Sue Bennett College is a former private college in London, Kentucky and was in operation from 1897 through 1997. Affiliated with the Women’s Division of the General Board of Global Ministries, the national organization of the United Methodist Church, it began as an elementary school before becoming a two-year college.
The Bennett family of Madison County were one of the wealthiest in the state. Their daughters, Sue and Isabel (Belle), welded their influence to help provide educational opportunities to lower-income residents of the Appalachian region. London was selected as it was located on the Louisville & Nashville Railroad and on two major roadways.6 Together, the Bennett family was able to receive financial support of local organizations and businesses, and was able to obtain a $20,000 grant from the women of the Methodist Parsonage Society and $20,000 in matching funds from local donors.4
Ground was broken for the main building on May 8, 1896.6 Sue died before the dream was realized, but on January 1, 1897,5 Belle opened the school to elementary students.1 4 Belle named it Sue Bennett Memorial School in honor of her sister. Among its founders were Sue and Belle Bennett, Lucinda B. Helm, John J. Dickey and Sarah Harding Sawyer.5 Classes began four days later.
In 1901, high school classes were added when the Commercial Department building was constructed.4 From 1910 until 1933, the complex served as the county’s high school. In 1922, the school became a two-year college 4 5 and the name was changed to Sue Bennett College in 1930.1 It received accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools (later known as Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or SACS) in 1932.5
The first president of the college held office for 20 years, followed by eight successors, each of whom served less than a decade each.4 Earl F. Hayes took office in 1958 and served for nearly 30 years.
Decline and Closure
In 1983, SACS placed the school on accreditation probation for financial problems, including $6 million in debt.4 Money was borrowed from the endowments for chairs and scholarships to pay off the debt and a five-year financial plan was developed. Accreditation was reinstated by SACS shortly after.
In the mid-1980’s, facing declining enrollment in full time students, efforts were made to replace them with part-time students.4 The part-time students paid less tuition and had no room or board fees, causing long-term revenue to decline.
In 1991, the University of Kentucky proposed making Sue Bennett part of the community college system.4 The trustees recommended the merger with a sweeping vote of 13 to 2, but the Women’s Division of the General Board of Global Ministries that ultimately owned the property and controlled the trustees, stated that the school was not for sale.
A new president, Paul Bunnell, was elected in the fall who added four new sports programs for the 1992 season: football, men’s soccer, women’s volleyball and cross-country.4 The athletic programs, which were to be hosted off-campus, were projected to add 50 students to campus without increasing administrative costs, but the enrollment growth never came.
Additionally, the new president pushed to begin a four-year business degree program.4 Other programs, such as social service, paralegal, nursing, secretarial services, law enforcement and education, were also proposed.
Despite that, finances remained unstable at the college. The college’s $2 million debt was being used to cover student financial aid. Vendors were complaining about bills not being paid in 1995, followed by complaints by faculty members that retirement benefits withheld from their salaries were not being paid.4 The university’s auditors resigned in 1996.
Despite that, the college announced that it had boosted enrollment by 14% and that it would build three new dormitories.4
In June 1997, Bunnel resigned under pressure.4 James Cheek, Sue Bennett’s academic dean, was named president. Just one day after taking office, Cheek was notified that the SACS had recommended its removal from its list of approved members due to ongoing financial and administrative problems. The problems SACS listed included insufficient educational resources, library collections, technology, an unclear institutional purpose, a lack of guidelines for evaluations, insufficiently prepared faculty and poor finances.
The college’s accreditation was stripped on September 22.3 Cheek immediately reached out to neighboring colleges, asking that they enroll Sue Bennett’s 319 students so that they would be able to complete their fall semester and to ensure 20 students graduation in December.4
The United States Department of Education imposed an emergency action against the college on October 6, where it issued a Notice of Intent to Terminate Sue Bennett College from participating in the federal student financial assistance programs authorized by Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965.3 The college appealed but was rejected by Judge Richard Slippen on February 10, 1998.
The Internal Revenue Service additionally placed a lien on the college for long unpaid bills and for approximately $200,000 in unpaid withholding taxes.4 Despite offers from faculty to take a 5% pay cut, the possibility of a gift from Claudia Sanders, the widow of Colonel Harlan Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and $800,000 raised in a fund-raising campaign, it was discovered that the debts of $2 million were so large that there would be no method to cover faculty salaries for the remainder of the semester.
Despite a fund-raising campaign, with no accreditation, federal or state funds, Sue Bennett College closed after the end of the fall semester on November 26, 1997 after 101 years of operations.2 Most of the students transferred to Cumberland College, Union College and Lindsey Wilson College, where those institutions agreed to waive admission fees, allow the transfer of all academic credits and provide financial assistance equal to what they were receiving at Sue Bennett.4
London-native Jim Hayes, the eldest son of former president Earl Hayes, acquired the former Sue Bennett campus in early 2014.7 The campus at the time was being used for by Laurel County Adult Education, Sunrise Children’s Services, and Connect Church, and one of the dormitories was reused as an apartment complex.
Hayes’ goals were to reuse the Administration Building for an antique store, and for an alumni suite, clear out Helm Hall of its dormitory supplies, and secure the Belle Bennett Auditorium.7 Hayes also planned to lease the swimming pool in the Scoville Building to the London-Laurel County Rescue Squad for $1 per year.