Incoming Dillard president wants to bring the HBCU ‘to the table’

By far, one of the most prolific college presidents on social media is Walter Kimbrough, leader of the historically Black Dillard University, a private institution with an oak tree-studded campus in the heart of New Orleans. 

Kimbrough is the self-dubbed “Hip Hop Prez” online, where he routinely comments on the political issues du jour and those affecting higher education. But his reach extends beyond Twitter and Instagram. 

In his decade at Dillard, Kimbrough is credited with growing the HBCU’s endowment by 115%, to about $105 million, and significantly bolstering philanthropy. One of his most recognizable achievements is helping ensure the federal government forgave a roughly $160 million loan made in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

He’s stepping down, and Dillard’s trustee board believes it’s found the “dynamic, charismatic and visionary leader” to fill his big shoes: Rochelle Ford, currently dean of the School of Communications at Elon University, a private nonprofit institution in North Carolina. 

Ford has been dean of communications since July 2018, having come from Syracuse University, a private nonprofit institution in New York. Prior to that, she was a faculty member at Howard University, another private HBCU in Washington, D.C. 

She was part of revamping the structure of Elon’s communications school, creating programs in areas such as cinema and television arts, and media analytics. 

Ford begins July 1. We spoke to her about her vision for Dillard, as well as the most pertinent challenges facing it and other HBCUs. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Rochelle Ford, incoming president of Dillard University

Randy Piland/Elon University


HIGHER ED DIVE: What drew you to the Dillard presidency? 

ROCHELLE FORD: Dillard has an amazing legacy of preparing its students and its alumni base to live ethically and also really focus on thinking and communicating precisely. And that drew me to Dillard. 

I also know that its alumni act courageously. I’ve gotten to speak to some of them. And that’s kind of the history of HBCUs. I’m a second-generation HBCU alum. That’s what my parents were drawn to. That’s what I was drawn to. I wanted the opportunity to give that back. 

It’s sponsored by the United Methodist church and also by the United Church of Christ. And I have belonged to both of those churches throughout my lifetime. It just made perfect sense to help take an already amazing, legacy-rich university and continue to help it thrive and to be sustainable. 

What’s something you will do when you first arrive on campus?

Meet the people. Meet everyone, like those who keep the campus looking beautiful. I want to meet the groundskeepers. I want to meet the maintenance crews. I want to meet people who are working in the dining halls. I want to meet the students, the faculty. I want to meet the people and I want to hear their stories. 

I want to listen — listen to what they’re excited about. Also what brought me to this position is the optimism, the potential, the hope that exists and what we can do together. And I want to hear what they believe is possible. What are the strengths? What are some of the challenges? Because, you know, there’s challenges, there’s hurricanes. I already took my hurricane preparedness class.

Your predecessor has a very established brand online. Is that a role you envision taking?

I’m here to represent Dillard. And I’ve been active and was an early adopter of Twitter. In fact, I was a very early adopter even of Facebook when it was still at Harvard and they were expanding it out to other people with .edu addresses. So I’ve been a constant user of social media and I have a nice-sized following. 

But I think the more important use of social media is to build community and a sense of belonging. How can I bring people together — the business community, how can I bring them into Dillard to form partnerships? How can I work more closely with the local, state and federal governments, nonprofits, building that community, building that partnership? My goal is to listen, social listening, and to then make connections. 

So if I’m going to engage in the conversation, it’s how can I bring Dillard to the table. We want to use social media to attract leaders and thinkers and artists. Using social media will be an opportunity to say, “Hey, this is a great place to come and learn together.” How do I let people know Dillard has a nursing program? Because we need nurses like nobody’s business. How do I attract folks into that program, or people who have an interest in STEM?

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