This story is a part of the series “Presidents Corner” about the unique experiences, vision and leadership styles of each president at our nation’s 107 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs)
Many call him the “Hip Hop Prez” because he is still one of the youngest HBCU presidents in the country.
Walter M. Kimbrough is the 7th president of Dillard University, a historically black college or university in Gentilly Boulevard, New Orleans, Louisiana. He talks with the Buzz in this exclusive interview on his goals and achievements, advice for those of us wanting to be an HBCU president in the future, and new things happening at Dillard.
Here’s our conversation…
Robert: Anything new at Dillard?
Kimbrough: The main new thing at Dillard is our center for law and public policy. We had Benjamin Crump in December speak for our annual law and society lecture and then announced we would work to increase the number of students who go into the legal profession. With all the high profile issues (Mike Brown, Eric Garner) we have seen that the prosecuting attorney is a key person, and there are so few people of color in the pipeline we are at the mercy of whomever is in that role, and most of them have no real sense of diverse perspectives. Does not make them bad people, but that is a limitation.
Robert: Was it always your desire to become a college president?
Kimbrough: I ended up wanting to be a president after being an involved student at the University of Georgia and active in Alpha Phi Alpha. I met and got to interact with college presidents and it somehow became my goal. So I was about 21 when I made that my goal. Prior to that I always wanted to be a veterinarian, which is why I went to Georgia and even spent 2 quarters in vet school.
Robert: You have accomplished a lot over your time in Higher Ed. Your time has been full of many awards and high achievements. What has been the most important thing that you have learned over time?
Kimbrough: Not sure if there is one most important thing. I think in general it is to keep learning. See how other schools and leaders do things well and maybe adapt. Learn from people outside of higher education and try something in which you have no model for success- that is take risks. And probably most important, study failures. You can learn what not to do (and sadly, this is what so many people do not do so they repeat mistakes of the past).
Robert: A while ago, you wrote an article on Dr. Dre’s multi-million gift to USC, and your critique had a lot of attention.
Kimbrough: It really was not much of a critique but rather wondering why would he not look at an HBCU? I tried to argue that we could do some of the same things, and because HBCUs enroll students with backgrounds more comparable than students at USC, it makes sense. But in the end, it was his money and we have to learn how to reach out to entertainers differently.
I never heard from him (and did try to connect). A music publisher, also a USC grad, did reach out and connected us to receive a grant for our music industry program, plus connections for a music industry conference that our students could attend.
But I continue to connect with a range of people. MC Lyte co-taught with me in the fall, and she created a new scholarship program for black men to attend Dillard in the fall of 2015.
Robert: As the times are changing, what advice do you have for future HBCU presidents?
Kimbrough: My single recommendation is do jobs that you first love so much that if possible you would do for free, and then do the best job with the job you have now. There are 107 HBCUs (about 80 four year) so those jobs are not in excess. In addition, you have no control whether or not you will ever become a president. There are great people that will never get a presidency, and bad ones who get multiple ones. So be the best with the job you have.