As Dr. Julianne Malveaux, 15th president of Bennett College, prepares to graduate her first full class, the Bennett Banner reflects on the ups and downs from the past four years.
Dr. Julianne Marie Malveaux wears many hats. If you’ve met her, then you know they are colorful hats. Her hats will more than likely be autumn colored, and match the texture of one of her vibrant pantsuits.
Julianne Marie Malveaux was born the oldest of five children on September 22, 1956 in San Francisco, Calif. After completing the 11th grade, she studied economics at Boston College. She received both her bachelor and master degrees from there. Then she continued on to earn her Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1980.
She is an economist, author, commentator, print journalist, activist, and founder of Last Word Productions, a multimedia production company based in Washington, D.C. However to the Greensboro community, she is most commonly known as the president of a small liberal arts college for women, Bennett College.
Malveaux became the 15th president of Bennett College on June 1, 2007. Many say she followed a very popular and treasured president, Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole. Cole was president of Bennett College for five years. Before joining the Bennett family, she served in the same role for ten years at Spelman College.
Malveaux had big shoes to fill. She represented a new breed of college presidents who did not work their way up within the academy. Dr. Cole took the traditional route as a professor, department head, division head, and then president. Instead, Malveaux brought her business background into the college setting.
Dr. Eric Cole, who first met Malveaux through Dr. Johnnetta’s diversity program, says he liked the idea of someone having practical experience and bringing that into the campus.
“She was extremely bright and very articulate,” says Dr. Eric Cole, director of developmental math and experiential learning at Bennett.
“When she has an opinion, she is not persuaded by what you think. When she makes a statement, she has the facts to back it up. I was impressed with that. I actually admired that about her,” says Dr. Eric Cole who also serves on the Bennett College Board of Trustees.
Malveaux says people encouraged her to apply for the position at Bennett. It was 2006; she was 53 years old and described her life as very full and enjoyable.
“Dr. Cole, Dr. Dorothy Height, and Dr. Angelou all said to me this might be something you want to do. I have to tell you, my application came in the last day it was due because I had such ambivalence,“ Malveaux admitted.
“I love black people, I love us, I love us as women, and at the same time I knew it would require some behavior modification on my part.”
She applied for the position to fulfill her life’s purpose, which she says is to lift up black women.
When she found out she had received the position as Bennett’s 15th president, she says she was elated, excited, and also scared.
“I did not want to let anyone down. I did not want to let us down. We, black women, have so much we have to do, and I did not want to be the one to let us down.”
Malveaux says she sometimes feels like a caged bird.
“There are some things that I can’t say, some things that I can’t do, but it is all good because it is for ya’ll.”
Dr. Julianne Malveaux says she’s devoted the last four years of her life to Bennett College. She says the work hasn’t been easy, but it has been fulfilling as she watches the class that started Bennett with her prepare to graduate.
Who is That Woman?
“She was literally like a walking business. People were giving her books and business cards. She had a lot of respect from the people around her, and because I was with her I was treated so well,” says Del’Risha White, sophomore journalism major from San Francisco, Calif.
White had the opportunity to shadow President Malveaux her freshwoman year. White says she saw a side to her president she’d never seen before on a trip to Chicago.
“But to us [Bennett College students], she’s just our president. She lives here. Her office is here. We eat with her in the café. She’s just Julianne to us.”
Malveaux says one of the reasons she was hired at Bennett is because she is a media personality.
“I love publicity. Publicity is what we are about,” Malveaux said.
“That was my life before I came to Bennett, and that is my life now. I enjoy the opportunity to represent.”
You can find her columns in major publications like Essence, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today. She appears as an analyst/commentator on networks like BET, CNN, C-SPAN, and PBS. She’s appeared multiple times in CNN’s “Black in America” series.
During her time at Bennett, she has even written a book: Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History.
Sierra Morton says that Dr. Malveaux’s publicity allows the world to see the treasure that is Bennett College.
“There are a lot of great things going on here. Having someone as media savvy, as Dr. Malveaux was a great transition from Dr. Cole. It kept the ball rolling,” says the former SGA president.
The Activist on the Other Side of the Fence
2008 was a year of many protests for Bennett Belles. The student body traveled to Jena, Louisiana, Washington D.C., West Virginia, and then to their very own flagpole.
Belles went to Jena, Louisiana to protest on behalf of six black teenagers who were given severe convictions for beating up Justin Barker, a white student from Jena High. Malveaux said she was excited to see Belles help the fight. Belles protested three months after Malveaux became president and she said it was confirmation she was in the right place.
After Jena 6, Belles were asked to speak at Al Sharpton’s social justice rally in Washington, D.C.
Tiffany Lindsey, the 2007-2008 Student Government Association president, says Dr. Malveaux was influential in the process.
“Dr. Malveaux really made that trip happen because we didn’t have the money in the budget. We rented two cars and took about 12 students,” says Lindsey.
She said Malveaux even had her assistant rent the cars for transportation.
“This was our third trip and we needed help providing the funds.”
Lindsey says Malveaux even met the group of girls at five in the morning to wish them a good trip.
“Little things like that to make sure we got on the road safely. She came and met us to say she was proud of us. Proud we got up on a Saturday to go to D.C. and a fight a good fight. She was so committed to us being committed to social justice. “
But, the tables soon turned. Dr. Malveaux became the president on June 1, 2007, and six months later the student body led a protest against her new Academic and Cultural Enrichment Series (ACES) policies. ACES is a bi-weekly mandatory program for all Bennett College students.
During the Fall 2008 academic semester, the administration ended the point system that weighed some ACES programs more than others. Malveaux’s administration made every ACES equal. Tiffany Lindsay says since the satisfactory grade for ACES rose as well some students were nervous about meeting the minimal requirements.
“ACES points effect pledging, graduating with honors, among other things. The student body felt that changes like that should have been made with student’s perspective.”
So, students boycotted the February 14, 2008 ACES program. They first joined hands around the campus flagpole, and then the crowed moved to the front of the president’s home. The students then song, We Shall Overcome.
Sierra Morton says she participated in the protest because she wanted to be an involved student.
“It wasn’t that I totally disagreed with Dr. Malveaux, but there are some things that I disagreed on with administration and how administration handles students. I wanted to be apart of the excitement, and I wanted to be apart of the movement.”
Malveaux says she was very disturbed by the protest and frankly it hurt her feelings.
“Why are you protesting the fact that Cornel West and Dr. Michael Eric Dyson are coming to campus? I still do not understand it. But you know what students manifest their frustrations threw protest. And it is the role of the administration to be both firm and flexible with their work.”
Dr. Eric Cole was scheduled to have lunch with the ACES speaker that day. The guest speaker was an employee of Dell computers and donated a computer to the school. Cole says Malveaux was willing to give away her computer to a student who wrote an essay.
“Even the in the midst of a protest she was looking for a way to help students. People never seem to focus on that. She is always doing things, in my opinion, to help students behind the scenes.”
Dr. Cole says the president shared with him that day that she was the one doing the protesting when she was in school.
“Part of her, I think, admired the courage of the students doing it because she is an activist. She is always going to speak up about an injustice because that is her nature. She respected the fact they had an opportunity to protest.”
Cole says that while trying to explain her perspective, Malveaux became frustrated—she didn’t feel the students were hearing her side of the story.
“That’s a hard place to be in as a leader. I don’t think that people really tried to hear her side.”
Lindsey the SGA president at the time says she thinks Malveaux felt students were protesting her instead of the issue. Lindsey wished some things could have been different since a Board of Trustee’s meeting was being held at that time.
“I wish all of the negativity that resulted from it could have changed and I wish the timing could have been different.”
Looking back at the 2008 protest, Malveaux said she would have handled it the same.
“I think that there were some things I would not have liked to be outcomes, but I think that it was a lesson for me. I’m the president; I’m not your girlfriend. And we just had to work through that.“
Lindsey said Malveaux was always committed to the students being committed about social issues. She says that commitment is what led her to law school.
“I was on my ways to being a journalist but that year, in that role, changed my life. [I wanted to] fight the injustices to what we felt were wrong.”
Lindsey graduated with the class of 2007, and now studies criminal defense law at Howard University Law School.
In a later meeting, Lindsey says Malveaux opened up to her about a protest she did while in college. Malveaux told her that she’d sat an axe on her college president’s desk.
During November of the 2010 academic semester, an anonymous letter outlining some students’ concerns bypassed President Malveaux and was emailed to the entire Bennett College Board of Trustees. The letter came from an unknown group of students who signed the letter, “Concerned Belles.”
Dr. Eric Cole says Malveaux’s first reaction was to figure out who sent the letter, so she could address the issues with them directly. But, the authors of the letter remained anonymous.
“If they had legitimate concerns. They didn’t have the courage to sign their name?”
Malveaux said she doesn’t know who the “Concerned Belles” are and she does not deal with anonymous people.
“If you cannot sign your name to it, I can’t deal with it.“
Malveaux says she never refused a meeting with any student: angry, happy, lonely, or sad. Therefore, the concerned Bennett Belles bothered her because they never reached out to her. Although she admitted the letter hurt her feelings, she recognizes that her feeling were not the issue. She says as a college, Bennett tries to teach students to handle things in a mature and reasonable way.
Sierra Morton, the Student Government Association president at the time says she told the president one reason why students may not come directly to her about their issues.
“I told her there is a fear on campus with her and her administration; even with the open door policy. There are students who fear that if they were to say something there will be negative consequences.“
Erica Harris a senior psychology major says that when some students don’t get what they want, they feel like their voices aren’t heard, or that Malveaux is not hear for us.
“She listens to everyone. We just might not get the answer we want from her. And sometimes, the best idea is to not get what we want.”
Harris says that if she were in the president’s shoes, her feelings would have been hurt as well.
“If I walk around and I tell people ‘if you have a problem email me, come see me’ and to be blind sided by a letter that didn’t even come to me first. It went straight above me to the Board of Trustees and to alums. Parents even knew about the letters.”
The “Concerned Belles” have yet to be identified.
A Time to Celebrate
President Malveaux and the student body rejoiced together as Barack Obama was announced the 43rd president and first African American president of the United States.
“I think that was the most exciting thing to be around young people who were that excited about a political event,” says Malveaux, who took a leave of absence to attend the Democratic Convention and represent Bennett College.
Erica Harris, the sophomore class president at the time, says Bennett College was an exciting place to be when the presidential results were announced.
“The [students were] just losing their minds. People were running across the street to A&T, and people were barefoot, and chanting. It was like a big party.”
She says it was something great for the campus that brought togetherness, and unity, and sisterhood.
The Economist at Work
The rumor amongst students is the president never sleeps. She is notorious for sending 2:00 a.m. emails. Malveaux says it is because a lot of stuff keeps her up at night.
“The bills keep me up at night. How we get this done keeps me up at night.”
President Malveaux says students’ concerns are one of her many concerns.
“I want students to have a wonderful time here, but also a realistic time here. It is an oasis where we educate and celebrate women, but you have to understand that administration is not your enemy. I will do whatever I can for anyone of you. Whoever says, ‘I need this,’ I’m there.”
When Malveaux began her tenure at Bennett, the entire college was encumbered. Bennett could not borrow a penny. She was not surprised because her predecessor, Dr. Johnnetta Cole, warned her about Bennett’s financial status. Malveaux came in ready to work and spent a year attempting to renegotiate the college’s debt. With the help of friends, legislatures, colleagues, alumnae, and Reverend Jesse Jackson, Malveaux managed to restructure Bennett’s debt. This move allowed for one of her proudest accomplishments, starting new construction on campus.
“I think this was really important to do. It makes a real difference in our campus and our community,” says Malveaux.
The college broke ground on a 21 million dollar construction campaign in 2009. The campaign produced four projects: The Wellness Complex, The Intergenerational Center/Children’s House, The Honors Dorm, and The Global Learning Center. All four projects were completed by Spring 2011.
“A lot of people [ask], ‘why the new construction when the dorms aren’t perfect?’ You’re not going to ever be able to raise money for imperfection, but bricks and mortar build momentum. And from that momentum we can build the dollars to fix what we need to fix,” says Malveaux.
Malveaux’s goal was to put Bennett on a better fiscal footing. And, that goal has been met. She admits she did not know it would all happen so quickly, but she says she sleeps good at night knowing she exceeded her own expectations.
The Global Learning Center was one of the new buildings constructed under Malveaux’s leadership. Students understood the need for a new dorm, however some questioned why the president needed an entire building devoted to global learning.
After Julianne Malveaux graduated from college in 1974, her parents gave her the gift of a trip to Tanzania. She says the trip changed her life, and spurred her passion to be engaged in the international community.
Tatiana Walker, a junior psychology major from Queens, NY, joined Malveaux on a trip to Haiti during the Fall 2010 academic semester. Malveaux says the trip was a prime example of what she thinks a college president is supposed to do.
“You find an issue, you engage a student on the issue, and empower a student to come back and deal with the issue,” Malveaux said with a smile.
Malveaux considers the Haiti trip to represent exactly who she is. It’s her hope that the Global Learning Center and the global studies program will encourage students to travel abroad to gain their own international experiences.
Over “60 Little Juliannes”
Erica Harris remembers the first time she met her new college president. It was her first Halloween on campus, and she along with her friends went to the president’s house at 10:30 p.m. to ask for candy.
“She came downstairs and she had on a [nightgown], and she was barefoot. She opened the door, and kindly said ‘The kids already got the candy.’”
Harris says she was pleasantly surprised that Dr. Malveaux answered the door considering how late it was at night. Harris says the group of Belles left the president’s doorstep, and agreed in unison that the new president of Bennett College was ‘kind of cool.’
The class of 2011 was never a shy class.
“We defiantly came in as firecrackers,” laughed Harris.
Malveaux will graduate her first class on May 7, 2011, and some people say the world is not ready for over “60 Little Juliannes” to enter the workforce.
Sierra Morton, former SGA president says the class mimics the president in several ways.
“We voice our opinions. We are very outspoken, and when we see a problem we are going to fix it.”
Some say the class of 2011 may have got caught up in the issues of their big sisters when they first entered the campus, but they soon found their own voice.
“We came in freshwomen, and it is a natural thing when you are new to a school to follow who the leaders are at the time. Although, we were not exactly sure what ACES was. We knew that our sisters were upset. We were taught as soon as we got here to stick together. If one person was unhappy, we were all unhappy,” says Harris who served as the class of 2011’s president their sophomore and junior years.
Harris talks about how her class has grown.
“If we see something we don’t like we are going to voice it right or wrong. Sometimes we may fail, but we do it with grace because we are Bennett Belles. Just as Dr. Malveaux has learned from her mistakes, we’ve learned from ours as well. Now we all seem to have a found a peacefulness, and a calm that allows us to get what we need to get done.
Harris says she thinks the president has grown over the last four years.
“I think [Malveaux] breathes now before she responds. I think that’s the growth that she breathes.“
President Malveaux says her biggest challenge as a human being is that she is very hard on herself.
“I think that I should be perfect. Being here has reminded me that you are not perfect. You’ve seen me soar, and you’ve seen my stumble. You’ve seen me make phenomenal home runs and also mistakes.”
You can see the love in Malveaux’s eyes as she says she loves her first class.
“There are many who have been so much of a gift in my life. I grew as a president and they grew as young people, and it’s been a lot for me.”
The president has made an indelible mark her first four years on campus. The students say they’ve benefited from the president’s extensive network. Influential figures like Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, Dr. Cornell West, Soledad O’Brien, Harriette Cole, Victoria Rowell, and Bill Cosby have all spoken to students on campus to name a few.
Students say they’ve been able to see the real Julianne Malveaux as she’s grown into her role as president.
“I honestly feel that as president she is able to be Julianne Malveaux and not Dr. Julianne Malveaux. We see her as our president. We don’t really see the hats she wears when she is away,” says Erica Harris a senior from Jacksonville, Fla.
Dr. Malveaux knows she’ll be forever linked to the capital improvement projects, but she wants her students to remember her for being her.
“I hope I’m also remembered for keeping it real. I guess if you polled students some of ya’ll love me, some of ya’ll are not so in love with me. And that’s ok. But I want ya’ll to always know it is real. Let’s just keep it real.“
By: Myeisha Essex