Leadership & Governance

What the Black Lives Matter Movement Means for Historically Black Colleges

Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Dillard U.

September 11, 2016

Produced by Carmen Mendoza and Julia Schmalz

P rotests by the Black Lives Matter movement against racism at predominantly white colleges have led to a different set of conversations on historically black campuses, says Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, in New Orleans. And they may also be leading to a renewed interest in minority-serving institutions from students of color and their parents, he says in a Chronicle interview.


ERIC KELDERMAN: Hi, I'm Eric Kelderman, senior reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education, and this morning we're talking with Dr. Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in New Orleans. Welcome to The Chronicle.


ERIC KELDERMAN: Mr. Kimbrough, last year we saw sort of the latest resurgence of the civil-rights movement, through Black Lives Matter, really take off on college campuses across the country. The most, maybe, important of those protests was at the University of Missouri, where we saw leadership turnover thanks in part at least to the outspoken actions of campus protesters. Talk to me a little bit about — since you're at a historically black college — talk to me how those conversations are happening in your college. And are there effects that are happening at Dillard and other institutions because of the Black Lives Matter movement?

WALTER KIMBROUGH: Right. So on our campus, like I think most of my colleagues would share the same opinion, is that our students were very engaged with these issues. They wanted to be in solidarity. I think one of the first things you saw happen is that when the Missouri story broke, our students and a lot of students at HBCUs would use their institution's logo and say we stand in solidarity with Mizzou. So that was the first action. So you had all these students from these HBCUs saying, We understand your pain. We feel that. We're still in this with you together. So that was really good. And those students then wanted to be engaged in the broader issues.

So if you're looking at issues, and not just issues of campus climate, but issues with police brutality and those kinds of things, our students wanted to be engaged in those, too. So that was very important. It was very different though from those campuses where they're saying, we want more black faculty, and students, and curriculum, those kinds of things. We didn't necessarily have those kind of conversations because our students say, well, we have the faculty, and we have these administrators, and the curriculum, and these events. So a lot of it is really catered toward us, but we're still concerned about the big-picture issues.

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And so that's been a level of synergy, I think, for all HBCU students to say, We're in solidarity, not only with the Mizzou, but places all across the country. And they've seen it. We've seen it in Louisiana, where students at the institutions in the state have said, We have the same kind of issues. The thing I think is happening though, now, is that, a year later, and as new students come to campus, we're seeing more students choose HBCUs. And I've talked to a number of my colleagues who are saying freshman classes are up 15, 20, 25, 30 percent because I think students and parents are saying, What's important to us? So I think part of the whole Black Lives Matter conversation has caused families to say, What's really important to us? I mean, there's been a lot that's been written. Jeff Selingo's latest book talks a lot about, how do you get the most out of that college experience? And Frank Bruni has a book that talks about, it's really not where you go to college, but what you do.

So we're having those conversations with parents and students to say, You can get everything you want and need from an HBCU, devoid of some of that other stuff that's going on. And people are saying, Yes, I agree with that, and so I want that experience. So I think this is going to create a resurgence and a new interest in HBCUs because of that that's happening. So people are really interested in black-oriented issues. And if you really want to get into those issues, what better place is there to be than an HBCU?

ERIC KELDERMAN: Sure. At the same time, obviously some students, some students of color, are still going to go to predominately white institutions. Change might happen, maybe slowly there. Are there ways though that those institutions could better prepare students of color for the experience that they might have on those campuses?

WALTER KIMBROUGH: Right. I mean, I think it starts with open conversations about, this is who we are as an institution. No institution is perfect. And so these are the things that we do well. You can have a good experience here. And I think they should talk about fit, too. If there are certain things that you want that's a fit for you that we aren't able to offer, we should just say, We might not be the best fit for you, if this is what you're looking for. If you want this kind of experience and this kind of education, we do this well. And I think there are ways that you can find yourself to be a part of this community. And I think they have lots of those alums that are out there who went to those places, who accepted those places for what they are, and did extremely well. And so I think they've got to connect those students with those alums with those kinds of experiences and say, Yeah, I mean, you might have some challenges here, but over all you could have a great experience.

And so that's why I always tell people, University of Georgia, I think, was one of the greatest places ever. I had a good experience there. And I never had a black faculty member. And I understand it. I mean, I was in the College of Agriculture, too, so that was just completely — you know, all of that. But it was a great experience. But I accepted Georgia for what Georgia was. And I got a lot out of that experience.

And so students have to go with an open mind. You just can't go in there and all of a sudden be upset with everything that's going on because they don't have x, y, and z. The institution needs to be honest and say, Look, this is our percentage of these percentages, faculty, staff, students, you know, this is what our curriculum looks like. Here's the kind of events that we have. So you have to decide if that's a good fit for you. So I think it's just open conversation and dialogue about what's a good fit for the student and for the institution. And for both to be honest with themselves and say, Is this a good match?

ERIC KELDERMAN: Great. Well, thanks, Dr. Kimbrough. It was great talking with you, and I hope you can come back to The Chronicle and see us again some time.


Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at eric.kelderman@chronicle.com.