HBCU DIGEST: Did Walter Kimbrough bomb his interview for the Southern System presidency? Or did he ace it?

The Southern University System began public interviews of its three finalists for its vacant dual position of system president and chancellor of the flagship campus in Baton Rouge. The first contestant up for review was outgoing Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough.

Kimbrough, the precursor of HBCU presidential pop cultural resonance through his adventures on Twitter and his brand building at Dillard and Philander Smith College, shocked some viewers and participants of his public interview.

In separate sessions and with a folksy style of presentation, Kimbrough seemed to struggle with serious questions about Southern’s future and his vision for shaping it. He said that he was unfamiliar with how the dual position would be actualized in form and how that would conflict with students’ desire to have a personal connection with the flagship chancellor.

He didn’t articulate particular nuance about economic development for the campuses, knowledge of signature academic programs, and balked at a question about growing graduate offerings in the face of shrinking enrollment nationwide in advanced degree programs.

Most notably, he said that Southern misses out on philanthropic opportunities like funding from HBCU benefactor MacKenzie Scott, because of how the system’s signature ‘drama’ drives the public narrative around the institution and in donor circles.

Most would describe it as an absolute train wreck of tone and tenor in front of a campus community that takes pride in being picky and having its culture driven by politics. For a president who has made his mark as an unabashed public promoter and critic of HBCU culture, it was surprising that he willingly brought his Twitter persona to his audition lectern.

But could the opposite be true? Could Kimbrough’s delivery be exactly what the SU Board of Supervisors hoped it would and possibly coached to be? Where the community was wanting to hear specifics and elocution on the future of the university, could leaders have coached Kimbrough to keep his language plain, his energy high, and his truthtelling clear?

Kimbrough is one of three men looking to replace outgoing president/chancellor Ray Belton, a leader who was installed and successful in soothing temperatures systemwide following the contentious departures of former president Ronald Mason and former SUBR chancellor James Llorens. A Southern lifer, Belton exits as a uniquely productive executive having presided over the salvation of Southern University of New Orleans from possible accreditation loss and financial ruin, stable alliance with a legislature that had been gutting the system’s budget for years, navigation of the coronavirus pandemic and modest growth amidst rocky enrollment trends in the state and region.

Southern has partnerships with a number of federal agencies in agriculture, criminal justice, and the applied sciences, and recently raised its Carnegie research classification to R2. There are high expectations for athletics, campus growth, and brand management, but given where it is located and the threats that come with that geography, crisis is, for the moment, a distant friend of the system.

If Southern got to this place with a mild-mannered Belton in charge, where could it go with a persona like Kimbrough’s? If the Board’s calculation is that the system’s next phase will be emboldened by a salesman of HBCU culture and potential, then Kimbrough and his interview may have been spot on.

But if that’s not the plan, then several people have a lot of explaining to do behind the scenes about how this search drew down to this particular crop of finalists and that particular public performance.

If the SU community is drawing comparisons between Kimbrough and the presentation made today by fellow finalist and University of Arkansas Pine Bluff Chancellor Laurence Alexander, Kimbrough appeared more ‘fireside chat’ while Alexander appeared to be more ‘State of the Union.’ Alexander’s deliberate, scholarly delivery was the stuff of desire if Southern wants to see a campus governed by data-driven outcomes, moreso than good vibes.

Both men come with a fair share of publicity and baggage; trouble with boards, participation in presidential searches beyond the SU System, and questions about how they will jive with Southern culture are at the top of leaders’ and advocates’ minds. And, there is one more candidate yet to be interviewed this week.

But if people believe the last leg of the search to be a two-horse race between Kimbrough and Alexander, the final turn may not be a thoroughbred sprinting towards a spectacular finish while a show pony poses for attention. It may be a lot more complex, and closer than people may imagine.

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