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Philander welcomes 'hip-hop' president

Walter Kimbrough's youth gives him something to prove.


NEW PRESIDENT: Walter Kimbrough with his wife Adria.
  • NEW PRESIDENT: Walter Kimbrough with his wife Adria.
If the chairman of Philander Smith College’s board of directors is to be believed, the school’s new president, Walter Kimbrough, will at least start out with the kind of broad-based support that eluded his predecessor during her last two years at the college. Groups of students, staff, faculty and business leaders met with all three finalists to replace Trudie Kibbe Reed, who left Philander Smith last summer for the top job at Bethune-Cookman College. All of those groups ranked the 37-year-old Kimbrough first, Harris said. As for Kimbrough, currently the vice president for student affairs at Albany State University in Georgia, he said he welcomes the challenge of coming into a less-than-perfect situation. “It wouldn’t be any fun if you came in and everything was all set up and all you had to was manage it,” he said. Reed led Philander Smith through a large capital campaign, raising millions of dollars for new buildings on campus. But after several faculty members were fired as part of a “restructuring” two years ago in the face of financial problems, Reed’s policies came under more scrutiny. One professor was fired for telling an Arkansas Times reporter that she couldn’t talk about the other firings because Reed had forbidden the college’s employees to talk to the media without her permission. That professor and another sued the college, and the American Association of University Professors eventually censured the school. Kimbrough said he researched the college’s recent past through newspaper articles and the Internet. “By the time I came to interview there wasn’t much that could catch me off guard,” he said. Kimbrough said he knows he’ll have to start off by doing a lot of listening about the school’s recent problems. “There’s going to be some venting,” he said. “I know we’ll do some of that but hopefully then we will move forward.” Kimbrough didn’t say specifically what his policy would be on faculty speaking to the media, but did say part of being a leader is being “forthright when there are issues, and address them.” Kimbrough, the son of a United Methodist minister, went to college intending to be a veterinarian but changed his mind midway through his first term at veterinary school. “I can still tell you a lot about chickens, though,” he joked at a press conference last week at Philander Smith. A conversation with the president of another school when Kimbrough was still an undergraduate convinced Kimbrough that he wanted to be a college president as well. He earned a master’s degree in college student personnel services from Miami University and a doctorate in higher education from Georgia State University in 1996. He held administrative jobs at Emory University, Old Dominion University and Georgia State University before going to Albany State in 2000. In 1990, Kimbrough said, he wrote a paper in which he said he wanted to be a college president within 15 years. “I’m a year early,” he said. Pursuing the top job at a historically black college was a conscious decision, Kimbrough said. (Albany State, a four-year public university, is also a historically black school.) As the administrative ranks at other schools have opened up to minorities, historically black institutions have had a harder time competing for talented African-American leaders, he said. “I’ve had a much more rewarding experience working at an HBCU,” he said. “You can have a much greater impact on students there.” Kimbrough seems almost to have made a second career out of studying college presidents — who they are, how they got there, what makes them succeed or fail. He’s called himself Philander’s first president from the “hip-hop generation.” His youth puts him in a group of only about 30 college presidents under 40 years old, he said. But he’s only the third youngest of Philander Smith’s presidents. “That’s a good sign — this is a place that respects young leadership,” he said. Kimbrough said he also knows he’ll have to prove himself to people who think 37 is too young to be in charge of a college. Harris isn’t one of them. “Because of his age he brings sort of excitement that we did not see in the other candidates,” he said. Kimbrough said he’ll spend his first semester at Philander Smith in student mode, learning as much as he can before making major changes. “It’s a mistake if you come in and have your own agenda and you don’t know the history and the traditions.”

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