A Day In The Life Of An HBCU President

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College administration has always interested me. I guess it was inherent, seeing that both my Mom and Aunt have been on the college administrative scene for years. However, there’s something alluring about being the main representative of a university, shaping and structuring it the way you see fit. I often find myself imagining being the president of a college campus, especially that of an HBCU. I smile at the thrill inducing thoughts of making the institution that I lead one of the top in the nation. In a nutshell, I aspire to be the millennial Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough.

Dr. Kimbrough is by far the most recognizable college president on the scene today. He boasts an expansive social media following, the highest of all HBCU presidents (Dr. Kimbrough collectively reaches 28,000+ users across major social media platforms). The clout that he has on social media helps in effectively and inexpensively marketing the positives of Dillard to the University Community and prospective students. His social media reach also gives him a broad platform to communicate with students, alumni and other stakeholders at Dillard University while also confronting issues that arise around the university head-on. An example of one of the key issues that Dr. Kimbrough had to tame was the backlash surrounding the appearance of former Ku Klux Klan member David Duke on Dillard’s campus.

The media ran with the most salacious headline they could muster, a variation of “David Duke To Speak at Historically Black College”. However, in their rush to create a story that would get a large amount of clicks to their websites many news organizations that decided to report on this story blatantly left out facts that could’ve killed speculation and prevented individuals with no knowledge of the inner-workings of Dillard University from slandering the institution. First off, Dr. Kimbrough and Dillard University didn’t schedule or sponsor Duke’s appearance. Raycom Media rented the venue for a televised senate debate. Dr. Kimbrough knew nothing of David Duke’s appearance until a week before the event took place.
Another key piece of information is that Duke had been on Dillard University’s campus before, however back in the 1970’s. This wasn’t his first appearance. However, the mainstream media outlets reporting on the issue would have you believe that the school administrators sold out and were desperate for money. Dr. Kimbrough took to his platform on the blogging platform Medium and wrote an article entitled “David Duke Reminds Me of What Really Is Important”, hosted by HBCU Digest. The article gave a thorough explanation of how the appearance transpired and made down talkers on the institution look incredibly uninformed.

One major positive, however, that the controversy showed us is how forward thinking Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough is. His leadership style inspires students and administrators at HBCU’s and PWI’s alike. He’s a reflection of the hip-hop generation’s turn of leadership, always staying above the curve and speaking truth to power. Recently, I got my chance to have an exclusive interview with him about his journey to prominence and his presidency at Dillard University.

RB: How was your undergraduate experience at the University of Georgia?

Dr. Kimbrough: Very good. Black students first entered in 1961 so when I got there in 1985 we were relatively new as a group. But I made great friends at UGA that I hold today.

RB: You are an alumni of prominent predominately white institutions University of Georgia, Georgia State University and Miami University in Ohio. You’ve also have a wealth of experiences as HBCU’s such as Albany State University, Philander Smith College and Dillard University. What is the difference you see in the environment of a PWI vs. an HBCU? You’ve seen it from both the student and administrative side.

Dr. Kimbrough: What has been happening at PWIs is that we’ve seen the development of a school within a school. My high school had a magnet program for math and science. Some of us were in the magnet program but we were part of the larger high school, a school within a school. Black students at PWIs now have the same thing. You really can go to a white school and have little meaningful interaction with white students, faculty and staff. So you read people who go to PWIs say they think they have the same experience as their peers at HBCUs because of this phenomenon. But the big difference is that an HBCU is naturally structured and operated with a black student experience in mind. It isn’t part of the school; it is the school. My big thing for students is that go to places that are a best fit. PWIs are not HBCUs and black students should not expect them to have everything an HBCU has. If you want those things, go to an HBCU.

RB: How was your experience as the Vice President of Student Success at Albany State University in the early 2000’s?

Dr. Kimbrough: I will always love my Albany State experience. Great people, great students, and I think I learned how to be a good HBCU president (really just a good president) from Dr. Portia Holmes Shields who was the president there. Albany State was important in my professional development.

RB: Shortly after your tenure at Albany State, you finally became the president of Philander Smith College. How was that experience? What was your overall goal for the institution and did you achieve it?

Dr. Kimbrough: First presidencies are huge challenges because everything stops with you! It was overwhelming at first because I took over an institution in big trouble. I figure there were issues but not as many as I found. So the goal was really to have it function well- improve enrollment, fix audits, increase alumni giving, bring in stronger students, more visibility in the city and state. We did all of that- and I say we because it was clearly a team effort. I think I can only get credit for hiring some really good people.

RB: You are currently the president of Dillard University, one of the most prominent HBCU’s in the nation! How did your previous student and administrative experience help you with taking on this position?

Dr. Kimbrough: Philander Smith made me fearless so I knew that any challenges Dillard faced, even on the heels of Hurricane Katrina, could be overcome. So the advantage was I knew in advance what to look for in terms of areas of weakness, as well as identify opportunities more readily.

RB: Have you had any issues that you had to deal with in your position as president? If any, how did you handle it?

Dr. Kimbrough: There are always issues! Some are high profile, like the David Duke visit. But the things that are important, like cutting property insurance which skyrocketed after Katrina to over $2 million a year to now less than $800,000 is much more significant, but that saved our operating budget now over $1.2 million a year. So issues are always opportunities for achievement.

RB: You boast a significant increase in alumni giving at Dillard. What process did you go about to get those numbers up?

Dr. Kimbrough: I started off, just like at Philander Smith, with a national tour to meet alumni. At Dillard I visited alumni in 17 cites my first year from coast to coast. I think in our culture as Black folks, we like to “put our hands” on people, meaning we want to meet you in the flesh and feel you out. That starts to build the relationship. We do some visits now and have I improved all of our communication with them. Then you build momentum so more alums give each year.

RB: Dillard recently received tons of backlash after former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke was invited on campus. How were you able to mitigate the negative press?

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Dr. Kimbrough: We knew it was a salacious story- former Klansman, HBCU. In a social media age that is often fact free you really can’t control all the messaging. So we focused on internal communications. Yes, some students didn’t like it, but the press never mentioned that more students attended the SGA planned alternative event than the protest, where most of the protesters were NOT our students. Or as I told people, if you see all the white students in the photos, you know those are not Dillard students- we wish we were that diverse but not yet. So it was probably tense for 48 hours, but the day after the debate it was back to normal for the most part.

RB: After the news of David Duke’s appearance at Dillard, you took to your platform on Medium to address the controversy. You are incredibly savvy on social media, holding a Klout score of 80, putting you in the top 5 % of most social media users, and a following of tens of thousands. How has social media helped you in your mission of growth and prosperity for Dillard University?

Dr. Kimbrough: I’ve been building a social media profile for over a decade, and have the strongest social media platform of any HBCU president and one of the largest for all presidents. Social media is a free way to engage all kinds of people in your mission, and I like to use it for good news. So you will see me promote great events, brag on students, faculty or staff, repost great stories about alums, and even comment on contemporary issues. It is such a great tool.

RB: How do you view the state of HBCU’s

Dr. Kimbrough: I think this is a new era for HBCUs. There are about 20 presidents now of 4 year HBCUs (out of about 87) that ae early 50s and younger. So a new generation is leading the HBCU community, and I think this is going to benefit the entire sector. I also believe the tension from the University of Missouri which we have seen on lots of campuses is causing more people to look closely at HBCUs. It is our chance to change some opinions about who we are.

RB: You were critical of Dr. Dre giving $35 million dollars to University of South California back in 2013. There are many celebrities, athletes and business tycoons that either attended or graduated from HBCU’s. How would you propose getting them back invested in our institutions?

Dr. Kimbrough: They need to be cultivated- communications, visits, etc. We have to start with our own and not just hope some random celebrity will support us. It does happen- Charles Barkley recently gave $1 million each to Alabama A&M and CAU. Those kinds of gifts should be a dessert, not the main meal because we can’t live off of those which are few and far between. We need to start with those who know us best.

Follow Dr. Kimbrough on social media: Twitter, IG, Periscope, Snap, Blog on Medium: @hiphopprez

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