Dr. Rochelle Ford doesn’t remember saying it, but her friends do.
“On the day I was inaugurated president at Dillard University, I had quite a few friends remind me that I had said I thought I’d like to be a college president someday,” Ford recalls. “I don’t remember saying it, and all I can say is that oftentimes you don’t know what God is doing in your life, and for what reason, but I’m elated to be here.”
As president of the oldest historically Black college and university (HBCU) in Louisiana, Ford has eagerly tackled facilities, faculty, community, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives at Dillard. The Gahanna, Ohio, native—whose accolades to date include the “Distinguished Service Award” from the Arthur W. Page Society in 2021, the Public Relations Society’s “America’s Outstanding Educator Award” in 2019, a PRWeek Hall of Fame inductee, and one of ColorComm’s “28 Most Influential Black Females in Communications”—is the eighth president of Dillard University. And she’s the second woman to become one.
Ford is literally leading from the campus. While the two previous presidents at Dillard elected to live off-site, Ford figured if she was going to help Dillard continue to reach out to the people of New Orleans and become the kind of “communiversity” she imagined, she needed to be on-site at all times.
The house of the president, built on campus in the 1930s, was desperately in need of restoration. The house was home to all university presidents prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but it became something of a catch-all building for various university needs in the interim.
“I want our students and faculty to see me walking across campus,” Ford says. “I’m very grateful the board was willing to help us restore the house, be a physical part of our campus, and, hopefully, lead by example.”
That example is clear. Ford’s “D.U. 3” priorities are front and center not just as passion projects but as initiatives that demonstrate a clear vision for Dillard’s march into the future: facilities that withstand the forecast, fortifying faculty and staff, and financing the future.
Here are just a few examples of those initiatives in action.
Facilities That Withstand the Forecast
The brutal heat and hurricane seasons of New Orleans have always been a significant challenge for Dillard. Along with new roofs across campus, Ford and her team were able to leverage Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) funds to reassess the university’s HVAC systems and begin extensive upgrades for a climate that is only getting hotter as time goes on.
Through a loan from the Department of Education, Dillard is also building a new living, learning, and service facility that will house students and extend learning opportunities into the living environment.
On the first floor will be an incubation space for businesses that students can create, grow, and work in, with community service in mind. That’s the perfect execution of the communiversity mindset Ford is looking to enhance.
“The first floor will be able to serve the community through certification programs, incubation businesses, and communication and workforce redevelopment,” Ford says. “And above that, the residence halls where younger students will be able to learn from resident advisors and have someone to help be that bridge between high school and adulthood. Wherever you are, however you are, you’ll be learning all the time.”
The building is expected to open in 2025.
Fortifying Faculty & Staff and Financing the Future
One of Ford’s first acts in her first one hundred days as president was to create a staff council. While most universities don’t have a collective bargaining unit, Ford believed it was imperative for staff to have a designated body that could speak with one voice.
“We want our people to have a safe space to generate ideas, express concerns, and source input from all of our people, including those important staff who may not be in the classroom but are forging relationships with our students across campus,” she says. “They might be supervisors of work-study, they might be cleaning residence halls, and they all matter and should have their ideas heard.”
Ford also enacted a grant-writing incentive that earns staff $100 just for writing and submitting a grant idea. That idea helped a first-time grant writer earn Mellon Foundation funding to establish Dillard’s new food studies minor, the only one of its kind in New Orleans. Grants have continued to be submitted and accepted on a wide range of topics and interests, from million-dollar federal grants on down.
Ford has also leaned heavily into her DEI expertise, one that was earned at an early age. The Dillard president loved her upbringing in Ohio, nurtured by proud Black parents who started the Black Parent Association, an admittedly small group considering that out of four hundred graduates, Ford was one of maybe twenty Black students in her high school’s graduating class.
“Growing up in a predominantly white community, I had a thirst for belonging,” Ford explains. “I learned how to oscillate between cultures, and I certainly know what it feels like to othered in a multitude of ways, and now I want to make sure that as we embrace diversity, we also embrace inclusion, and we build community.”
The president says she wants Dillard’s Canadian students to feel as part of the campus as those from Vietnam or Ukraine. Whether they’re part of the LGBTQIA community or identify as Black, Latinx, or any other color, race, ethnicity, or background, Ford says Dillard should be a place where differences can be celebrated and embraced and built upon.
“People can often forget about the diversity among Black folk,” Ford adds. “My students from LA are certainly different from those from New York, and they’re different from those from here in New Orleans. That is all to say that we are all on an important journey to celebrate who we are and come together to build something great.”
Ford is especially proud to have relaunched the National Center on Black-Jewish Relations that was created by former Dillard president Samuel Dubois Cook in 1989, a president that Ford often finds herself being compared to.
Discouraged by sentiments from the Black community in the sports and entertainment world that seem to harken back to periods of tension between the Black and Jewish community in the 1980s, Ford says it’s important to remember that ending hate and prejudice starts with minority groups understanding each other’s struggles and pain.
“You have to remember that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel worked very closely with Dr. Martin Luther King,” Ford says. “We have histories that are interlocked and connected in struggle. Ending hate is ending hate.”
It’s only a year-and-change into Ford’s tenure as president of Dillard. But the on-site construction, the continued collaboration with university staff, and even seeing Ford herself strolling the grounds in the evening are evidence that she’s brought a vision to the HBCU that she believes will help bring New Orleans citizens even closer together, leaving a legacy of Dillard being a communiversity.
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