen College’ campaign. 

“Folks have no idea of who we are any more and who we are about to be. We’re doing that with the four ‘R’s: Recruit. Retention. Revenues. Relationships.”

For Bennett-Fairs, the most important “R” is relationships.

“We’ve been in a pandemic, so there have been a lot of virtual meetings,” said Bennett-Fairs. “We can’t have in-person meetings yet, but it’s important to virtually start shaking those hands and letting folks see my face.”

Just getting back out into the community and raising her visual profile as the new face of LeMoyne-Owen is a strategy that is working.

“I can’t tell you how many folks I’ve heard from. ‘Oh, it’s so good to hear all this positive momentum, all this positive buzz about LeMoyne Owen … We’re not hearing all this negative stuff.’ This helps recruitment and retention.”

And, what about that whopping $40 million endowment from the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis?

“That was something wonderful, something transformative,” said Bennett-Fairs. “We draw a certain percentage (up to $2 million) each year. It helps with fundraising because that gift says, ‘We’ve got this institution that is needed in our community, we endorse the institution, and we want you to do so as well.”

Dr. Vernell Bennett-Fairs is looking to become a fixture at LeMoyne-Owen College. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

As Bennett-Fairs raises her profile around Memphis and on campus, don’t be surprised if she’s seen “stepping and strolling” with Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.

“I’m so grateful for the outpouring of support,” said Bennett-Fairs. “The alumni really have shown that they are behind us, the community has been supportive as well, and I am so grateful.”


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