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Two leaders for Little Rock

No one denies that the continued growth of the institutions of higher education that call this area home is key to the future of Little Rock and Central Arkansas. In Pulaski County, however, the conversation too often ends after discussing the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Pulaski Technical College.

UAMS, UALR and Pulaski Tech must indeed be major players in the growth of this region. But the focus on higher education cannot end there. Little Rock is the home of two historically black colleges with long, proud histories — Philander Smith College and Arkansas Baptist College. The two schools are within blocks of each other south of Interstate 630. They’re anchors for their neighborhoods.

And, to the lasting benefit of the capital city and our entire state, these institutions are led by two of the most dynamic leaders in Arkansas. If I had to make a list of people under the age of 50 (sadly, I no longer qualify) who will play important roles in moving Arkansas forward during the next decade, both Dr. Walter Kimbrough of Philander Smith and Dr. Fitz Hill of Arkansas Baptist would be on that list.

As I pointed out in a recent column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I’ve known Fitz Hill since he was a child. The public schools in Arkadelphia became integrated when I was in the third grade. Fitz’ older brother and I were in the same grade and friends from the third through the 12 grades. I knew Fitz would be a leader. As a fellow Arkadelphian, I’m proud of what he has accomplished.

In fact, I’ve always thought Fitz could be the first black governor of Arkansas if he ever set his mind to the task. That said, I don’t think his interest is politics. He has found his mission at Arkansas Baptist. However, the old political strategist in me cannot help but play out the scenario in my mind — Fitz obviously would receive heavy support from black voters and others who would like to see a black governor. But lots of rural good ol’ boys, who loved him when he was “Coach Hill” at the University of Arkansas, would support him because they don’t necessarily view the world in black and white when it comes to this individual. They see him as Razorback red. In Arkansas, that is something that should not be underestimated among male voters. To put it delicately, many of these white males likely are voters who wouldn’t otherwise support a black candidate. Veterans would support their fellow veteran. Fitz served in Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. receiving the Bronze Star. And educators no doubt would love to see a fellow educator in the Governor’s Mansion.

Enough of that. As stated, Fitz has found his mission as he attempts to transform not only Arkansas Baptist but also the neighborhoods surrounding the school.

As for Walter Kimbrough, I’ve watched his accomplishments with interest since he was hired in December 2004 as the 12th president of Philander Smith. He was 37 at the time, one of the youngest college presidents in the country. He grew up in Atlanta, where his father was a Methodist minister and his mother was an author.

I had the pleasure of sharing breakfast with him this morning at the Capital Hotel, and he told me he set his mind on becoming a college president at age 23. When he came to Philander Smith, he said the school was best known around Little Rock as “having some nice new buildings and a great choir.”

That was good, but he wanted more. On the school’s website, he lists Philander Smith’s mission as producing “academically accomplished students, grounded as advocates for social justice, determined to intentionally change the world for the better.”

Dr. Kimbrough’s “Bless the Mic” lecture series has drawn a long line of nationally known speakers to the Philander Smith campus and increased awareness of the school.

He also launched the Black Male Initiative in 2007. He was concerned that the six-year graduation rates at the school in 2006 were only 21 percent for black women and 11 percent for black men. In an article published earlier this year in Inside Higher Ed, Kimbrough said: “We deal with a lot of first-generation students, a lot of students who come from what I would consider to be horrible K-12 systems. If you admit students like that, you’ve got to do extra things for them. That’s the part that I didn’t see happening. We’ve admitted them, so what are we doing extra to really boost them? … Men really need to have these supportive and nurturing environments. It’s not just as simple as they need more tutoring. You could provide the tutoring, and the guys won’t come.”

The national six-year graduation rate for black students at four-year institutions is 40.5 percent. It’s 56.1 percent overall and 59.4 percent for white students. The graduation rate for black men trails the rate for black women significantly.

The Philander Smith president is involved in a number of Black Male Initiative events each year. They range from fashion contests to golf lessons to lessons on how to properly tie a tie.

He told Inside Higher Ed: “When institutions have these kinds of programs for any group, the so-called usual suspects attend, the guys who are already involved, who are in leadership positions, who are doing well academically. What we’re trying to do now is have events and then personally ask guys who never come to anything to come. We’re a small campus so we pretty much know everyone or know something about them. We clearly know the people who no one knows anything about. We know who they are.”

It would be wise for the white business leadership of Little Rock to support Philander Smith and Arkansas Baptist. If Little Rock is to really become the “next great Southern city” or whatever the latest public relations slogan coming out of City Hall is, Philander Smith and Arkansas Baptist need to thrive.

 We have two of the top HBCU leaders in America right here in Little Rock. They’re young, they’re articulate, they’re energetic. It behooves all of us to help them succeed.

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