Philander Smith is a small historically black college in Little Rock, Arkansas, and was pretty known for being pretty much unknown. In HBCU circles, Philander Smith didn’t have the name cachet like the Howards and Spelmans of the world, and within the state of Arkansas, it was overshadowed by the larger University of Arkansas system.
Enter Dr. Walter Kimbrough.
“When I first got here, Philander Smith didn’t really have an image,” Dr. Kimbrough remembers. “Basically, they were known for having a choir and for rebuilding. That’s about it. I wanted to change that.”
Back in 2004, Dr. Walter Kimbrough was the Vice President of Student Affairs at Albany State in Georgia, when he was nominated for the post of college president. When researching Philander Smith, he’d heard about the negatives, but there were definitely things about the college that attracted him.
“When you talked to the average person in Arkansas, they talked about going to the University of Arkansas, not Philander Smith. They didn’t even know where it was because Philander didn’t have a profile. For me, that was a plus. When you go to a Harvard, there’s research that says a college president can’t do anything to change the culture. At a small college like Philander, a college president can come in and change culture.”
And so, Dr. Kimbrough accepted the position, and the Little Rock media soon dubbed the then 37 year old college president, the “hip-hop president”. While some at Philander Smith were a little uncomfortable with the moniker, Dr. Kimbrough recognized an opportunity to give the school a bit of personality.
“The local weekly newspaper used ‘The Hip-Hop President’ as part of their headline,” Dr. Kimbrough said. “The PR person at Philander didn’t like, it but I told them that we can use that. I had to let them know that I was a Gen Xer, part of the hip-hop generation, and the kids that we were trying to reach were also part of that generation. The average age of a college president is 58 years old, and I was 37. We needed to use hip hop as a way to tie into our mandate for social justice.”
However, before that, Philander needed rebuilding.
“When I got here, we had 949 people at Philander Smith. But not all of them were students. They were what I called enrollees. We had open enrollment, and a low retention rate,” he remembers.
The key to the turnaround was a six year plan to change Philander Smith. Out were open admissions, and in were higher entrance exam scores, with ACT scores up 30 percent since Dr. Kimbrough arrived on campus. Philander Smith also reduced the number of students on campus, to just over 600 students, yet these students are stronger academically than before, with GPA’s up 35 percent since 2004. Between freshman to sophomore year, the retention rate has grown for Philander students, moving from 51 percent to 77 percent.
“This makes Philander Smith number two in Arkansas, behind the University of Arkansas, in retaining strong black freshman. And nearly 50 percent of Philander Smith students are from out of state, and ten percent are international,” said Dr. Kimbrough, who makes himself available to students via email or by phone.
Creating this diverse environment is central to maintaining a campus where students are constantly challenged. One of the most popular programs on campus is the Bless The Mic lecture series, which has featured speakers as diverse as Common and Ann Coulter.
“I remembered being at Old Dominion when we were trying to reach the local community. We started a lecture series, and I wanted to do the same at Philander Smith,” Dr. Kimbrough said. “Bless The Mic has proven to be a great way for us to show off our sharp students and get the community involved.”
Now, other HBCUs are getting in the lecture mix, with schools like Oakwood and Prairie View starting lecture series that emulate Philander Smith’s. And that’s okay according to Dr. Kimbrough. New ideas are going to have to come to the fore if HBCUs are going to live up to their promise.
“For HBCUs in general, we need to live up to our brand. It’s good to talk about caring and nurturing environments, and I’ve been to conferences where college presidents talk about knowing everyone in their students’ family. But it’s a lie. We need to take the time to become a family on campus.
“But more than anything, we need to take more risk and innovative. A lot of private HBCUs just thought black folks would just come to their campus. I grew up twenty minutes from Morehouse, and they didn’t recruit me,” Dr. Kimbrough continued. “We need to do a better job telling our story truthfully. Talk about what we really do well, and then get out of ahead of what we’re not doing well. It’s not bad if some graduation numbers are low, but if you’re talking about it and moving in the right direction. I just hope we have the leaders who can lead the change.
After six years at Philander Smith, it appears that the hip-hop president is the man to lead the change.