Numerous times throughout Inauguration Weekend, many an attendee could be heard commenting on how “beautiful” the weather was, as it seemed to compliment the celebratory mood. Visitors from near and far enjoyed one of America’s most beautiful college campuses the way it is meant to be taken in–on mild clear, sunny days. Equally as bright and sunny was the smile of President Rochelle L. Ford, who was officially installed as Dillard’s eighth president.
Let it begin!
The weekend celebrating a new era for Dillard was packed with activities designed to welcome the campus community and visitors with open arms while endowing all with hope and energy. There were those visitors who also brought energy to 2601 Gentilly Boulevard such as New Orleans city councilmember Eugene Green who represents District D where Dillard sits. “We celebrate this weekend, Dr. Ford, her commitment, her experience, her desire to see Dillard to go to even greater heights,” said Green. “We also celebrate the fact that Dillard has been a long time positive player in this community, and we greatly appreciate that…a great day for a great institution.”
Green was one of many campus visitors who enjoyed the kick-off to the weekend, the Jazz Breakfast for Students and Guests in the Kearny Dining Hall. With the sounds of a soothing, yet upbeat duo, students, faculty, staff and guests enjoyed such delicious breakfast offerings. The dining hall was abuzz with excitement as the new president made her entrance, greeting members of the campus community, long-time friends and colleagues, and her sorors of Zeta Phi Beta.
One of the most important things for Ford was to showcase the University’s intellectual capital. The first part of Leadership in High Impact Practices was held immediately after breakfast in Lucien Pavilion of the Professional Schools and Sciences Building. The event provided an opportunity for students and faculty to display the projects, scholarship and research which included poster presentations, papers, senior capstone projects and journal articles. Later in the afternoon, more scholarship was displayed through creative works in the theater in the Samuel DuBois Cook Fine Arts and Communications Complex.
Dr. David Rossmanith, coordinator of the physics and pre-engineering program and assistant professor of physics, reflected the pride faculty and students took in displaying their work during the event. “In physics, we provide great research opportunities at the undergraduate level. This is something most universities don’t seem to have, and most students don’t know is available. Research at this level usually comes at graduate school, but we have the resources and the staff and the faculty to allow our undergraduate students to participate in very high level research,” he said. Dillard’s Department of Physics is known for graduating the highest number of women of color that go on to earn their Ph.D.s, according to Rossmanith.
The main event
The minutes and seconds seemed to tick louder and louder in anticipation of Dillard’s first presidential inauguration in a decade. Faculty, donned in their academic regalia, moved toward the Will W. Alexander Library. Honored guests, delegates, board of trustees members and cabinet members made their way to Rosenwald Hall to prepare for the pomp and circumstance of the Investiture Ceremony. The day’s sheer beauty gave even more life to the “gleaming white and spacious green” as students, staff and other visitors enjoyed leisurely strolls to Lawless Memorial Chapel. The music inside of Lawless warmly welcomed all as the robed processionists entered.
The ceremony opened with a host of greetings and remarks. Michael “D.J. Obi-Wan Shonobi” Larkin, one of Ford’s sons, provided remarks. “One of the most inspirational things about Dr. Ford is her drive and motivation to achieve her goals. Every step Dr. Ford has made in her career has been intentionally executed to reach higher. Congrats, Mom, you made it,” he quipped. Among others who delivered remarks were Dr. Michael Lomax, president and CEO of UNCF and Dillard’s fourth president, in addition to Dr. Stacie N.C. Grant, international president and CEO of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc.
Upon taking the oath of office, donning her presidential regalia and the University mace presentation, Ford delivered her inauguration address. Centering the University mission, Ford delivered a sometimes emotive address, recognizing those who educated and influenced her. Ford also honored and thanked her family for their support, especially her late father, Raymond Tillery, and her late brother, Raymond Tillery Jr. “As many of you know, I was a daddy’s girl wanting to implement lessons daddy taught me pushing me to be better, and I was often chasing to achieve similar things as my big brother did,” she said. “Both of them were members of Omega Psi Phi fraternity, and I am so thankful that their brothers are here today.”
Ford also recognized the contributions of her Dillard presidential predecessors while uplifting latest and future developments. Among the developments that Ford touted were plans to construct a 200-bed residential facility, a $700,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a $1.3 million grant for the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, the University’s partnership with Japan’s Shibaura Institute of Technology, the re-establishment of the National Center for Black-Jewish Relations, and Dillard’s renewed membership with Project Pericles. Ford also announced that in the fall of 2023, the University will launch the “Cultivating Leadership” lecture series, a reimagining of Dr. Walter Kimbrough’s “Brain Food” series.
Ford closed her address with her six areas of focus for continuing Dillard’s legacy. One is addressing mental and physical health equity primarily through the University’s Minority Health and Health Equity Research Program, the nursing program, social sciences programs and the School of Population and Health Sciences. The second area is improving food equity, leveraging the Ray Charles Program in African-American Material Culture, Dillard’s food studies program, partnerships with Sodexo, and community outreach. The third focus is investing in innovation and sustainability through research and study in STEM, social sciences, business and humanities programs in addition to partnerships with NASA, H2the Future, local schools, GNO Inc. and federal, state and local partners. Focus number four is improving digital communication, broadband and cyber security through the University’s computer science program, mobile cell tower, partnerships with Cisco, the nationally ranked film program and other humanities programs. Economic development and entrepreneurship programs is the fifth focus. Ford pointed to incubating local businesses, teaching entrepreneurship and business courses, and offering financial literacy programming for our students, alumni and the community. Finally, there is creating safer and more equitable communities through programs such as the Center for Racial Justice, Evening and Weekend Studies, the pre-law program, youth programs and other programs.
The weekend was rounded out with activities on Saturday and Sunday. A Call to Service was held Saturday morning as the Office of Community and Church Relations organized a back-to-school giveaway and health fair. Later that night, the University community and guests took in HBCU Night with the New Orleans Pelicans, which featured Dillard talent. Alumna Sharandall Lewis performed the national anthem and former student Casme performed while members of Dillard’s Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority chapters participated in a halftime performance.
The Ford administration at Dillard has generated excitement and hope among many. Grant sees great symbolism in Ford’s being Dillard’s eighth president. “Eight is a number of new beginnings, and I’m excited about the beginnings that Dillard University will lead the charge under her leadership and partnership with everyone who works at this fine institution,” said Grant.
Another Zeta soror, Sonja Inge, recalls Ford’s ability to stay focused on goals in college and sees it as a strength. “She stayed steady, and she stayed focused on the goal. What is the goal of this? What are we trying to achieve? She was always focused on that. So I look forward to seeing what she’s going to do for Dillard and keeping everyone focused and on board.”
Inauguration Weekend definitely left an impression on Raven Ford, the president’s youngest child. “I remember when she was teaching at Howard and how she really believed in the message of uplifting Black folk and HBCUs,” she said tearily. Inspired, the young Ford is looking forward to writing her legacy in the world of public policy. “I want to be part of the solution and not feel like a bystander.”