Dillard’s young, new president
30th April 2012 · 0 Comments
By Edmund W. Lewis
The Louisiana Weekly Editor
On the day that Dr. Walter Kimbrough was announced as Dillard University’s next president, the front page of the local daily paper also had several stories about several murder victims from the previous night. For some, that suggested the timing of Dr. Kimbrough’s appointment couldn’t have been any better.
Kimbrough, who is wrapping up his final semester as president of Philander Smith College, has been described by some as a hands-on administrator who has the ability to connect with college students and challenge them to get actively involved in finding solutions to the problems that plague the Black community.
Kimbrough has used hip-hop music and culture to connect ties with today’s college students so effectively that he has earned the moniker “the Hip-Hop College President.”
After graduating from the Benjamin E. Mays High School and Academy of Math and Science in Atlanta as the Salutatorian and Student Body President, Dr. Kimbrough
earned a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture in biology from the University of Georgia in 1989. He continued his education at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, completing a Master of Science Degree in College Student Personnel Services in 1991, and in 1996 he earned a Doctor of Philosophy Degree in Higher Education from Georgia State University.
Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough is the 12th president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas. Before assuming leadership of Philander Smith College, he served in administrative capacities at Albany State University, Old Dominion University, Georgia State University and Emory University.
Dr. Kimbrough and his wife Adria Nobles Kimbrough, associate general counsel with the University of Arkansas System, are the proud parents of two children: Lydia Nicole, five, and Benjamin Barack, two. He is the son of the Rev. Walter L. Kimbrough, pastor emeritus of Cascade United Methodist Church in Atlanta, and Marjorie L. Kimbrough, author and lecturer. He has one brother, Wayne.
Kimbrough says he has attended a number of conferences in New Orleans over the course of his professional career that helped him to become acquainted with the Crescent City and its cultural offerings. “Like most people who visit the city, you’re in there for a few days — you know the reputation of the city, particularly in terms of the culinary arts and of course the Saints,” he told The Louisiana Weekly in a recent interview. “I just had basic knowledge of the city but my wife knew a little bit more — she’s from Mobile (Alabama) so she’s close to it.”
Kimbrough says his church upbringing and his social circle helped to familiarize him with Dillard University and its academic reputation. “Dillard was always one of those places that I knew a lot about,” he explained. “It’s also affiliated with the United Methodist Church like Philander Smith College — I’m a United Methodist preacher’s kid. I also knew people from Atlanta who went to Dillard and people at Philander who worked there, so I’ve always had a very high impression of Dillard.”
Dr. Kimbrough almost accepted a position as vice chancellor of student affairs at Dillard when Dr. Michael Lomax served as president but ended up accepting a vice president post at Albany State University.
As excited as Dr. Kimbrough says he is about taking over the reins at Dillard, he admits that it wasn’t an easy or simple decision.
“It was tough for me because I’ve been here for over seven years now and we thought about looking at some options for the last three or four years,” he explained. “Pretty much when a position opens up at an HBCU, I got a head hunter calling me and saying ‘You need to look at this one.’ I was like, ‘Oh no, things are going well here…’
“We’ve made a lot of progress here,” Kimbrough continued. “Philander was sort of obscure, people didn’t know a lot about the institution even though it has a really strong history. We started doing some really phenomenal things here as a team. It’s been a really good place. Particularly, once you spend a lot of time getting a situation right, you become sort of selfish. It’s like, ‘Do I want to turn this over to someone after putting all this sweat equity into it?’ So at first I was like, ‘No, I think I’m just going to try to ride out Philander and keep doing what we’re doing here.’”
Unfortunately, for Philander at least, those who believed Dr. Kimbrough was a good fit for Dillard University weren’t going to give up that easily.
“When the search firm contacted me, they insisted that I at least listen. I already had a short list of places that I wouldn’t mind being president of at some point in time,” Kimbrough told The Louisiana Weekly. “Dillard was definitely on that list — it was one that I always looked to.
“Once I got into the process and got to hear about the prospects, it sort of seemed like it was a good fit. I really had to go with my gut. Sort of like, ‘Is this where I’m supposed to be at this point in time?’ Going through that process and the interviews, I was like, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be.’ That’s how I felt. And everything since that time continues to confirm that it’s a great fit. It’s going to be a real good experience and we’ll be able to do a lot of creative things there.”
Asked about some of the factors that drew him to Dillard, Kimbrough said the fact that the institution is “church-related” was “a big plus” for him, along with the size of the student body. “I like to have personal connections with students and really know them and know people by name, so that was really important for me,” he explained. “Students at big schools want that too, but it’s practically impossible to do. It’s easier to do that at a smaller school and that’s and advantage that has to be maximized. Based on my interactions with students at Dillard during a recent visit, they really want that kind of engagement.
“There’s a lot going for the institution,” Kimbrough continued. “It’s in a city that Time magazine recently called ‘the top brain magnet.’ Smart folks with a cause all trying to be in New Orleans — that’s exciting to me, the kind of energy that could be there. To be a part of that movement of people who want to do some positive things and address some serious issues in the community — that’s exciting.”
Kimbrough, who graduated from Benjamin E. Mays High School in Atlanta, says he was inspired by the school’s namesake’s legendary ability to challenge and inspire students like young Martin Luther King Jr. when Mays served as Morehouse College’s president.
“That is my model for how a president should be,” Kimbrough told The Louisiana Weekly. “When (former Dillard president) Dr. Samuel Cook was a student at Morehouse, Dr. Benjamin Mays served as president and that was part of Cook’s model too, so Dillard has seen that before.
“I’m true to that — the kinds of things that Mays did and the kind of relationship that Dr. Mays had with Martin Luther King Jr. and Samuel Cook,” he added. “I always tell people that it’s not as important for me to be known as the president — I want to be the person that helps to produce the next Dr. King. That’s my goal — when I can do that, then I’ll feel like I’ve done something.”
Kimbrough says he has been impressed with Dillard’s community outreach programs and looks forward to further strengthening the institution’s ties to the community. “I want the community coming onto the campus for activities and events,” he told The Louisiana Weekly. “I think they do a good job of that now because I follow some of the students on Twitter. It seems like just about every Saturday Dillard students are somewhere out in the community doing service.
“But how do we bring the community to campus, how do we meaningfully engage the community in the real issues? How do we play a meaningful role in reducing Black-on-Black crime? That’s something that I can’t ignore. On the day that my announcement appeared in the local daily paper, most of that front page was dedicated to several people who were murdered the night before I was announced as president. I can’t come to New Orleans and act like that’s not an issue — that is the issue.”
One of the stiffest challenges Dr. Kimbrough and other HBCU presidents will face over the next few years is finding a way to continue to recruit and attract the best and brightest students to their campuses with college student loan debt reaching unprecedented levels and talk in Washington about slashing student financial aid. Kimbrough says it’s time for Black folks to step up to that challenge and do their part.
“One of the things that those of us in the HBCU community have to do better is find a way to get more of our alumni and friends to give back so that we have unrestricted dollars to provide students scholarships,” he told The Louisiana Weekly. “We’ve got to get past some of the ‘I give back to my school’ rhetoric because there are a lot of people who leave these institutions who do very well and don’t support these institutions. That’s going to be the way to address that. We’ve got to have those unrestricted dollars — these are not dollars from foundations, they are not dollars from corporations. It is individual people saying, ‘I was blessed to have that opportunity and I am going to really significantly help somebody go to school.”
Kimbrough launched a similar campaign at Philander Smith, where he says the institution’s donations from alumni went from less than four percent to almost 16 percent. He expects it to reach 20 percent by the end of the spring semester.
“The demographics at Philander and Dillard are very similar — both schools are plus-70 percent Pell Grant-eligible students,” Kimbrough said. “That means most students at Dillard come from families that earn less than $40,000 a year — they need the money.
“We’ve got to really step up,” he continued. “We can’t wait for somebody to come in and just give us all kinds of money so our kids can go to school for free. There are those of us who have been blessed with wonderful careers — we need to help somebody’s child who is not our own go to school. That’s something I firmly believe and something that I have done since coming to Philander.”
Kimbrough says since taking his current post at Philander, he was donated 10 percent of his salary to the institution. “I do that off the top because I think it’s my responsibility to help somebody’s child to go to school and have the same opportunities that I had,” he said.
Kimbrough said that while volunteerism is important, contributing financial resources is also vital to the growth and development of HBCUs and communities of color. “We have to really invest in own communities and turn those dollars back into our own communities,” he said. “That becomes a good way to keep students from graduating with this massive loan debt…If they default on their debt, the school gets penalized and it becomes a vicious cycle that pulls everybody down.”
Kimbrough says he has attended a number of Dillard board meetings and spent some time on campus recently mingling with students, professors and administrators. He is clearly excited about taking over the reins in July.
“Once I make it to Dillard, I’m going to talk to a lot of people to get a good handle on where we are and make sure that everybody knows where we are,” Kimbrough said. “Then for us to collectively say, ‘OK, where do we go from here, and where do we see Dillard in the next 10 years and what do we need to do to get us there?’ It’s not so much about a new president coming in and imposing his vision on everyone. I don’t believe in that because I think a vision has to be collective and most people need to buy into it…I think part of being a leader is asking the right questions, so I’m going to come in and ask a lot of the right questions to help us to see where we are and then move forward.”
This article was originally published in the April 30, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper