I had the pleasure of working with Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in New Orleans, earlier this year when he keynoted a CASE Indiana conference. (The next CASE Indiana conference is coming up November 1.) Dr. Kimbrough delivered an energetic and inspiring presentation then, and he has provided additional insight now as a special guest for my “5 Questions” series. (Congratulations to President Kimbrough, whose inauguration will take place tomorrow.)
Based on everything I’ve read about branding, to do it effectively it has to be authentic. I’ve seen lots of great marketing campaigns that don’t work. Cool logos, cool designs, but inauthentic. A friend of mine, Martin Thoma, who owns a firm in Little Rock, always talks about living your brand. That’s what we did at Philander Smith College in Little Rock. It was easy to live social justice as a United Methodist school (since the Methodists talk about social justice a lot), and being located one mile from Central High School where the Little Rock 9 integrated. Same for me. The whole idea of the hip hop president is really embracing a new way to be president, which includes active use of social media, unusual collaborations, and the whole “keep it real” (authenticity) that has been a hallmark of hip hop.
2. You’re not afraid to push the envelope. In your experiences, why do you think other institutions try to catch up with the status quo instead of inventing a new status quo?
People are afraid to fail. So it is always easier to pursue something once it has proved to be successful, rather than try something that no one has done or something not done well and failed. Higher education is notoriously conservative as well. There is an adage that says it is easier to change the course of history than it is to change a history course. We seem to create layers and layers of bureaucracy and overthink every decision instead of quickly studying an issue and start innovating. This explains why so many are on their heels with MOOCs, a disruptive technology that has the capacity to fundamentally change higher education.
3. At the CASE Indiana conference, you cited a story that only one-third of college students know who their institution’s president is. Why has it been so important and meaningful to you to make that connection for students?
Today’s students, despite all the social media “relationships” they have, need genuine relationships with adults. Many of my students come from single-parent homes and still want positive relationships with mature adults. I think everyone who works on a college campus has to be available for students who need guidance and support. I model it as the president, but I expect everyone who is emotionally able to do so to follow suit. I say emotionally able because there are plenty of adults working on campus that have their own issues they need to sort out, and they are in no position to mentor a student. But those of us who can need to do so, and students who need these relationships come from all kinds of backgrounds. I saw the same kind of need at Emory as I do at Dillard.
4. You have a track record of increasing alumni giving at your institutions. How have you strategically approached this issue to move the needle on alumni giving?
Alumni want to know the truth about what’s going on, and so I have always found time to get out in front of them. During my first year at Dillard I completed 17 alumni visits to cities all across the country. These were very well received because even though they’ve read letters from me, or seen email updates from alumni affairs, there is still a value in face-to-face communication, especially with our more mature alumni who want to “feel you out.” You can communicate in person in ways that are not translated electronically, and that helps to build the trust needed to engage alumni. It is definitely a best practice for me.
5. During this time of unprecedented change for higher education, what will be the difference for institutions that thrive in this environment?
Institutions that thrive will be the ones that become comfortable with change and actually create change of their own. They will be the ones that decide what they do well, authentically well, and then decide to be the best at doing it. I think once schools decide who they are, and then make a commitment to be that rather than try to chase after every new idea or fad, they will be successful.