Instead of hitting the ground running, Dr. Rochelle Ford is traveling at warp speed in her new role as president of Dillard University, the oldest HBCU in the state of Louisiana.
Appointed to the prestigious post last month, Ford immediately made strides to implement her main goal of enlisting the support of “alumni, partners, everyone we encounter” to help fulfill the university’s mission. During a recent visit to Los Angeles, the president elaborated on her strategies to achieve that objective.
Describing her key initiative as “activating our commitment,” Ford explained that Dillard exists in a certain space to carry out a specific charge, which is to develop African American leaders.
“The first thing to really understanding our mission is that we are a historically Black university that cultivates leaders who live ethically, think and communicate precisely, and act courageously to make the world a better place,” she said.
“So, activating our commitment is really [recognizing] who we are, what are we committed to doing and keeping that out in front of us. It means that whether you’re faculty, student, partner or alumnus, we are asking you to be on this journey with us.”
The journey includes three key components that Ford aims to focus on during her tenure – facilities that withstand the forecast, fortifying the faculty, and financing the future. Expounding further, she underscored the importance of having good infrastructure and sound buildings to survive turbulent weather such as hurricanes, flash floods and tropical storms.
Raging weather hit Dillard University, which is located in New Orleans, in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina caused extensive damage to some of the properties. It took a year of rebuilding before students were able to return to campus in September 2006
Ford’s emphasis on strengthening Dillard’s staff highlights her desire to retain faculty by providing competitive compensation, research funds, travel grants and other amenities to attract and keep exceptional talent. Considering the recent prominence given to the themes of diversity, equity and inclusion, Ford recognizes that extra measures must be employed to maintain superior staff.
“As you know, there’s a war on talent everywhere – at McDonald’s, the car wash and in every place. People are looking for amazing talent. A lot of predominantly White institutions are going after great African American and Black-identifying talent, because they need to diversify to meet the needs of the browning of America,” she noted.
“It’s very easy to come and poach my faculty because they are amazing in what they do. Not only can they teach math and science and English, but also they pour caring into the students. Whenever you meet someone [who attended] Dillard and you asked them what made it special, they say it was the people because they mentored them, they coached them, [they were there] when they need someone to talk to,” stressed the president.
Because Dillard possesses such uniqueness, Ford acknowledged that steady funding is needed to ensure that the university is available to educate generations to come. Having that thought in mind likely influences her concentration on securing financing for the future.
“There’s not as much wealth in African American communities and more than 60% of my student body at Dillard are Pell grant eligible. As you know, Pell doesn’t cover the full cost of attendance for most colleges and universities, and Dillard is considered one of the best buys of higher education,” she said.
“If you look at the return on the investment of a Dillard degree, not only does it bring that student up socially and economically, but it brings the whole family up, and generational wealth begins to accumulate. If you invest in obtaining a degree from Dillard, you’re going to bring yourself and future generations of your family up.”
Ford granted that realizing the vision requires the assistance of partners – both corporate and alumni – who will give financially, invest in scholarships for students, and hire young people after they graduate. She aims to connect with everyone that falls in those categories to guarantee that Dillard University endures.
As part of her efforts, Ford met with Valerie Ervin, president of the Ray Charles Foundation during her visit to Los Angeles. The legendary musician endowed a $1 million professorship of culinary history at Dillard. Marc Barnes, former Dillard advancement director and now a UNCF advancement officer, coordinated the introductory meeting and accompanied Ford.
“The Ray Charles Foundation has supported a center at Dillard [focused on the] culture of food and music and arts. He believed in the next generation, so our students are learning about the culinary arts and food science and food studies. We’re very fortunate to have their partnership and my aim was to personally thank President Ervin and request further partnership,” said Ford.
Also, while in L.A., she spoke at Holman United Methodist Church, where Pastor Ken Walden and the congregation surprised her with a monetary donation for the university. Dillard is affiliated with the United Methodist and United Church of Christ denominations.
“Dr. Ford gave an excellent presentation about the past, present, and bright future of Dillard University as a Historically Black United Methodist University. We are happy to partner with her leadership for the benefit of our future generations,” said the Rev. Dr. Walden.
She also met with Dr. Stella Robinson, who graduated from Dillard in 1948, and went on to earn Master’s and Doctorate degrees in nursing and education. The Sentinel recently shared Robinson’s story in honor of her 100th birthday. Dr. Ford presented Dr. Robinson with a proclamation commemorating her association with Dillard and an engraved crystal vase.
Such caring and concerns for others are traits Ford has possessed all of her life along with a “need to know.” Recalling how she wanted to be a teacher when she was young, she changed interests as she got older.
“I discovered that I was an inquisitive one and loved to ask lots of questions, and so I combined my two loves of journalism and teaching and became a journalism educator,” remembered Ford, who next shifted into public relations.
“I like solving problems as much as telling stories about what was going on in the day. That inquisitiveness led into higher education and I taught others how to be amazing storytellers. And because I like to solve the problems, I ended up becoming an administrator,” said Dr. Ford.
She actually became a highly-regarded, transformative administrator who charted a number of accomplishments such as establishing the Academic Center for Excellence at Howard University and serving as the associate dean of research and academic affairs in Howard’s School of Communications, and appointed as Syracuse University’s provost faculty fellow where she chaired the public relations department in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Prior to being named Dillard president, she served as dean of Elon University’s School of Communications where she increased student enrollment approximately 15% between 2018 and 2021.
The recipient of several honors and commendations, last year Dr. Ford received the Distinguished Service Award from the Arthur W. Page Society in recognition of her service to the public relations profession and her commitment to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion in the field. Also, ColorCOMM selected her as one of 28 Most Influential Black Females in Communications in 2021.
PR Week inducted Ford into its Hall of Fame in 2018 and the following year, the Public Relations Society of America, where Ford earned an accreditation in public relations, presented her with its Outstanding Educator Award.
The holder of Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctorate degrees in journalism, she also received a graduate certification in higher education from Harvard University. In 2021, she served as a fellow in Clark Atlanta University’s HBCU Executive Leadership Institute.
Despite her impressive resume, Dr. Rochelle Ford, is an approachable, humble and forward-thinking individual, constantly seeking opportunities to achieve excellence and assist others. In fact, she advised young people aspiring to a career like hers to adopt those traits.
“Focus on excellence. If you strive for mediocrity, you’re going to fail. If you strive to be simply good, you might be mediocre. But if you strive for excellence, you will absolutely be on your way towards that,” she declared.
“And seek excellence without excuse because if you live in excuses, the phrase says ‘excuses are the mere tools of the incompetent.’ Those who use them seldom amount to anything, so don’t live your life with excuses. Own up to what you did and did not do. Learn from those failures. Learn from those mistakes, and keep moving forward. Strive for excellence!”
Staff Writer Devyn Bakewell contributed to this story.