Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in New Orleans, is known for his no-nonsense leadership style, fresh ideas and willingness to speak publicly about the plight of historically black colleges and universities. When hip-hop mogul Dr. Dre donated $30 million to the University of Southern California in May, Kimbrough wrote a column for the Los Angeles Times arguing that the gift would have best served an HBCU. I spoke with Kimbrough about Dr. Dre's gift and other HBCU-related issues.
What are your basic concerns with Dr. Dre's gift?
Kimbrough: I always acknowledged that it is his money, and he is free to do as he pleases. But my question was whether that large sum of money could be better used somewhere else. I speak as an HBCU president. Our average family income is $31,000 a year, and 76 percent of the students receive the Pell grant. USC is already a wealthy school. Their $3.5 billion endowment generates enough interest in three months to cover my annual operating budget. If major gifts only go to wealthy schools that increasingly enroll wealthy and privileged students, aren't we exacerbating an already serious problem of inequity, especially for groups that will become the majority?
What are the biggest challenges for HBCUs, public and private, if they are to remain viable?
First, there is just a larger pool of schools for black students to choose from. A recent report indicates that a great number of blacks are doing for-profit, online programs. While this provides great flexibility in taking classes, it is very expensive, so people are finding themselves in greater debt, often not finishing their degrees. But the point I also make is that HBCUs have been more resilient than other specialty schools. For example, women's colleges numbered 300 in 1960, and now there are fewer than 45. Studies suggest less than 2 percent of women look for an all-women's experience, while still 25 percent of black students attend an HBCU as undergraduates. The other major issue is that HBCUs serve the population that has little wealth, lower incomes and higher unemployment. When this is your community you serve, you're going to have financial issues.
What do HBCUs do well?
I think the biggest thing we do well is to provide a real opportunity for success for students who may have had all the cards stacked against them. This is the only sector that really prides itself on admitting low-income, first-generation students and working to get them prepared to be competitive. It is definitely a hard job, which is why graduation rates are lower, as they are for all schools that enroll a high percentage of low-income students. But for the future of the nation, we have to do a better job of taking these students and preparing them to be successful citizens.
Will the United States always need HBCUs?
I think there will always be students who want an HBCU experience. I definitely believe there will be fewer HBCUs. But if people really want to end HBCUs, they should focus more on recruiting black students and making them feel welcome at majority institutions. There are still numerous incidents every year on college campuses, including USC this year, that remind black students that this is not your school. So the message seems to be we don't want HBCUs, and we really don't want black students on our campus either. None of the folks who attack HBCUs fight to make sure all campuses are welcoming to black students. And until that happens, HBCUs will be needed.
What about the low graduation rates of HBCUs we hear a lot about?
HBCUs enroll the highest percentage of low-income students in the nation. It is a job that no one seems to want, and since U.S. News rankings reward schools for limiting underrepresented minorities, older students and poor students, the quality of the schools are constantly questioned. People compare graduation rates of schools with fewer than 20 percent of the students receiving the Pell grant against those that have high Pell grant populations. All the research shows that as you increase the number of poor students, graduation rates decline. It is as simple as that. If people would look at the Washington Monthly rankings, which measure impact of schools, you find that HBCUs are just as productive as other schools, maybe even more so.