Fuse-Hall spent decades preparing for Bennett presidency
Dr. Rosalind Fuse-Hall has long had her eye on the presidency of Bennett College, one of just two historically African American women’s colleges in the nation.
“Ten years ago, I applied for the job at Bennett, and I didn’t get it,” Fuse-Hall confessed last month.
Back in 2002, the Bennett Board of Trustees went instead with Dr. Johnnetta Cole, an education luminary who had a momentous reign as the president of Spelman (the nation’s other black female school).
Fuse-Hall was no slouch herself, even back then. She’d been a lecturer and adjunct professor at her alma mater, UNC Chapel Hill, and had success in a number of administrative posts, including that of executive assistant to then-North Carolina Central University Chancellor James Ammons. But she knew that to be charged with leading a storied institution like Bennett, she needed to up her game.
Fuse-Hall pictured her résumé as a tool box and spent the 10-plus years since her Bennett rejection filling it with the essentials she lacked.
Ammons encouraged her to tackle institutional advancement and student affairs challenges at Central. She learned the ins and outs — and then some — of higher education governance as the corporate secretary to the Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina system. In 2007, Ammons asked her to continue to be his right-hand at Florida A&M University, where she was hands-on in the fundraising, legislative lobbying and campus construction/facilities spheres.
Late last year, Fuse-Hall decided it was time to apply for the Bennett presidency again.
“When I came this time, my tool kit was full,” she said.
Cole had left in 2007 and was succeeded by Dr. Julianne Malveaux, a famed economist who led the school for five years before retiring to concentrate on writing and lecturing. Last year, Dr. Esther Terry was pegged to serve as interim president — the school’s first alumna to hold the top position — as the Trustees conducted a nationwide search for a permanent leader.
Trustee Chairman Charles Barrentine cited Fuse-Hall’s well-rounded background as he announced that she had been named the school’s new president earlier this year.
“She brings a wealth of management, fundraising, and governance experience to the position,” he said. “The Board has every confidence that she will take the college to the next level of excellence. We all stand ready to eagerly assist her presidency.”
Fuse-Hall proudly boasts that education is in her DNA. She grew up on the campus of Fayetteville State University, where her father, Bobby L. Fuse, was a math professor. Her mother, Vivian, taught mathematics in the Cumberland County school system for more than 30 years. Five of her aunties also taught. There was a time when she dreamed of breaking the family tradition.
“The revolutionary part of me wanted to do something other than education,” she recalled.
She earned a law degree from Rutgers and then subsequently clerked in New Jersey Superior Court and served as a staff attorney at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in New York City. The satisfaction her parents experienced by shaping minds was lacking for her, though.
“I couldn’t see myself doing (law) for the rest of my life,” she said. “It wasn’t fulfiling … I wasn’t representing any black clients; I wasn’t saving any black clients money, I wasn’t increasing any black clients’ money.”
Upstate New York’s St. Lawrence University, where her husband, NCCU political science professor Dr. Jarvis Hall, was teaching at the time, extended an opportunity to her to help polish its minority affairs office. The job was the beginning of the long string of administrative posts that impressed Bennett trustees.
Her decades of experiences and immeasurable skills will be put to good use at Bennett. A five-year strategic plan developed last year includes objectives school leaders believe will position Bennett as a global college of the 21st Century. Growing the student body — now about 700 — to 1,000 is a key priority. Fuse-Hall said all colleges and universities face a “competitive challenge.”
“We are all competing for the best and the brightest students that are out there,” she said. “Our strength is that for 140 years, we have been educating and graduating outstanding young women to go on and serve as change agents in their communities …”
Those change agents have included alumnae like Dr. Dorothy L. Brown, who at the height of Jim Crow became the South’s first black female general surgeon; actress/activist Maidie Norman, who found success on the big screen while fighting against Hollywood stereotypes; Belinda Foster, a 1979 graduate who went on to become the state’s first black district attorney; and Charlotte journalist Alexis Mitchell, who along with her WBTV morning crew team, won an Emmy last year.
Fuse-Hall says there are countless Bennett Belles just like those ladies — women with the confidence, knowledge and moxie to succeed despite the odds.
“It takes a lot of courage for a young woman to come to a small, liberal arts college where you are noticed. You’re noticed if you are missing from the classroom; you’re noticed if you are contributing to the class; you’re noticed if you are walking around trying to do a leadership event. You are noticed,” she said.
Fuse-Hall — whose daughter Ifetoya (a recent UNC Chapel Hill graduate) is following the family’s path as a Teach for America educator in Texas — is ready for the challenges presidency brings. She’s been preparing to face them for most of her professional life. She stands on broad shoulders — a fact she uses as encouragement rather than intimidation.
“When you follow in what I call the original sister president, Dr. Johnnetta Cole, and Julianne Malveaux …. and Esther Terry …, it places upon me a huge responsibility to carry on their leadership because all of them have advanced the college,” she said.