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Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough on the important role of HBCUs in New Orleans


We connected with Dr. Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, to explore how the institution, and other Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in New Orleans, shape the city’s economic ecosystem and will contribute to the city’s pandemic recovery.  A grant from Kresge’s Education Program, which is focused on strengthening Urban Higher Education Ecosystems and institutional capacity building for student success, is helping Dillard partner with fellow New Orleans colleges to address transportation barriers for students. Kimbrough also described considerations for the school’s reopening this fall.

President Walter Kimbrough (far right) is joined by the Dillard University Virtual Degree Conferral Committee.
Sabree Hill

Kresge: New Orleans is one of only three U.S. cities that is home to three historically Black institutions. How do New Orleans’ HBCUs shape the economic ecosystem of the city?

In a city that is majority Black, HBCUs have played a key role in developing an educated middle class which then provides leadership to the city. The current mayor, LaToya Cantrell, is a graduate of Xavier University. She continues the legacy of the city’s first Black mayor, Ernest “Dutch” Morial, also a graduate of Xavier, who became mayor in 1978.

City leadership has provided opportunities for HBCUs and their graduates to have meaningful roles in the educational and economic development of New Orleans. According to the 2017 UNCF study “HBCUs Make America Strong,” the city’s three HBCUs, DillardXavier and Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO), have a combined annual economic impact of $388 million. The presence of the institutions is often leveraged by regional chambers to attract new companies, especially those seeking a diverse workforce.

Having HBCUs helps attract conventions, especially those geared toward Black Americans like Black fraternities and sororities, and there is no doubt Essence Fest has had a long relationship with New Orleans in part due to the presence of these institutions.

To celebrate the Class of 2020, Dillard University held a Virtual Degree Conferral on May 9, 2020. Signs with graduates’ photos were placed throughout the campus.
Sabree Hill

Kresge: What role can New Orleans universities, specifically its HBCUs, play in shaping an inclusive pandemic recovery for the city?

Dillard and Xavier have programs for the study of minority health disparities, while SUNO has a newly developed business incubator program. These represent two key areas for the city’s recovery, and will help strengthen city infrastructure to prevent or greatly mitigate any future pandemics. One key national discussion is the disparate impact COVID-19 has on Black Americans, particularly due to comorbidities that disproportionately affect these communities. An infusion of grant funding would support efforts to not only study the causes, but develop strategies to address the issues, which include socioeconomic factors that exacerbate the problem.

Black businesses in New Orleans, which are significant in terms of numbers, continue to receive a small percentage of revenue. As noted in The Data Center’s publication, “The New Orleans Prosperity Index: Tricentennial Edition,” while 40% of businesses in New Orleans are Black owned, they collect only 2% of sales receipts. Support for SUNO’s business incubator program, along with the development of additional support systems, is necessary to mitigate future economic hardships harming Black businesses at an exponentially greater level.

Kresge: How is Dillard partnering with other entities within the city’s ecosystem – nonprofits, K12 systems, civic agencies, fellow colleges – to support relief and recovery efforts?

The New Orleans colleges and universities, both two and four-year, have a history of working together, even with basic information sharing. In a city that sometimes floods following severe weather, we keep each other apprised as we discuss when to close schools, and share our thinking during hurricane season as we plan campus operations.

During this pandemic, we have been sharing information more frequently. The mayor’s task force includes a university representative which helps us stay abreast of city-wide conversations as well as strategize on our collective “asks” for higher education. As we plan for the fall, we are discussing ways to do bulk purchasing for basic equipment like PPE. While in the end we may make different decisions based on our campus needs, thought partnership among colleagues has been useful.

Kresge: How, if at all, will Dillard’s commitment to students and families in New Orleans evolve in the wake of the pandemic?

Like many universities, we are exploring outreach to more local students who now might want to stay closer to home due to the pandemic. There may be a greater sense of security for a student who lives at home while taking classes on campus at Dillard. Being an HBCU in a major urban center with a large Black population is a plus for that kind of outreach.

Access to our facilities, especially internet access, is crucial for our students. Even with students living on campus, some classes or some parts of classes will be conducted online. Our facilities and resources will be important to students, and maybe even to some of our K-12 partners, as we learn more about the reality of the digital divide in urban settings.

Kresge: Do you have any advice for philanthropy on how to be most helpful in supporting HBCUs, while facilitating New Orleans’ inclusive recovery?  

Now is the time for philanthropists to invest in the students and families with the greatest need, period. Institutions like Dillard must open this fall. Along with educating our students, for many, we provide food and shelter security that is not present at home. Students who have worked their way through school, many in our city’s enormous tourism and hospitality industries, are now jobless. Philanthropy can help fill the gaps for students who are unable to work to help pay for school this year.

Additional scholarship support ensures students can continue their education. It also helps ensure the university can acquire the necessary resources in this current environment. Institutions will need to invest in extensive and cleaning, technological upgrades, and create environments where it is possible to practice social distancing. Maintaining student enrollment can help the institution provide what is needed and keep students from seeking loans to replace lost wages.

In a city where there is a significant employment, wage, and wealth gaps based on race, philanthropy can help make a tangible impact in the recovery of New Orleans.

Follow Dr. Kimbrough on his blog:

Learn more about Kresge’s support for our nation’s HBCUs.