Ford has also marked the first year of her tenure by moving into the President’s Residence—the first Dillard president since 2005 to reside on the gleaming white and spacious green campus in the heart of Gentilly.
By Anitra D. Brown/The New Orleans Tribune
On July 25, Dillard University’s President Dr. Rochelle Ford drove her car to her work. She had an appointment that would take her off campus and would have to make a quick exit after a morning meeting with The New Orleans Tribune. She didn’t want to be late, so she needed her car close by.
Otherwise, she would have walked to the office, she says.
It would have been a short walk . . . across the yard . . . just beyond the campus greenhouse to Rosenwald Hall.
That is because Ford has marked the first year of her tenure at Dillard by moving into the President’s Residence—the first Dillard president since 2005 to reside on the gleaming white and spacious green campus in the heart of Gentilly.
The residence was built in 1936 and has been renovated several times since then. When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in August 2005, just weeks after DU’s sixth president, Dr. Marvalene Hughes, began her tenure, Dillard flooded. The President’s Residence, like other buildings, was heavily damaged. It was gutted and one of the last on the campus to be repaired. Even after it was restored, Dr. Hughes did not move back into the residence, which had been home to every Dillard president since its construction. Dillard’s seventh president, Dr. Walter Kimbrough also opted to live off campus. The residence was renamed “Alumni House,” and the Office of Alumni Relations was moved to the building.
In fact, on the hot July day that The New Orleans Tribune visited the campus, the sign in front of the residence still read “Alumni House”. But make no mistake—it is Ford’s home.
Her stove had just been delivered. A minor renovation to provide access to a bathroom without going through the kitchen was underway. Pictures and artwork, many of which are part of the University’s collection, were waiting to be hung on downstairs walls. Upstairs, her extensive collection of dolls was on display; one depicting a Black nurse immediately catches the eye. Her blue sofa was in its place; and a guest bedroom was ready in the personal living quarters. She anticipates moving more furniture in the coming days, including her dining room set—a family heirloom that originally belong to a great aunt.
“It’s from the 1940s, so it really fits,” Ford says.
Ford was named Dillard’s eighth president on May 24, 2022 and officially assumed the role on July 1, 2022, coming with an extensive background in higher education and administration. Before Dillard, Dr. Ford served as the dean of the School of Communications at Elon University, where she led more than 80 faculty and 1,500 students and oversaw six undergraduate major programs of study, and one graduate program. She previously served as a professor and the chair of the Public Relations Department at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. And before that, for 16 years, Dr. Ford taught at her alma mater, Howard University, as a professor in the School of Communications, where she served as the associate dean for research and academic affairs for six years.
In addition to a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Howard University, Ford earned her master’s degree in journalism with a specialization in public relations from University of Maryland, College Park, and her doctorate in journalism from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. She also earned a graduate certificate in higher education administration from Harvard University. And she is a graduate of the Clark Atlanta University HBCU Executive Leadership Institute, holding the distinction as the program’s first graduate to become a college president.
She says resuming the tradition of living on campus was the perfect highpoint to a fruitful first year as Dillard’s president.
On the way out of Rosenwald Hall, heading across the yard to the house, Ford is met by a few upperclassmen traveling by golf cart, student workers on campus early to help prepare to greet the incoming freshmen class. They let her know that some items had been delivered to the residence. They catch up on a few matters. There’s small talk.
As she walks out of the house back toward her office, dozens of high school students from Texas have just stepped off a bus and are being led on a campus tour. She greets them, extolling the virtues of both Dillard and New Orleans. They didn’t have to take her word for it, though. Accompanying her were three Dillard alumnae, including this writer, happy to concur.
Now that she makes her home on campus, Ford says she looks forward to more of that sort of personal, day-to-day interaction with students—greeting them as they all walk to and fro, stopping to chat, making sure they are okay – not just academically, but mentally and emotionally.
“I think it was one of the most exciting ways to cap off this year,” says Ford. “If we are going to be a living-learning-serving-community, then the president needs to be a part of the living-learning-serving community. And that’s what I want to be.”
As soon as there is a break from southeast Louisiana’s scorching heat, Ford says she looks forward to sitting on the porch.
“Actually, we have a fire pit. So I can’t wait to throw some logs out there, have some s’mores and just sit out there and talk to students.”
That feeling of community has been the one of the best parts of her first year at Dillard’s president, says Ford.
“I have been surprised at how warm and welcoming the entire community has been,” she says. “Our students are amazing. I was expecting that. I was expecting the alumni to be great. I was expecting the faculty to be awesome. But, the community support of Dillard and the excitement around Dillard reclaiming our legacy of being a communiversity has been wonderful. I hear so many stories from this area right here in Gentilly. People who’ve said ‘I used to go over to the duck pond.’ ‘We used to play with President Cook’s kids.’ ‘I took swimming lessons at Dillard.’ Those stories of that community partnership have brought me so much joy. When you hear the excellent things and the things that are challenges and opportunities, you try to articulate a vision. For Dillard, it’s not just any kind of communiversity, but one that advances healthy and innovative communities. And what has surprised me is how much excitement there is about Dillard owning that space.”
Of course, “communiversity” is not a word Ford takes credit for coining. The jargon been around for a while and generally refers to an institution of higher learning strategically positioning itself to build and nurture mutually beneficial relationships with other institutions, organizations and, most of all, the people that live, work and play in the same community where it is located – COMMUNIVERSITY.
That’s Ford’s vision for Dillard University as she begins her second year as president. And with that vision, Ford is ready to turn challenges into chances to progress and expand.
Strengthening the school’s infrastructure so that it will “withstand the forecast” — or more plainly, survive the forces of nature and any other actions that it might face — is at top of Ford’s to-do list. The spirit of communiversity is at play here too.
“I think there are so many opportunities for us to get better,” she says. “We are an old campus. We had a lot of deferred maintenance issues. With that deferred maintenance, you have got to give some tender love and care to our facilities,” says Ford. “The great thing is that people want to invest in Dillard. So we use the example of Entergy helping us with our electrical circuit. And we were able to leverage our HEERF (Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund) funds so we could do major upgrades to our HVAC. We were able to use Title III funds to help us with our roofs, so we have new roofs going up across the campus. And the good thing is we had United Methodist to come along with us. We couldn’t go to the government for the roof on the chapel, so United Methodist provided the funding to restore the roof on the chapel.”
She continues, “So we are investing in the infrastructure. But there is a lot of restoration work that needs to continue, because the reality is there are going to be storms. That’s why we say ‘withstand the forecast.’ How do we make sure we have uninterrupted power source? We are raising funds and applying for grants to make that happen, because we have to have back up energy. The estimate is like $17 million. So we are continuing to seek community support to help us to not just have the infrastructure, but to be a lighthouse in the community. So if Gentilly’s power is out, maybe we can bring, not everybody, but some people on campus to Dent Hall or the Student Union to provide cooling stations and things like that. It’s a challenge, but it’s an opportunity for investment that will allow us to live our mission of having a healthier, safer, more innovative community.”
While those opportunities are explored, the President’s Residence is not the only campus facility getting a bit of new life.
The University was recently awarded a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior to restore Howard House, also built in 1936.
The restoration grant is one of the first awarded by the U.S. Department of Interior, which protects cultural heritage under the National Historic Preservation Act.
Originally named the Practice House, Howard House was used for Dillard’s Homemaking Educational Program during World War II when mostly young female students attended. It later served as housing for female faculty and staff and then as residential housing for select female students at different times in the university’s history.
For Dr. Ford, Howard House’s restoration is opportunity share Dillard’s rich and important history with the community.
“Dillard’s architectural treasures are a link to our collective heritage,” Ford has said. “This grant marks a step towards Dillard serving as a communiversity with facilities that withstand the forecast that shape our living, learning, serving community that cultivates leaders that will make our world healthier, safer and more innovative.”
And while Dillard honors the past, it also looks forward.
Under Ford’s leadership, Dillard broke ground on a new residential hall. The mixed-use, student residential hall will offer space for community events and programs as well as residential accommodations for faculty and staff.
“We will actually have housing for faculty and staff inside the residence hall because we know how expensive it is to live in New Orleans. We wanted to create space to make it less expensive to live and work at Dillard, right, and extend that learning from the classroom into the residence hall. Then the ground floor will also have community space – all of that here at the university.”
While Dr. Ford wants Dillard to be active in the community, there is no losing sight of its primary role as an institution of higher learning, attended by young men and women to study and pursue career goals as they grow and discover more about themselves and the world around them.
In her first year, Dr. Ford led Dillard in acquiring more than $5.7 million in grants and gifts, according to the school’s website.
Bolstering the University’s enrollment, retention and graduation numbers are paramount goals as well.
While preliminary enrollment numbers for the 2023-2024 school year are unavailable, Dillard’s retention, enrollment and graduation data for the past four academic years indicate some promising increases after a couple of years of decline in most areas.
For example, overall enrollment fell slightly from 1,226 in 2019 to 1,215 in 2020 and down again in 2021 to 1,202; but it was back up in 2022 to 1,224 students. And freshmen enrollment is up as well, going from 314 in 2019, slightly declining in 2020 and 2021, to rise to 334 in 2022, according to data provided by the University.
Meanwhile, the University’s fall-to-spring retention rate, which measures the number of new, first-time degree-seeking students who enroll for the fall semester and return the following spring semester, also climbed to 97 percent in 2022, after declining in 2021 and 2020.
However, Dillard’s six-year graduation rate is at its lowest in four years at 43 percent in 2022, down from 2021’s 46 percent, and much lower than the 52 percent and 49 percent rates posted for 2020 and 2019, respectively.
“The good news is that our enrollment is beginning to grow,” says Ford. “We are at about 1200 students now. And we are keeping that intimacy, and outcomes are improving.”
And for Ford, there is more than one way to measure success.
About 77 percent of the 209-person Spring 2023 graduating class had jobs offers or graduate school acceptance letters before they crossed the stage, says Ford.
“That’s huge. And it just demonstrates the impact of quality education.”
Dillard University is not alone in the challenges it faces. Many HBCUs tackle a number of issues that their mainstream counterparts often do not. From inadequate funding to enrollment and staffing issues to the high-levels of student debt carried by many Black students that impacts their ability to complete their degrees or affects their post-graduation opportunities, from aging infrastructure to smaller endowments — Dillard’s administration, faculty, staff and students understand them well.
But Dr. Ford is up for the challenges, ready to tackle them and turn them into opportunities through innovation and by expanding on the University’s strengths.
One of the things that Dr. Ford is especially excited about when it comes to learning at Dillard University is the inaugural offering of the master’s of science in nursing degree through DU’s College of Nursing, with the first students enrolled this fall.
A 12-course, 36-to-39 hour hybrid program, the M.S.N. is the first master’s degree the University has offered in its 153-year history and is designed to prepare its students for careers as nurse educators, administrators, or to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities in nursing.
“Dillard’s M.S.N degree program directly aligns with the demand for more nurses and nurse educators to prepare future nurses and nursing administrators to manage and lead staff nurses in their various roles and settings,” Dr. Sharon Hutchinson, dean of Dillard’s College of Nursing said in a statement released about the program earlier this year. “This is an exciting time to enter the arena of graduate nursing education and produce graduates who will prepare future nurses, impact healthcare outcomes for consumers of health, and address health disparities for diverse peoples and communities.”
Ford is on a mission to ensure that Dillard is visible in the community in big and small ways, from inviting area senior citizens to enjoy lunch in the campus dining hall as part of its Older Adult Luncheon Series to hosting a series of free smart phone technology classes to help those same seniors learn how to navigate their cell phones, use apps, connect to Wi-Fi, use social media, scan QR codes and more on the devices.
The community outreach efforts extend from the oldest to the youngest.
Dr. Ford tells The Tribune about a program that is still taking shape that will place Dillard students in early childhood education classes throughout New Orleans.
“We will have 30 Dillard AmeriCorps students using the federal work study to volunteer in the schools. They will do small group sessions with kids. They will do one-on-one activities with children, and help the teachers. And there is a family success component as well, where the Corps members will help equip parents to work with their children.”
During our recent interview, Ford said the University was searching for a program manager to oversee that early childhood education partnership.
There are other examples.
Shortly after Ford’s arrival last summer, Dillard was awarded a $10,000 grant from the AARP Community Challenge. The funding was used to support a community garden at Bethany United Methodist Church in Pontchartrain Park.
While $10,000 may not seem like much money, it is an important project that helps support healthy living and eating in the community, Ford says.
Part of AARP’s Livable Communities Initiative, the grant funded 20 raised-bed garden boxes, six healthy cooking demonstrations, four health fairs, efforts University officials hope will fight obesity, diabetes, heart disease and mental health in the New Orleans community.
“The project will combat food deserts and provide nutrition education by creating and expanding community gardens that produce fresh vegetables for senior citizens and families,” said Nick Harris, Dillard’s director of the Office of Community and Church Relations, in a statement when the grant was announced.
And in January, Dillard’s Center for Racial Justice partnered with the Power Coalition, the Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana, Southeast Legal Services, the Orleans Parish Clerk of Criminal District Court, and the District Attorney’s Office to help some residents get a fresh start by having their criminal records expunged. DU’s Center for Racial Justice and the Power Coalition donated more than $10,000 to pay the associated filing fees on the behalf of moderate and low-income citizens.
When it comes to being a part of the community, Dillard has defined itself lately in other significant ways.
The Louisiana Office of Economic Development contacted Dillard University after the 2022 Essence Festival of Culture to ask the historically Black university to produce a study on the economic impact of the annual event.
The school’s widely shared report details that the Essence Festival, an annual event that celebrates all things Black culture and attracts more than 500,000 visitors to the city, has a $327 million impact on the city of New Orleans’ economy.
The report was prepared by Dr. Dorian Williams, dean of Dillard’s College of Business, and Dr. Casey Schreiber, an associate professor of Urban Studies and Public Policy at Dillard.
“That was a huge deal because LSU always does those research projects,” Ford says. “We were the first school outside of LSU to be able to do the study. So it was Dillard — an HBCU — helping to understand the impact of Black culture on the state and the local economy. We are hoping to more of that. It’s celebrating us. If we don’t invest in us, who will?”