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Better fundraising through storytelling with Brian Gawor

41 min read

“There’s a huge risk in asking people for anything. But why wouldn’t we take risks? Why wouldn’t we, as fundraisers, be vulnerable? It’s not about us. It’s about the donors. We should be risky every darn day.” - Brian Gawor - VP for Research at Ruffalo Noel Levitz

When you listen to alums, you give them a better experience, which leads to a higher percentage of gifts. Mike Kochczynski from Mongoose speaks with Brian Gawor, Vice President of Research at Ruffalo Noel Levitz, about improving fundraising and alumni engagement through storytelling.

Follow the Mongoose podcast on iTunes/Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Stitcher, and Spotify.

Mike K: One of the things we like to do is ask the guest, how would you entitle this episode?

Dr. Kimbrough: For me, it ended up being like a click-bait title.

Mike K: 15 Things That Shock You About the College Presidency, and Number Seven Will Blow Your Mind.

Dr. Kimbrough: Right, yeah. It's just like, When a College President References R. Kelly. It'd be something like that. I'd like, "What? What are you talking about?"

Mike K: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the FYI, the For Your Institution podcast by Mongoose. I'm your host, Mike Kochczynski, and I am lucky enough to be a client success lead with Mongoose. I work with about 80 of our 400 client universities and colleges, and today, we're speaking with Dr. Walter Kimbrough. He's the president of Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana. He has successfully served as the president as Philander Smith College and as the vice president of student affairs at Albany State in Georgia. Dr. Kimbrough has been named to the Ebony Magazine Power 100 and the NBC News/The Grio list of 100 African American history-makers He is an expert at Greek life, free speech on campus, and is arguably the best college president at utilizing social media. He is married to Adria. Am I saying that right? Adria?

Dr. Kimbrough: Adria, right.

Mike K: Adria Nobles-Kimbrough, who leads the pre-law and award-winning mock trial program at Dillard University. They are proud of their two children, Lydia Nicole and Benjamin Brock.

Mike K: Dr. Kimbrough, thank you so much for joining us. It's an honor to be speaking with you.

Dr. Kimbrough: Yeah, no problem. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

On Being a Hip-Hop President

Mike K: Absolutely. So you are more than a decade younger than the average college president, and you've been a college president for almost 20 years now, so what have you learned that has allowed you to advance so quickly and purposefully?

Dr. Kimbrough: I don't know if it's anything that has been learned along the way. I was able to decide early on that this is what I wanted to do or what I thought I wanted to do, and having a conversation, I think one conversation with Jim Koch, who was president of Old Dominion when I worked there, he said, "You'll know more about it." I was a director of student activities at the time. He said, "But the closer you get to it, you'll really be able to see if this is what you want to do." And so, really just studying it along the way and having the right opportunities.

Dr. Kimbrough: One of the things that I tell a lot of people who will approach me and say they want to be a president, I tell them, "You don't have any control over that. You really don't." I mean, there is some board or some board of regents that will make a decision. There are lots of really talented people who will never be college president, and there are some really awful people who will be presidents multiple times.

Dr. Kimbrough: So there's nothing you can do about it, so it's more important to find something that you really love doing and do that well, and if you get the opportunity, then that's great, but there isn't a magic formula for it. So I was very happy as a student affairs professional, and that's how I still consider myself to be a student affairs professional, but having opportunity and doing well and then having a chance to serve at two institutions over the last 14 years has been really great.

Mike K: That's great. And you mentioned, you alluded to it earlier with President Koch, but is there a sort of a feeling that you are paving a way or have paved the way, and sort of, there's like an added responsibility to your presidencies?

Dr. Kimbrough: Well, so, I mean, for me, just looking at it from a generational gap, when I became president of Philander Smith, I was 37. The average age of presidents was like, I think, 58, and when I walked in a room, I looked younger than 37, so it's just, the contrast was very visible, and so now, the average age is about 61, and I'm 51, so it's like I haven't made up a whole lot of ground, which is interesting that those in the presidency have stayed longer and gotten older, but at the time that I came in, I was the first college president from what we were called the hip-hop generation.

Dr. Kimbrough: There were a couple of X-ers, but at the time, I think there were less than 30 college presidents who were under 40, so I was part of a very, very unique group of college presidents that were under 40, so being the first really to identify with the hip-hop generation, and then also starting my presidency at the advent of social media is interesting too. So I become president in 2004, the same year the Facebook is launched, and so since then, we've seen Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all these other platforms, so that is different too because, by trial and error, I'm sort of learning social media as it is invented, and now, some people do have a model as to how you can integrate social media to the presidency, but it's been a part of my entire presidency, and so I look at it like that too.

Mike K: That's fantastic. And I would say, to editorialize, you've probably built that model. Your blogs on Medium, you're Twitter user. I mean, they should absolutely be emulated, I think by every college, university president out there. Absolutely.

Dr. Kimbrough: Thanks.

Mike K: Of course. You've mentioned that you decided early that you wanted to try this and you wanted to learn more, and that was very intentional. So what was the inspiration for that?

Dr. Kimbrough: So when I grew up, I wanted to be a veterinarian. This is my entire my life, as far back as I can remember. That's what I wanted to do, and I even chose undergraduate institutions based on places that had veterinary schools because my idea was, I would go there and go to vet school there too, realizing the traditional path is four years undergrad, four years vet school, but I was ambitious, so I was going to get in vet school after three years, which I did. I got into vet school at University of Georgia after three years, and so started veterinary school and then realized early on, this really wasn't a good fit for me, but during that year, I was also serving as an assistant vice president within my fraternity, which meant I represented all of the college chapters in the southeastern United States.

Dr. Kimbrough: There were seven states and 106 chapters, and so interacting with college presidents who were members of the fraternity and some who had been past presidents of the fraternity sort of pointed the seed in my mind to say, "Man, I think I might want to be a president." So I think that's where I got it from. I always credit Walter Washington who has a president of Alcorn State in Mississippi, having a conversation with him when I'm 21 years old, say, "I think I might want to be a president. What should I do?" And he sort of steered me into getting a master's degree in college student personnel, which is what I did.

Dr. Kimbrough: So he really becomes the inspiration of sort of putting me on the track, not even to really being a president but to really finding what I love doing, and so introducing me to student affairs and college student affairs, those kind of graduate programs, that's really what he did for me. He sort of exposed me to something I had never heard of, and most college undergraduates, they see the people on campus who work in student activities and housing and those kinds of things, but they don't really understand that that's part of a broader profession.

Dr. Kimbrough: So they could go in, and they get involved on campus, and then they realize, "Wait, you can go to school and learn how to really do this." So that's what he provided for me.

Mike K: That's great. And do you find that there is, I know at least from my experience in intercollegiate athletics, there are certainly athletic chargers out there who come from an angle of compliance and making academic advising versus the folks who might come from the marketing side. Do you find that there's kind of a gap between maybe a president who has more of an academic affairs background versus a president who comes from a student affairs background?

Dr. Kimbrough: Oh, yeah, and there's research that shows that. I can't remember the latest research. The American Council on Education does a profile of the presidents, and the latest report came out within the last three or four months, but generally, the largest area that provides presidents is academic affairs. Most of them have been a provost or vice president for academic affairs, and so a lot of people traditionally feel like, "We're thinking about an academic enterprise, and so having someone who's risen up through the ranks of the faculty is the person to lead the institution," but more recent research is indicating, and I attended a conference in Atlanta in November, I believe it was, where they talked about how much the presidency has changed in the last 20 years and the kinds of issues that presidents are dealing with, so coming up from the academic ranks doesn't help presidents prepare for most of the challenges today in terms of the major budgetary issues, the increase in regulation, Title IX issues, hazing issues.

Dr. Kimbrough: I mean, most of the real challenges that college presidents face have nothing to do with the academic program. It's not about new majors. It's not about degree completion. It's about those kinds of things that happen generally outside of the class, the legal challenges, all of those kind of issues, and so I always think of student affairs, of course I have a bias, but I think that it is a broader or the best preparation for a presidency because in student affairs, you're dealing with a new issue every day that is unexpected, which is like my job. I mean, there is nothing to say that during the course of this conversation, someone texts me to say, "We've had some tragedy with a student."

Dr. Kimbrough: I mean, you just, you never know, and if you're a faculty member, if that happens on the campus, there is nothing for you to do but to go teach your class. You don't have to deal with those issues. Nobody's calling you at 2:00 in the morning to say that there is a water main that's broken on campus, so I think it's harder for someone who's come up through that rank where you have more control of your time and how you structure your day because when you become a president, you have less control, and if something happens, your whole day changes.

Dr. Kimbrough: It's just the nature of the beast, and so I think someone coming from a student affairs perspective, and I started my career in Greek life, so I mean, we all got calls about stuff all the time, so I'm used to the uncertainty of it, and so I think higher education has become much more uncertain too, and so people who can navigate that and who are able to make decisions rapidly and to change pace, I think is a really important skill today because everything changes so quickly and is so unpredictable, and the faculty realm is still very predictable, and like I said, that's nothing bad about that, even though there is some unpredictability there too, as we look at more online education, as we look at credentialing and those kinds of things, and so faculty are going to have to think differently too, but that's still more slow-moving. It's not, if something happens right now, you have to shift completely.

Mike K: Do you think faculty need to brand themselves or thinking entrepreneurially about their academic programs to help enrollment and maybe even to help their own scholarly efforts too?

Dr. Kimbrough: Yeah. Oh, I definitely do, and I think that because we're going to see a contraction on a number of colleges and universities. We're already seeing it. It's hit harder with the for-profit enterprises. The big for-profits have started to contract, and then smaller ones like beauty schools and barber schools, we're seeing some of those close, so we're going to see more of that, but just seeing even major state systems, like my home state of Georgia, the university system of Georgia has merged a number of institutions over the last five years, and so faculty members have to think, "How do I create and tell our faculty this? How do I create programs that are so in demand that students want to come to that institution for that program?"

Following the Starbucks Analogy

Dr. Kimbrough: I used to use this analogy. I'm thinking about it now as we talk about it, I should bring it back. So this Starbucks analogy. I mean, how do you create a Starbucks phenomenon in your academic area, where whenever I'm in the airport, I see people waiting in a 15- to 20-minute line to get Starbucks when it's coffee. I mean, people want that Starbucks, and they're willing to pay more for it than you would pay at 7-Eleven. So how do you create that, that something that someone is willing to pay more for if you create this Starbucks experience? And so I think faculty have to think about that too and not just wait to say, "Well, the institution's just going to bring its students," because students are looking at all the options that they have , and a lot of it is being driven by cost these days, but as Americans, people are willing to pay more for something that they feel like has a higher value, so then how do you create a greater value for what you offer in your academic program that people are willing to pay for?

Dr. Kimbrough: That has to be a part of the conversation, and I know it sort of seems counterintuitive for a lot of faculty. It's like, "We teach the classes. We want to come here," but it really is a competition for students. There's going to be a decrease in the number of traditional-age students. There are many platforms that are available for nontraditional students, which are now the majority, to receive an education, so how do you create something that people can't get anywhere else, and they're going to enroll in your program?

Dr. Kimbrough: We got to have those conversations on individual campuses because campuses that don't create those kinds of programs will be the ones, I think, that will definitely close.

Mike K: Absolutely. And at both institutions, you've done a fantastic job of sort of forming or refining an identity there. Especially at Dillard University, you've really positioned physics and film, and really now, this burgeoning pre-law program via the mock trial program is starting to become a signature program as well, so how do you do those things in an environment where every institution says they're unique?

Mike K: If you look at the marketing pieces, every institution says the same things. "You're an individual here," but when you're an individual at every institution, when you're unique at every institution, obviously, it takes away that uniqueness from folks, so how do you balance that? How do you manage that?

Dr. Kimbrough: Yeah, no. I think that's a great question. When I first got to Dillard, and I did the same thing at Philander Smith, I met with people on campus to learn about the institution and what their hopes and dreams were. It was different here because I could come in and say, "I've been a president for seven and a half years. I know how to be a president." I don't know the culture at Dillard, and so you're listening to people and the stories and the things, and then what I always look for, because I challenged people at Philander Smith; they'll say, "We have the best such and such and such."

Dr. Kimbrough: I'm like, "What are you basing that on? What kind of external validation do you have to make those claims?" And so I look for external validation, and so when I was meeting with our lead physics professor, he's saying, "We're number two for producing African Americans with undergraduate degrees in physics," and gave me the link for this American Institute of Physics, which does research, and they're calculating where physics degrees are being offered at the master's, the baccalaureate, and doctoral level. So you have external validation saying, "Wow. You guys produce a lot of physics degrees." And then I could look at IPS data and compare the number of physics graduates we have versus everybody else in the state, regardless of race, and then you look, and so you have real numbers that are externally generated to say, "You're doing something special here." And so for me then, it wasn't about creating anything.

Dr. Kimbrough: Same thing with film. Film is just being able to leverage what was happening here. We had documentation of the number of national films that have been done on campus. I think my first year here, Spike Lee was on campus doing a movie. So I'm on campus having conversations with Spike Lee as they're working on a movie, so I know that if you have film students, and I think we had 25 students intern on that project, when they're having a chance to interact with him on that or with Forest Whitaker when The Butler was filmed on campus, you see enough of those, it's like, "Oh, this is different too."

Dr. Kimbrough: So you're able to leverage it. So my job in that regard was just to say, "How do I say that everywhere I go? How do I make those things part of my stump speech?" And then when we started on our strategic planning project, we did a call for signature academic programs, and those two, they submitted the documentation that say, "This is why we should be labeled as a signature academic program." So we still had everybody sort of say, "This is the validation that we have." And so all we're doing is amplifying what others nationally have done already, but we didn't do it internally.

Dr. Kimbrough: I was just shocked when I got here to say, "You guys have this great physics program, and nobody's talking about it." So all I did was come and talk about it. I mean, absolutely, that's all that I did. Dr. Kimbrough: For our pre-law program, there was a proposal written before I got here because in the Katrina recovery, we built a mock trial room in honor of the first African American to serve on the Louisiana Supreme Court, who was a Dillard grad, and so they had this idea. The family gave money to make this mock trial room, but it had been sitting dormant.

Dr. Kimbrough: So my wife is an attorney, and she was volunteering with the program. We said, "We need to really invest this. We need to hire somebody full-time to do it." And so we tried to do a search, but lawyers wanted lawyer money instead of higher ed money, and it was sort of like, "No, it's not that kind of deal. This is a higher ed advising job."

Dr. Kimbrough: So my wife was working for an employment law firm, and she was like, "Man, I love this job."

Dr. Kimbrough: So then I'm having a different conversation with her to say, "You're about to take a major pay cut to come to this job." But when you find people who really love what they do, then you're able to see them connect with people who get inspired, and so she's able to reach out to an LSAT test prep expert who joins the team and one of our most prominent judges in the city who works with the mock trial team, so in a couple years, you can start with nothing, and now you have a program that's won a number of awards the last couple years and a mock trial team that is ranked going into their third year. And so that becomes an example for people to say, "We can still do these things. The two that were established are great, but we can have additional programs like that, but this is what it takes to do that."

Mike K: That's fantastic. I guess taking a step back on two things, so we're going to get more into sort of the academics ahead and what you've built up, but do you believe that your position as a president has encouraged you to speak out more, or does it lend you to, I guess, have more of a pause before you speak out or write out or tweet or do what you do?

Dr. Kimbrough: Well, so for me, my father's a United Methodist minister, and so I think part of the way that I am is just based on the way that I was raised, and when you understand those messages, sitting in church for all those years and being active, that plays a role. The United Methodist church also has what's called an itinerant system, which means that they can move preachers at any point in time, and so of course, my father is my pastor most of my life, and I go to college. When I come back and I'm working at Emory, the church where he was, they moved, actually right before I go to college, and so the pastor becomes Joseph Lowry.

Dr. Kimbrough: Now I wasn't going to move. I was like, "This is my church, so if I want to hear a sermon from my dad, I can hear that at home. He doesn't have to be the person I hear at church all the time." But Joseph Lowry was one of the founders of SCLC with Martin Luther King, Jr., so you're talking about now having a pastor for six years who is a civil rights icon, and that played a significant role, so this is during my college-age years where that's who my pastor is, and that played a role because he challenged everything.

Dr. Kimbrough: So he's talking about social justice and dealing with all the issues, but this is a person, a lot of people say, "Well, I knew Martin Luther King." No, he created something with King, so he had an intimate knowledge of everything that was going on in the civil rights movement. So I think when you add those kinds of things together, it creates the kind of person that I am, so I don't think that's normal.

Dr. Kimbrough: I think most presidents are hesitant to speak out on issues, but I think a part of my upbringing and particularly, I think, the religious influence, I think, shaped me a lot. So, those kinds of messages, and then for me then to start being more interested in studying King, and in studying King's president, Benjamin Mays, who, to me, I always say I think is the greatest college president ever, he was a civil rights leader in his own way. He mentored King, but he spoke out on all kinds of issues, and he did so with great regularity, and so that becomes a model for me, that Mays spoke out on all kinds of things, and so I do too, and I mean, whatever the consequence is, it's the consequence. I mean, I can't worry about that.

Dr. Kimbrough: Somebody has to not be afraid to speak out on issues, and sometimes people will love what you say, and sometimes people won't like it, and that's okay too, but like I said, I can't wait until I really get old. I'm just turning 50-something, but it's going to get worse the older that I get, I mean, so I can imagine a 70-year-old me. I'm just going to be just unbearable. They're going to be trying to... because, I mean, there's a different deference you get when you're a true elder in the community, so then I'm going to say all kind of crazy stuff, so it's going to get worse, I mean, so we'll see what happens.

Validation should come from the students, not you

Mike K: That's great. So, again, another tangent, so my apologies for sort of jumping, but what criteria should a student look for when they're trying to determine what the right fit is for them?

Dr. Kimbrough: Yeah, that's a good question, and I'm really big on fit. I value, and I think there's research that supports this too, I value the tour on campus for people who are able to do it, to really get a sense of the campus, if there is a visitation day, to go to that, or we had a prospective student and her dad were on campus last week before we opened up, and he's a high school guidance counselor, so he had a different kind of perspective because there wasn't anybody on campus. It was raining that day. He said, "That's when you should really go, because then you can really decide if you really feel like this place is for you." And she'll come back for our visitation day so she can have a chance to interact with students and faculty, but he says, "You got to be able to come and love it the days when it's not pretty outside and all that." I thought that was actually great advice.

Dr. Kimbrough: So it's even not so much about a particular academic program because half of all students will change their major at some point, and that's consistent, but what are the people like? Do I see myself on this campus? Do I see myself gelling with the other students since that's who they'll spend most of their time with? So all those things, and you have to look at some practical measure too. How are our finances aligned? If, for some reason, we don't have the finances to do certain things, am I willing to go above and beyond and work an extra job or take out additional loans? That's when that Starbucks experience comes in. I mean, am I willing to go above and beyond because I value this so much? And if it's a place like that where you would try to figure out how to go even if you didn't have the money, it might be a fit, but I think there are lots of different variables that I think students and families should look for.

Mike K: That's great. What roles should rankings have, or what role do they have, I guess, currently, and where do you think they should go?

Dr. Kimbrough: See, for our students, they don't, and we try to do surveys of that. I don't push them a lot. Some people love US New Rankings. I've been on record. I've gone after US News, and Richard Morris, who leads that rankings program, he spoke at the Clinton School in Little Rock when I lived there, and I had to roast him because he couldn't give a good answer to... I told him. I said, "This is how the formula works. I can tell you what a highly ranked school looks like. They have few Pell students. They have few students of color from underrepresented groups. They have few part-time students. They have few nontraditional students. If you're low on all of those things, your rankings are high, so you're not measuring any kind of academic ability. You're measuring privilege." And he used as measuring inputs versus outputs, and I've always liked-

Dr. Kimbrough: Right. Exactly. Yeah, that's exactly what they do. So he gave some answer, and then some guy that came up to me laughed and said, "He couldn't answer the question." I had to roast him.

Dr. Kimbrough: I don't worry about it. I do like Washington Monthly rankings a little bit better because I think they talk about social mobility and some things that are a little bit, they even the playing field, so if you're an institution like mine where 75% of your students are Pell grant eligible, you can rank higher than an institution that would be high on US News because they're cherry picking. They only have the best of the best, and they're coming from privileged backgrounds.

Dr. Kimbrough: I see a value in those rankings, but most of our students don't think anything about those rankings, I mean, and we survey them. That doesn't play a role for our population. They are more interested in the fit. They're interested in the HBCU experience, but at different institutions, rankings are important. I mean, across the town at Tulane, rankings are important at Tulane, and for people who come to Tulane, that's important to them, and that doesn't make them bad people. It's a different value system.

Mike K: Absolutely. Now, who are some of your inspirations in higher education? You mentioned Walter Washington at Old Dominion. You mentioned Benjamin Mays who I believe was at Morehouse, correct?

Dr. Kimbrough: Right. He was president of Morehouse.

Mike K: Yes. So, who are some of your inspirations in higher education, and what did they sort of instill in you?

Dr. Kimbrough: So, one of the people I would say, my boss at Albany State. The president there was Portia Holmes Shields. She is the one that hired me, and when she hired me, she was like, "Look, you come here, you'll be a president in five years." It was just like straight to the point, and less than five years later, I was a president.

Dr. Kimbrough: So it was interesting because what she did was, I was vice president for student affairs, but she made sure I worked on projects that were outside of student affairs, working with the board of regents on a broader policy for admissions standards that the whole university system of Georgia was dealing with. We had a football player that died during training camp, so dealing with crisis management with that, which isn't too different from what you deal with in student affairs, but the athletic piece was different for me. So, but our relationship was always very different because there were times she thought she was my mother, so we would go back and forth, and she was trying to tell me to do stuff that I was like, "That's really not my job," and so she's fussing at me. She was the one that really made sure I got to see a lot before going into the role, so that was good.

Dr. Kimbrough: Being here in New Orleans is interesting because Norman Francis, who retired from Xavier a few years ago was president there almost 50 years, as I tell people, he was like me meet Michael Jackson, and I knew him before I got here. I met him when I became president of Philander Smith, but he became a president at 37 just like I was, so just to see somebody like that, and then to be in the city with him and sort of see the impact that he had on this entire region is just, it is really interesting just to watch, and just even now how he's revered. I mean, he's retired, but there are very few college presidents that will have that kind of impact on a broader region. I mean, after Katrina, he chaired the state recovery commission.

Dr. Kimbrough: So people like that. Those are a couple of examples of people, but my master's professors, Judy Rogers and Marcia Baxter Magolda, I still will check with them if I'm thinking about a job. Before I came to Dillard, I bounced it off of them. So it's just been a range of people that I've interacted with over the course of my career that I still engage with today that have been very important.

Preparing for Crisis Management

Mike K: Well, thank you. You've alluded to the role of the president changing over the last couple decades, and you mentioned crisis management and it being a much more varied position. Can you go into a little bit more detail about how that change has occurred and where you think it's going?

Dr. Kimbrough: Well, so, part of, I think... what it does is that you don't have the president, I think, so much as just the person setting the academic table of things that have to be done on campus, and even in terms of people looking at, and particularly for a larger institution, the president's a fundraiser, which is still very important, and being gone all the time doing that. They've got to deal with some other real issues because if you don't, those come back to bite you too.

Dr. Kimbrough: So, I mean, you look at the crisis at Michigan State with the Title IX issues and how it pulled down a president. Now, Michigan State raises a lot of money, and the president, I'm sure she was very effective out there raising money, but she really should've been spending some more time on campus really digging in to find out what was going on with that athletic program. So people have to make different kind of decisions about where their time is spent and how they're engaged, and when there are these legal issues that come up, how they engage those a little bit more closely now than they would have in the past because there are just so many more of them and because I think the pendulum keeps swinging, that it's really hard to keep up with what's going on.

Dr. Kimbrough: So those are some of the challenges. I mean, 20 years ago, we weren't talking about cyber attacks on colleges and universities. I just left a session where that's what we talked about, where people are going in and they're holding institutions' data ransom. I mean, that's something that's new. So there's always something new that it's just not your... make the ceremonial speeches, you're out raising money, you hand out diplomas. It's a lot more complex now, and even for me, and when I think about advancement, advancement is not just going around asking people for money. It is how do you create the brand and expand the brand of the institution, the value of the institution and maximizing social media to do it? And that could be done even at a large institution. I tell people, and it doesn't matter age.

Dr. Kimbrough: I always people to Gordon Gee as West Virginia. I mean, he does a great job, and he's north of 70 but has a very active presence on social media, so that's a part of building the brand, but once again, in the last year, his biggest challenge has been dealing with the fraternities there, and they've been on the Dateline NBC special, I believe it was. Yeah, it was a Dateline special about some of the hazing that happened at West Virginia. Now you've got fraternities that are rebelling to say, "Well, we don't want to be recognized."

Dr. Kimbrough: So, I mean, we don't worried about the academic program at West Virginia. We know it's solid. That's not what he's going to have to spend his time on. He's going to spend his time on stuff like this. I mean, it's just a new reality, and things are happening just so fast in the country, protest on campus. Particularly post-2016, we've seen a lot of those, even really post-Missouri in 2015 because that's when we started to deal with issues of race, and so you've seen that bring down a lot of presidents, Missouri being the flashpoint of that, but trying to deal with issues of race on campus.

Dr. Kimbrough: So there's just so many different things that we weren't talking about. We weren't talking about food-insecure students 20 years ago like we are today and so many campuses that have food pantries. Now, we have one here, but yeah, I was speaking at the University of Georgia two years ago where I went to school, and to see a food pantry at the flagship for Georgia shocked me. I was just like, "This can't be true. Is it?" We weren't talking about that 20 years ago.

Dr. Kimbrough: So there are just so many things that are happening just really rapidly, which reflects our society as a whole. Things are changing very quickly, so we have to be much more nimble in terms of how we address those issues and being much more aware. I think a lot of the job for me is just being aware of all the different things that are going on and to really have the 30,000-foot view and not to always dig in the weeds because I can't do that. I got to sort of see things that are on the horizon and then make sure the folks on my campus are seeing those too so that they, as the content and subject experts, can spend their time really making sure they're up to speed on those kinds of things.

Mike K: That's great. And you alluded to it earlier, but Dillard University has the program Brain Food, right?

Dr. Kimbrough: Right.

You can’t ignore controversy

Mike K: And you've brought in really, not just folks who might agree with you or agree with Dillard University. You've brought a wide swath, really, of people, so how have you managed that process, having productive lectures and speeches at a time where schools are like, "Well, if it's controversial, I kind of want to avoid it"? Dr. Kimbrough: Right, well, I mean, it's funny to me that the biggest controversy we had was for the person I did not invite, and that was David Duke. We had a Senate debate a week before the presidential election in 2016, and we rented out our space like we do lots of times, so it's not a big deal for us, but we didn't find out until 10 days before that David Duke qualified for the debate, and he didn't qualify for the debate two weeks prior that was in, I think, north Louisiana, so it was sort of a shock to say, "Wow. David Duke." And you could just understand the headlines.

Dr. Kimbrough: It was announced that Friday, and we're still upset with the station because they didn't even tell us. We didn't find out. We found out via social media that he qualified, so they didn't even call us and say, "All right, we need to give y'all a heads up." So I'm just like, just poor professionalism, that I think they should be dragged for that forever because somebody should've called to say, "All right, we probably should talk to y'all about this because you got David Duke coming to campus." And the headline writes itself, "Former Klan leader at an HBCU." And then it's picked up by Rachel Maddow that Monday, so I got all kind of people calling me, saying, "Wow, y'all are going to let David Duke come?"

Dr. Kimbrough: So my stance was, "Yeah. We rented out the space. We don't control content."

Dr. Kimbrough: Our general counsel, she really recommended against doing that too. She said, "You don't want to start creating now policies which was not a part of the contract," that we can go in and cancel based on the content. That's not a part of what we do, and if we felt like there was a legitimate safety issue, that was fine, but the auditorium was going to be empty. There are only the six candidates on stage, so it isn't a real risk, and some people blew it up, "Oh, you're going to have Klansmen just riding onto campus." None of that was realistic, but of course, people whipped it up into a frenzy, so I got the most criticism for that. I got just all kind of stuff. People wanted me fired, and during the entire 10 days, I was in constant contact with our board of trustees because I know how I feel about it, but if we decided that it was best for the institution not to do it, I would've gone along with what was best for the institution.

Dr. Kimbrough: That's where you use your board. You don't just make the decision. So, I mean, we had several conversations, and they were just like, "No, we're doing this. Do not back down." And I mean, I have a very diverse board, a number of alums, I have white board members, I have a Jewish board member, and no one said, "Don't do it." Not one, and so that's the part that people don't understand.

Dr. Kimbrough: As president, you take the blows. I don't have to try to throw the board out there too. I was like, "You want to tell the board on me, that's fine, because I've been talking to them." So that didn't bother me, but I think it was good for us to be able to do that, and so when I bring people who might be controversial, I mean, we had Candace Owens recently. She's controversial in her own right, but she was probably the best attended lecture that we had. Well, Tarana Burke, I think was best, and so she would've been second.

Dr. Kimbrough: So, she had great attendance, and a lot of people did not agree with her, and it was a little rowdy at times, but that's how those kinds of things go with her, but it wasn't out of the ordinary, and then even after it was over, she really spent time talking to students in smaller groups and one-on-one, and that was really good. I thought it was productive. I mean, I just tease people. I say I think part of what she does is for show, because one-on-one, she was a different person. So I just think that's a part of the show that you get with her, but there was people who complained about it, but it wasn't anything major.

Dr. Kimbrough: Like I said, the worst one was David Duke, and I didn't have anything to do with him. That wasn't my event, and was the one I got beat up for, so it was pretty funny, but I think that's what we have to do. I think, for a lot of campuses, if the institutions would take control of those and bring in diverse people, then you wouldn't have to have a student group get a fringe person and bring them in because I think that's when you're going to have the problems.

Mike K: That's absolutely right, and I think what you said too about, you alluded to a little bit about when you squelch those opportunities, you just amplify them too, because [crosstalk 00:38:25]

Dr. Kimbrough: Oh, yeah. You definitely do. You do, and so people are going to look for those opportunities, so it makes more sense to do them in some kind of controlled environment, and you can lead that kind of conversation, and then some of this has been cyclical. I mean, the Richard Spencers of the world, we haven't seen Richard Spencer. I mean, he sort of faded away and Milo Yiannopoulos really hasn't been out.

Dr. Kimbrough: It was hot for a while. Right post-election, there was a bump, a surge of people doing those things between November of '16 through maybe April of '17, but it's calmed down a lot, so we haven't seen those kinds of things, but it's not to say it won't pop up again.

Balancing fiscal realities

Mike K: Right, right. Now, financially, as a president or as someone who's been a VP of student affairs, how do you balance the fiscal reality of creating an amazing physical plant, the lazy rivers, the rock climbing walls, with sort of the less exciting but really important work of building up your endowments, increasing faculty positions, faculty compensation? How do you manage that balance?

Dr. Kimbrough: So that's a good question even for us because our situation is very unique. This was a campus that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, so for us, trying to get just the extra bells and whistles has never been on the agenda.

Dr. Kimbrough: We recently had our $156 million loan forgiven by the federal government, so we've never been in the position to do all the extra stuff. We were trying to get enough to do the basics, and so now that we don't have that, we're still looking at how do we fortify basics, and you can't compete with the LSUs that do a lazy river. I mean, they are going to get some criticism for that, but that's not really what we need to do. You're right, and for us, it's more how do we provide more financial aid for students? And so we spend our time raising money to make sure students don't drop out because they can't afford to come back to school and those kinds of things. That's where our energy normally is positioned.

Dr. Kimbrough: So it's a different reality for us, so we don't really have a chance to do a lot of those excesses. We're really trying to focus on how you build endowment because endowment money can go towards scholarship aid, and how do we create special programs? We call ours a safe fund. I got an email from a senior about to graduate, like, "I'm about $1,100 short."

Dr. Kimbrough: Okay. We've raised money. We can take care of that, so he can graduate in May. Those are the kinds of things that we should be doing, so we really focus on those kind of things.

Mike K: That's great, and we've talked about the role of the presidency changing. What has the role of a collegiate institution changed in the last 20, 30 years?

Dr. Kimbrough: I mean, I think the role is still pretty much the same. I think people are trying to figure out, how do we provide education that is much more accessible via cost and... I think there's a lot trial and error, so I mean, at one point in time, people thought the massive open online courses, the MOOCs would revolutionize higher ed. That hasn't happened yet. I don't know if it will.

Dr. Kimbrough: The online revolution was big. There are going to be some players that do a great job, but then for a lot of students, that's just not a good option for them either. So it's not a one-size-fits-all to say, "Well, everybody can just do online, and it's cheaper. You don't need facilities. You don't need as many staff and faculty." Well, that doesn't necessarily solve the problem either.

Dr. Kimbrough: I mean, people still need educated people. I think we're having more conversations now that it's not just about degrees because most employers are complaining more about the lack of soft skills, so how do we really teach people to really critically think and their speaking, communication skills, how do we really hone those kinds of skills in a college experience? And so I think we've got to focus more on that and not just the credentialing, because we sort of have two narratives that are coming out, "Let's create more credentialing where you can do six-week bootcamp, and you're certified to do X, Y, Z," and for some fields, that might be okay, but for a lot of places, they're still looking for people who have a broad understanding of the world, of the liberal arts, how to communicate that effectively, how to think critically, how to... use data effectively. Those kinds of skills are still very important and need to be developed.

Mike K: That's great, and you alluded to soft skills, and I think I've heard you in interviews. Are soft skills similar to the term you use, "texture", with your students?

Dr. Kimbrough: Well, to a degree. I mean, so texture for them, when I think about texture, it's, do I understand the entire context by which something is going on? And so if I don't have a full understanding of the context, I might make a poor assumption.

Dr. Kimbrough: Let me try to give an example of a broader context. For the last Thursday, Friday, Saturday night, Lifetime ran this six-part documentary on R. Kelly.

Mike K: That's right. R. Kelly, right?

Dr. Kimbrough: Yeah, so lots of people were talking about it and discussing it, and there is a clip on the last episode of Chance the Rapper talking about how he regretted making a song with R. Kelly, and he felt like he didn't value the women because they were black, and he didn't take their claims as seriously, so people have been going after him for the last couple of days, and so, understanding the broader texture is, first of all, it's a 10-second clip in this documentary, and people are making the assumption on 10 seconds.

Dr. Kimbrough: So if you look at that entire segment of that interview, and the interview lasts for over an hour, there's about a three-and-a-half-minute segment where he's talking about R. Kelly. In the beginning of it, he talks about how people of color have been conditioned not to value the experiences of women, so he provides the broader context and the texture, and so having a broader context of texture, you can look historically, and he goes into that a little bit, and he talks about slavery. So if you understand the broader texture, when he says something about, "I might not have valued those women because they were black," and he said, "because when I've seen high-profile African American men get in trouble for things like that, the victims were not black women."

Dr. Kimbrough: So, texture understands when he says that, you can say, "Oh, yeah. Kobe Bryant got in trouble. It was a white female. OJ got in trouble. It was a white female." It's able to pull all those things into place so you can put his comments into proper perspective because you have an understanding of issues outside of R. Kelly. You understand the broader texture, and as Chance does in his broader interview, he starts talking about slavery, and there is lots of research, and so they could look at their history classes or sociology classes or criminal justice classes and pull in a broader texture to understand that, so if you haven't studied those things, you don't have the texture to fully understand his comments, and so that's what, for me, texture is.

Dr. Kimbrough: You're familiar with different people who might comment on a subject. You're familiar with Tarana Burke and we talk about Me Too, so when they see her on a documentary, and one of the reasons I wanted her to come to campus, because when people thought Me Too, they thought Alyssa Milano tweeting after Harvey Weinstein, and Alyssa Milano had to come back and say, "No, I'm not the one that created this," even though she got the most attention for talking about Me Too. That was Tarana Burke. So for the students to have texture, they have to hear from Tarana Burke to understand where this comes from, which is why I wanted her to come to campus and speak, so they would have that texture and not have a blank look on their face when someone talked about Tarana Burke and Me Too, and them say, "No, that's Alyssa Milano." No, it's not. It's Tarana Burke.

Mike K: So texture in itself-

Dr. Kimbrough: So that's what I mean.

Mike K: ... is kind of a soft skill, basically?

Dr. Kimbrough: Right.

A president’s role in advancement

Mike K: Got you. That's very cool. Now, in your role as a president, do you often engage with... Well, you certainly engage with alumni, but how do you manage expectations for access an input with alumni and with donors?

Dr. Kimbrough: So with alumni, what we try to do is, this is a model that I used at Philander from a grant that we have. We sort of call them key cities events, and so this past fall, we went to seven or eight cities, and I went to most of them, where we have a reception with a group of alums. I might do like a 15-minute spiel about what's going on, and they get lots of good information out. We send out information. They get lots of stuff. Once again, social media's great for a small institution. So our alums can follow me on Twitter, and I'm promoting stuff that's happening on campus all the time, so they know what's going on, consistently, but there still is something about being in that space, going to Atlanta, going to Houston, going to San Antonio, talking to alums face-to-face so that they have that access because I think that still is important, the face-to-face access.

Dr. Kimbrough: They do an alumni reunion and conference right before graduation that weekend, so alums come to town, and there is some interaction then too, but I like the key cities events just as well, to get out and get engaged. So that's how we sort of manage some of that.

Dr. Kimbrough: With donors, we're able to make those visits as we need to, and certain donors are going to want to have more engagement than others, and so we're able to accommodate that, but that's when we leverage not only myself but our advancement team, and so we work together, but there is certain things, definitely, that the president has to go to, and then for Me Too, just in terms of alumni donors and anybody else in the community, you just do other things that... just puts you out there in just regular spaces, what we call it, I guess, in my house.

Dr. Kimbrough: So my son is 10. He plays in a couple of basketball leagues, and my wife is [inaudible 00:48:37]. It's always good for you to be at those kind of games because I'm just a parent in a broader community. Now, sometimes people end up figuring out that I'm the president of Dillard, but then they're able to sort of just see me as a regular person, which I think humanizes the role of president, or I got an invitation from one of the small Baptist churches around here to speak, second Sunday of February. I do all of those, and I think people are always surprised that I'll speak at things like that. I'm like, "No, I think that's part of the maze, I think, in terms of being out and speaking to the issues of the day in the broader community."

Dr. Kimbrough: So you do those locally. I'm speaking in Arkansas this week. I'm doing a hazing symposium there. I'm doing a King Day event in Olympia, Washington, doing another King Day event here. Then I'm doing one in San Antonio. I think those are the kinds of things that you are providing access by doing other things that aren't necessarily Dillard-related, but whenever I go somewhere and speak, I am representing Dillard as well, and I think those are very important.

Dr. Kimbrough: So it generates interest in what you're doing. It generates interest in the institution as well. I think those are just very important. So yeah, people are shocked when I show up at these little churches in these small towns. I love to do those because I think there's a shock factor for people to say, "How did y'all get the president of Dillard to come to this little place to do this?"

Dr. Kimbrough: I spoke in Appaloosa, Louisiana. Nobody knows where that is, but I was excited to go. For me, those are cool things to do.

Mike K: Absolutely.

Dr. Kimbrough: Yeah, so I think that's the way that you leverage it, to be out in spots like that.

Conversations with parents should be real conversations

Mike K: Got you. What kind of engagement do you have with parents of current students?

Dr. Kimbrough: It's, I mean, a range of things. I set the tone with parents during freshman orientation, and I always tease people; most of the time, you see the president, they'll do the welcome. Everybody does the move-in now. The move-in photo ops all over social media. I'm like, "I'm not moving in any children." I hope not to have to move mine in either, but I'm probably going to have to do that. I'm not doing that, and it's not being too good to do those things. As a preacher's kid, I'm used to doing manual labor. That's not the issue for me.

Dr. Kimbrough: I spend an hour with the parents doing a workshop. So this is the student affairs person in me, and we talk explicitly about, what are the factors that cause our students to be successful? And we go through everything. We talk about drops, withdrawals, incompletes, how that impacts financial aid, how that impacts graduation rates. We talk about the idea of helicopter parenting, what that looks like, why I don't want them to do that. Don't call me to ask me to do X, Y, and Z, because I'm going to tell you to send that to the child. If you want to call, you call me to check on me. You don't call me to ask me to do X, Y, and we go through all that.

Dr. Kimbrough: We talk about pregnancy, that you need to talk to your student about sex, and if you won't do it, I will. I mean, that's the kind of conversation I have. So I set the tone, engaging them in a meaningful way, providing some research and data that can help them do a better job and say, "Here are some ways that you can help. When you're looking on social media and you see things that are happening on campus, encourage your child to get engaged in those things because that has a correlation to graduation."

Dr. Kimbrough: I mean, those are the kinds of strategies that I'm providing to help them so we can partner together, and I think those work, and so every now and then, you'll still have a parent that something's going on and they're worried about it, so I'll interact with those kind of things.

Dr. Kimbrough: I was going through the drive thru at a chicken finger place, and I saw a parent and a mom, and so, the mom stops me in the drive thru and my son is in the back, and he's just bewildered, like, "She's coming to having this conversation with you."

Dr. Kimbrough: And the mom is teasing me like, "I want my child to have a better dorm room."

Dr. Kimbrough: And so the daughters are like, "Oh, mom. Will you stop? It's okay."

Dr. Kimbrough: "No, Doc. Come on, Doc. You got to hook her up." She's having a good time, and she's just teasing me like, "Okay, but can you move her to a better room? I mean, she could get a better room, and she's a presidential scholar."

Dr. Kimbrough: So my son is just laughing because he's like, "Who is this lady talking to you?" But I mean, it was just regular people having a conversation, and so it can be informal like that or through different programs. I just meet parents and see them all the time. They come to events on campus. You definitely get to see the parents when we start to have Honors Day. So this spring, Honors Day, I'll see a lot of parents, and then that commencement weekend is when you really see them. After they get to thank you for the four, five, six years that the child has been on campus, and those are, I think, the most meaningful days for me.

Dr. Kimbrough: So I have regular engagement with them, but I try to set a tone in the beginning because there is a lot of research, and a lot of my colleagues are dealing with more and more intrusive parenting, and I try to set the tone to say, "No, we're not doing this. We're not doing this. You're going to do X, Y, and Z," and that has really cut down. I don't think I have the same kind of challenges that a lot of my colleagues do, but that's because I spend the time on the front end explaining what the expectations are because they don't know.

Dr. Kimbrough: So it's like, "You guys don't know what's expected of parents, so let me tell you it's different. We don't do parent-teacher conferences. We don't give out the grades." I tell them this, "FERPA, this is what this means, and if you try to do it anyway, then when they graduate, they're going to be at home with you," and then I show them articles about people who graduated from college and end up at home with their mom, and for a lot of people, that's unacceptable, so that's the wake-up call then because they're like, "Ah, they can't come back home."

Dr. Kimbrough: I say, "Okay, so that means we're going to do it my way." I think it's successful. I've been doing this every year I've been the president, and the culture here was different because parents were much more... I mean, my first week on campus, I met with like nine nursing students and like 11 or 12 parents, I mean, my first week, and this is the summer. I'm like, "What is going on here? What are y'all doing?" And they had all these concerns about the program. I haven't had anything close to that since I've been here. It's just then.

Dr. Kimbrough: It was changing the culture to say, "No. No. These people are in their 20s. They can handle this. You're not going to do it for them. They're going to figure it out on their own. If they need help, they come to see me. That's my job to help them, but that's not for you to do."

Mike K: Right, and I think at a certain point too, it empowers the student to tell them that, "Hey, sink or swim, this is on you. Go out there and do it," right?

Dr. Kimbrough: Right. I know. Exactly. I mean, you're having research now. People are saying that parents are trying to go to job interviews.

Mike K: Right.

Dr. Kimbrough: That's ridiculous! I wish that would happen. It's like, immediately, the interview is over. That's not happening, and so, I mean, someone said, "These are the Gen X kids," so my generation's kids. The X-ers, which were the latchkey kids, some of those folks feel guilty to say, "Well, my parents were never at home when I got home from school, and I don't want my child to be like that," so they're overcompensating.

Dr. Kimbrough: No, my kids can be latchkey kids too. I mean, I'm tough with mine, and so I'm going to be tough with these students as well.

Mike K: That's great. Now, if there's a future Dr. Kimbrough listening to this podcast, what advice would you give them?

Dr. Kimbrough: The advice that this author E. Lynn Harris gave. He spoke at Old Dominion when I worked there, and I tell people this, and it sort of goes back to our earlier conversation, "Find something that you love doing, that you would do for free, and find a way to get paid to do it."

Dr. Kimbrough: That's the key to life. So, if you find that, you're good. I love being a college president. You might have an idea that you want to do that, but what do you really love doing, and find a way, and do that, and if you can get paid to do that, then you're good, and if you become a president, that's great, but the most important thing is really be engaged at what you do because there's just so much out there about how most Americans don't love their jobs, and so I just can't imagine being in that place every day, and I'm like, "Ugh."

Dr. Kimbrough: Hey, I would do this for free. I would do this for free, and then to get paid to do it is gravy. That's what I tell people all the time. I mean, E. Lynn Harris gave that advice during his speech, and I run with it. I always credit him. He died within the last decade, but that is one of the most profound things I've ever heard, so I always like to at least keep his memory alive by using that quote that he gave.

Mike K: That's fantastic. Thank you for doing that. Dr. Kimbrough, thank you so much for your time. We all really appreciate it. This is really, really exciting, and we can't wait to release this interview out.

Dr. Kimbrough: Okay. Sounds good. Thanks a lot.

Mike K: Thank you so much. Take care.

Dr. Kimbrough: Okay. All right. Bye-bye.

Mike K: And thank you so much for listening. If you have any questions or if Mongoose can help you in any way, please feel free to email me at mike@mongooseresearch.com. We also have lots of great content at mongooseresearch.com, @mongoosehed on Twitter, and we.r.mongoose on Facebook. Until next time, thank you.

Guests

GaworBrian Gawor

VP of Research, Ruffalo Noel Levitz



headshot-mikeMike Kochczynski

Assistant Director of Client Success
Mongoose

 

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