Rochelle Ford: As a Black woman leading Dillard University, I celebrate the appointment of Harvard’s new president

Rochelle Ford is the eighth president of Dillard University. Photo provided


On Dec. 15, Harvard University appointed Dr. Claudine Gay as president, making her its first Black American, and second woman president, in its nearly 400-year history. She becomes the second Black woman to lead an Ivy League university; the first was Dillard University graduate Ruth Simmons, who will retire this academic year from Prairie View Agricultural and Mechanical University. Dr. Simmons served as the 18th president of Brown University from 2001 to 2012

As the second woman to lead Dillard University, or its predecessor universities Straight University and New Orleans University, in our 153-year history, this moment is extra special to me. Many other aspects of Gay’s appointment caused me to reflect on my personal experiences and on Dillard University.

First, I feel close to Harvard, having completed an intensive leadership certificate program there. There are Dillard faculty members, Toni Hackett Antrum among them, who earned Harvard bachelor’s degrees. Gay received her doctorate there, just like Simmons did, earning Harvard master’s and doctorate degrees. This year, 2022 Dillard grad Amaya Roncyzk became a Harvard Law student. In 2020, Lauren M. Lemonious completed a dual degree with a Dillard B.A. in urban studies and public policy, and a Harvard J.D.

Harvard and Dillard have multiple partnerships, with Dillard students taking Harvard online business courses, and the Dillard University/Harvard’s Hutchins Center International Conference on Black Arts Movement.

As dean of Harvard’s largest college, Gay is leading it through the pandemic. I, too, was a dean who led one of the largest communications schools/colleges in the nation, Elon University’s School of Communications, during the pandemic and racial reckoning of 2020. The role of dean prepares you for the complexities of a university presidency. Likewise, Dillard’s vice president of student success, Roland Bullard, developed many leadership skills as a Harvard University administrative fellow.

Gay and I are members of GenX, busting the myth and labels that this generation, born between 1965 and 1980, are slackers, a lost generation. Sandwiched between the largest generations of Boomers and Millennials, we’re often forgotten in literature and news, but we continue to prove we are strong, prepared, inclusive leaders.

She, like me, is the child of a solid two-parent household that sacrificed to raise and educate independent daughters. Her mom and mine are nurses, her dad a civil engineer, and mine a former science teacher and AT&T professional trainer.

We share similar dreams for our schools to be stronger, more visible leaders in our communities. We do not want them to hide behind ivory towers or black fences, but rather, we want them to actively engage with the communities where we exist, and across the globe. We want to instill in our schools the drive to make the world a better place. Dillard demonstrates these commitments to community via our Community Gardens in partnership with AARP, our high school STEM programs that run in the summer and on weekends during the academic year, through Japanese-American undergraduate engineering research and student exchange programs with Japan’s Shibaura Institute of Technology, and through Center of Racial Justice programs, which create dialogues and collaborate with interfaith, youth, and public forums to work towards finding solutions to New Orleans crime problems.

Just as she wants Harvard to be inclusive, Dillard has always been inclusive. Unlike Harvard or any Ivy League school, or any other schools in Louisiana, Dillard, since its founding in 1869, has had Black and White staff and faculty members, and has educated women and men since inception.

Dillard ranks among the top colleges in the nation for social mobility, as does Harvard. However, Dillard does it with 70% of its students being Pell Grant eligible (Harvard has 19%), more than 95% Black (15%) and an endowment of less than 1% of Harvard’s $53 billion (Dillard’s is $103 million).

I share joy in this moment, celebrating Gay’s appointment to Harvard. As a Black woman, former dean, GenXer, and daughter, I feel proud to be leading Dillard with a legacy of ethical leadership in nursing, legal professions, film and entertainment, inclusion and civil rights, and committed to cultivating those who act courageously to make the world a better place.

Let’s celebrate Dr. Gay and Harvard while celebrating the Jewel of Gentilly, home of Louisiana’s poet laureate, Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy, Dr. Ruth Simmons, the Ivy League’s first Black president, and Louisiana’s first Black governor, P.B.S. Pinchback. Let’s celebrate and support Dillard University.

Rochelle Ford is president of Dillard University.