In an interview with TSD Education columnist Curtis Weathers, Dr. Vernell Bennett-Fairs described her recruitment style: “I will show up on your doorstep.”

by Curtis Weathers —

Dr. Vernell Bennett-Fairs will begin her new tenure as president of LeMoyne-Owen College (LOC) Jan. 5.

She will be the college’s 13th president and brings more than 25 years of higher education experience to the job of leading one of greater Memphis’ most cherished educational institutions.

I spoke with Dr. Bennett-Fairs last week (virtually) and came away extremely impressed with the energy and enthusiasm she has for her new job, and her excitement about becoming a resident of Memphis.  

She made it clear during our virtual visit that she is about building wide-ranging relations as a way to move the 158-year-old historically HBCU (History Black College and University) forward.

But before going further, we would be remiss if we did not thank Dr. Carol Johnson-Dean, who has served as interim president of LOC for the past 18 months. She has guided the college through incredibly challenging times.

Thank you, Dr. Johnson-Dean, for your service. You are very much appreciated! 

LeMoyne-Owen’s Board of Trustees conducted an exhaustive six-month search for the right person to serve as their president. 

Dr. Bennett-Fairs emerged from a competitive pool of 78 highly qualified candidates for the job.

“We selected Dr. Bennett-Fairs because of her vast experience in higher education, and we are especially impressed with her student recruitment successes,” said Johnny Pitts, LOC search committee chair.

Dr. Bennett-Fairs is a native of Lorain, Ohio, married, and has a 26-year-old son. She brings a family-like disposition to the job and is excited about meeting and interacting with alumni, students, faculty, and the greater Memphis community.  

This job is a dream come true for Dr. Bennett-Fairs. She is a product of the HCBU community and has had aspirations of being a college president since her undergraduate years at Fisk University in Nashville.

Her last position was at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi in the Mississippi Delta, where she served for more than four years as vice-president of Student Affairs.

During her DSU tenure, she increased student enrollment, realigned the college’s scholarship budget and helped attract students from over 50 different countries.

As LeMoyne-Owen president, Dr. Bennett-Fairs will be responsible for providing executive leadership for fundraising, strategic planning and implementation, management for the college, as well as other aspects of the college presidency. 

During our conversation, she spoke passionately about her “four R’s” approach to executive leadership, which included: Relationships, Recruitment, Retention and Revenue, with a specific emphasis on “Relationships.”

I gave her an A-plus for that answer.  

She believes that relationship building with and between students, staff, alumni, and the community, is the key to achieving long-term success. 

“Without strong relationships, both on-campus and off-campus, the other three R’s will be much harder to achieve,” she said. 

Much of what I have heard and read about Dr. Bennett-Fairs has centered around her unique ability to recruit new students. She seems to take that particular responsibility personally.  

With enrollment at LOC on the decline this year (due in part to the pandemic), we discussed how she would approach attracting the best and brightest from the greater Memphis area to LeMoyne-Owen. 

She again referred to her four R’s, with particular emphasis again on relationship building. 

“I will show up on your doorstep,” she said about her style of recruitment.  

One of her signature recruitment strategies used at Delta State was a program called “Faculty Teaching Day in High Schools.” College professors visited high schools throughout the community, personally interacted with students and even taught classes in their schools. This approach helped build critical relationships with school leaders, teachers and students.

Recruitment and budgets are at the top of her list of priorities. The pandemic has had a significant impact on enrollment this year. Tuition and fees make up the lion’s share of the college’s budget.

That reality was tempered, somewhat, in July thanks to LOC receiving a $40 million endowment from the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis. LOC can use $2 million a year from the endowment.

LeMoyne-Owen has had notable accomplishments in 2020. They secured a partnership with Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare to expand health and wellness services for its students.

LOC’s trustees are pleased with their selection of Dr. Bennett-Faris.

“We feel confident that she will continue the transformation that’s already underway here at LeMoyne-Owen College,” said trustee Patricia Covington.

So, on behalf of our family at The New Tri-State Defender and, of course, the greater Memphis community, we welcome Dr. Vernell Bennett-Fairs to the Bluff City.

Let’s help her become not just a good college president, but a GREAT one!

Be safe, Memphis!

(Follow TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers on Twitter (@curtisweathers); email: [email protected])