In the Big Easy, hip-hop belongs in the classroom.
This is Dillard University president Walter Kimbrough’s trademark. At 51, he’s not only one of the youngest presidents at a historically black college or university (HBCU) — the mean age is 65 — but he’s also got one of the most popular Twitter accounts of all presidents of minority-serving institutions. Kimbrough’s students affectionately call him the Hip Hop Prez and engage with him through his social media handle, @HipHopPrez.
He uses social media to teach students, which may be why they’ve also dubbed him the HBCU president for millennials.
The name Hip Hop Prez caught on when Arkansas Times ran this headline in 2004: “Philander welcomes ‘hip-hop’ president.” He ran with it. “Having a brand as a president doesn’t exist,” he said. “Now, it’s who I am.”
But his students aren’t the only ones talking and tweeting about him. He’s been featured in media outlets such as Ebony magazine and NBC News for his unique leadership style, his writings and research about African-American men in college and HBCUs. When he’s not running Dillard, he teaches a course called “Hip Hop, Sex, Gender and Ethical Behavior.”
Kimbrough has led this 150-year-old institution for six years now. The road to becoming Dillard’s seventh president was a fairly typical one. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia, a master’s degree from Miami University in Ohio and a doctorate in higher education from Georgia State University. As a student, he served as an assistant vice president on the Southern Regional Educational Board. This is where Kimbrough had the chance to interact with other presidents, who sparked his interest in becoming one.
“It was being involved as a student and saying, man, there’s a lot to be done on a college campus,” Kimbrough said.
And he did just that.
The Atlanta native wanted to make a difference within the educational system. Small changes can make a huge impact by engaging the student body, mentoring and bridging the gap between a university and its community, he said.
In 2004, Kimbrough became president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas, and served for eight years. Now, the seasoned president is giving Dillard, one of three HBCUs in New Orleans, everything he has as a leader, friend, husband and father.
“At an HBCU, you have more opportunities for somebody to notice you, where you might be at a big campus and you can be a superstar and go underneath the radar because their eyes are geared towards people who look like them,” he said. “You got the name but none of the benefits.”
He sees his role as leading HBCUs into their next century. He regularly blogs about why historically black spaces are needed. For HBCUs to thrive in the future, he said, they must tout their success stories and do so in high schools to attract the next generation of HBCU graduates.
Some organizations and HBCU graduates are already doing this work. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund provides funding and other support to more than 100 predominantly black institutions and HBCUs, such as Bowie State University and Florida A&M University. It highlights some of the professions pursued by HBCU graduates, especially those in government, law, engineering and teaching at non-HBCUs.
Last year, HBCU graduates visited Capitol Hill for a Day of Action showcasing their HBCU pride and their concern for the future of these schools.
“People now understand that HBCUs work for lots of students,” he said. “But HBCUs have to unapologetically and unashamedly say that often and loud.”
At Dillard University, the benefits are social, educational and economic. During his tenure as president, Kimbrough has cultivated a place where students can earn a degree and be connected to a familial atmosphere. He’s helped increase the university’s endowment to $80 million, which makes it one of the best-endowed HBCUs in the country. He also created programs in physics and film; the former graduates more female physics majors than larger institutions. The Dillard film program boasts Emmy-winning graduate DJ McConduit, as well as students who routinely work on major studio films such as The Magnificent Seven, The Butler and director Spike Lee’s Oldboy.
No matter what program Dillard students are in, by the time they walk across the stage every May, Kimbrough wants them to be “relentlessly excellent.”
“I just want them to go after stuff, whatever they want,” he said. “Part of my job is to provide the opportunities and experiences when they have an opportunity to really go after it and not be afraid.”
KIMBROUGH ADJUSTING TO THE BIG EASY
When Kimbrough stepped into the Crescent City six years ago, he noticed that Dillard — and, more importantly, the city of New Orleans — was missing something significant.
“I was surprised moving here that we didn’t have a robust lecture culture,” he said. “It’s a way to expose students and do something different.”
So in 2013, Kimbrough started a lecture series called Brain Foodthat’s connected speakers such as Jemele Hill, Issa Rae, Valeisha Butterfield Jones, Howard Bryant and Gabrielle Union with students and the Greater New Orleans community.
The Hip Hop Prez doesn’t just connect with his students — when these celebrities walk onto Dillard’s campus, he makes them feel like they are home too. Union enjoyed her time at Dillard so much that Kimbrough was invited to her Miami birthday party.
Misty Copeland, American Ballet Theatre’s first African-American principal dancer, also left an impression on Kimbrough and the attendees of her Brain Food lecture.
“We had all these little girls from all the dance schools in New Orleans. To see her be moved by that, I was moved by it,” he said. “I was like, ‘Wow, these young girls are seeing somebody that looks like them in that role,’ and we haven’t seen that before, except for fiction.”
Dillard senior Donte Smallwood appreciates Kimbrough and his launch of the Brain Food series.
“Kimbrough makes it a point to connect with his students through his speakers,” said Smallwood. “I think what Dr. Kimbrough is doing is great, especially as far as how he relates to us as millennials.”
Smallwood, a film major from Marrero, Louisiana, has heard his professors talk about past presidents as traditional administrators. He said Kimbrough is giving Dillard a new, more contemporary life.
“Dr. Kimbrough incorporates, you know, celebrities like Chance the Rapper to speak for graduation. He incorporates just culture today, that we pay attention to, into our learning experience.”
Students aren’t the only fans of the Brain Food lecture series. Dillard’s faculty and staff also attend.
Professor Robert Collins teaches urban studies and public policy. He enjoys sitting in on the lectures.
“When Kimbrough became president of Dillard, no one has seen a leader like him in the past,” he said. “Kimbrough is a person to talk to everyone wherever he goes on and off campus. He then uses his social media to allow his students to stay connected. Rather than going through administration to send an email out to cancel class, he will do it through Twitter.”
Collins also said he admires Kimbrough’s leadership skills and management style.
“To have a wide range of diverse speakers, both professionally and politically, was a great asset to the campus,” he said. “He makes sure he invites at least one conservative speaker every semester just so the students are exposed to a different point of view.”
Kimbrough made sure he would make positive changes in this position.
“The campus was adapting to him rather than him adapting to the campus,” Collins said. “That’s not the usual leadership style for a university president — not just for an HBCU president, the usual for any president.”
Building a lecture culture is just one part of Kimbrough’s vision to bolster Dillard. The university is still recovering from severe wind and water damage left behind by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Dillard and Xavier University had catastrophic damage and, because they are private institutions, were not eligible to receive state aid (they received federal recovery money in 2007). Dillard was damaged the most of all the New Orleans-based schools, as the campus was almostcompletely underwater and sustained an estimated $400 million in damage.
The aftermath was deeper still. Some faculty and staff lost their positions. Students had to finish the fall semester at schools in different cities and states. Some students returned five months later, but they were living in hotels and taking classes in rooms at other universities or the World Trade Center.
“It took an entire year for students to get back on campus, and the university had to borrow about $160 million from the federal government,” Kimbrough said.
Earlier this year, Congress forgave those loans given by the Department of Education, erasing the debt. HBCU presidents collectively lobbied with U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-Louisiana), a Morehouse College grad, for the aid and showed the importance of HBCU alumni advocates at the national level.
“Every building had water in it except, and prophetically, the chapel. So it took insurance, donations and the federal loan to rebuild,” Kimbrough said. “I’m really trying to make sure that we become a vibrant part of the entire city.”
Today, Kimbrough is proud to say that enrollment increased this year for the first time since post-Katrina reconstruction. The school had only 860 students after Katrina. Now the student population is 1,310, up 52 percent.
Kimbrough’s recruitment strategy is based on discussing the university’s progress and history. He highlights Dillard’s academic programs, including its nursing program, which was the first one accredited in Louisiana and was revamped in 2017. He also talks about the school’s co-curricular centers. The Ray Charles Programstudies African-American culture and foodways in the South. The Center for Law and Public Interest helps students pursue careers in law and advocacy.
“We sell New Orleans and the campus as well, plus the great special events. I think our levels of engagement with prospective students, including me seeing as many campus visitors as possible, helps a lot,” he said.
CHANGE STARTS IN THE CLASSROOM
“Historically, presidents would teach their classes, but now HBCUs have become like corporate entities; that can be difficult,” Kimbrough added.
Nevertheless, Kimbrough’s quest to make a difference starts in the classroom. This is why he teaches his “Hip Hop, Sex, Gender and Ethical Behavior” course on Thursday afternoons. His students say they feel his classroom is a safe space to laugh, swear and share personal stories.
Last month, Kimbrough hosted a panel with three female MCs from Dillard University. They touched on issues that affect women in the hip-hop industry today, such as profanity, sexism and gender.
“Hip-hop is viewed as a man’s game, and a young man’s game at that,” Kimbrough said.
Panelist Naomi Ortiz, a rapper and poet from New Orleans, was ecstatic to be a part of the discussion.
“I enjoyed the fact that it was really engaging, really intersected with other people’s perspectives on how female rappers are looked at [now] compared to back then,” the sophomore pre-nursing major said.
While the students enjoy discussing their opinions in class, Kimbrough uses the opportunity to get to know his students and what’s important to them. “At least once a week I got them for 2½ hours, so we develop a relationship that’s powerful,” he said.
“I think I get more out of that than they do, in terms of some new interactions, and to see what their Dillard experience is like and for them to have some access to me that they normally might not have because they might be a commuter.”
He strives to meet and make himself available to students who aren’t in his class. Kimbrough will regularly take freshmen off campus for a luncheon where they set goals for the year.
“People will come and tell you their deepest and darkest secrets,” he said. “It’s important for me to be able to be open enough so a student can feel vulnerable and have those kind of conversations.”
Indeed, it’s not in his job description, but “that’s the preacher kid in me,” he said. Just this month, one student asked Kimbrough if he could be his accountability partner.
“To me, that’s the magic of HBCUs and my understanding historically of what HBCUs and what HBCUs’ presidents did. It’s what Benjamin Mays did for Martin Luther King [Jr.], that kind of relationship,” he said.
SOCIAL MEDIA AND LEGACY
Using Twitter and other social media has clearly allowed Kimbrough to amplify his voice and his reach. He wants all Dillard students to do the same: to be vocal about the local and national issues that matter to them. However, he says this can be challenging for Dillard’s African-American male students because they are outnumbered 3-to-1 by women.
“A lot of our campuses, the guys take a back seat,” he said. “So how do guys find a space to be on campus and learn responsibility and leadership?”
Joseph Caldwell, this year’s Mr. Dillard University, had a response. He started the 150 Men in Suits Initiative on campus, where he successfully campaigned for every male student to wear a suit on the first day of class.
“To get, you know, literally every young man on campus in a suit for the first day of classes, I think that was very huge, and we went over that goal of having 150 suits,” said John Lawson, vice president of Dillard’s Student Government Association.
When Kimbrough wakes up every morning, he lives by three words: initiative, faith and love, he said.
“The key to life is to find something that you love doing, that you would do for free, and then find a way to do it.”
Right now, Kimbrough’s passion is to help Dillard become recognized as a great school. He’s tired of hearing people call it good but never great, and he’s even reached out to legendary former Xavier president Norman Francis for advice.
“This is like the All-Star team. That’s Magic, that’s Michael and I’m LeBron,” Kimbrough said. He uses this analogy to reinforce that they are all great presidents, he said.
By extension, he acknowledges that Dillard can’t be great unless its students thrive after they graduate.
“I think legacy is living, and so students that you meet and are a part of this project, that’s a legacy,” he said. “I won’t understand legacy until I see what they do.”