It’s a week before graduation and the students at Dillard University only have a few days left to complete their finals. While students finish up last-minute assignments, school president Rochelle Ford is excited about the school’s new baseball team, the first in the university’s history. She even missed the first weekend of Jazz Fest to watch the Bleu Devils win the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference tournament championship in its first season. The team seemed to embody Ford’s motto: excellence without excuses.
A native of Gahanna, Ohio, Ford earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism with a concentration in public relations from Howard University. She received her master’s degree in journalism with a specialization in public relations from the University of Maryland, College Park, and her Ph.D. in journalism from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Ford also earned a graduate certificate in higher education administration from Harvard University.
Before being named Dillard’s eighth president last May, Ford served as the dean of the School of Communications at Elon University in North Carolina. She also spent four years as a professor and chair of the public relations department at the S.I. Newhouse School of Publications at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y.
During her 16-year tenure at her alma mater, Howard University, she worked in several roles. She taught as a professor in the School of Communications, served as the associate dean for research and academic affairs and was director of the Preparing Future Journalism Faculty Program. Ford also led the university’s initiative to establish a campus-wide Center for Academic Excellence.
In 2021, she received the Distinguished Service Award from the Arthur W. Page Society and was named one of 28 Most Influential Black Females in Communications. In 2019, Ford received the Public Relations Society of America’s Outstanding Educator Award and, in 2018, she was inducted into the PRWeek Hall of Fame.
As she geared up for her first commencement leading Louisiana’s oldest HBCU, Ford, only the second woman in the role in a permanent capacity, took time to talk to Verite about her journey to the Dillard presidency.
Verite: Tell me about growing up in Gahana, Ohio. What was your childhood like?
President Ford: I loved my childhood. My mom and dad were high school sweethearts. We moved to Ohio in ’72. Mom is still there. Dad passed away a couple of years ago. But it was ideal. It was not the bastion of diversity at the time. Gahana now actually has a lot of African Americans.
But when I was there, up until sixth grade, there were three Black people in my class in elementary school. And middle school, I think we got four others. It was the seven of us. I think by the time I graduated, there may have been maybe 20 Black kids in my class, out of 400.
But at the same time I very early learned how to move between cultures. At home, my family, my dad in particular, ensured that I knew Black history.
My family was unapologetically Black and proud. My dad started the Black Parent Association. We were always advocates although I felt very comfortable in white society and became a leader throughout my childhood. But I think what that formed me into is someone who cares passionately about community and about inclusion.
Verite: Who were your role models growing up?
Ford: Definitely my daddy, Raymond Evan Tillery. He was a first generation [college graduate]. His father had a third-, fourth-grade education. His mother, I think, may have gone to fifth-, sixth-grade. She was a domestic. He paid his way through Morgan State working, lifeguarding, doing a host of different jobs and things. He went to corporate America, became a corporate trainer for then-Western Electric Bell Lab System, which became AT&T Technologies.
But he was willing to move outside of his comfort zone. He was willing to learn to play the corporate America game, to integrate spaces and retain his identity. He was able to build an investment portfolio so that his family could be a part of the upper-middle class [and] that he could support his parents. He could move so smoothly, through corporate America, faith communities, the neighborhood in which we were the only Black family on the block. But he was seen as a leader in every space that he occupied.
Verite: Why did you want to go to Howard University?
Ford: I was just like a lot of our young people today, I was tired of, “Why are you putting grease in your hair? What are you doing? Do you suffer?” … Just the daily microaggressions, like, “You’re pretty for a Black girl.” What does that mean? I wanted to be free of that in a learning environment. I remember one kid, when we were graduating, he was like, “You only got a full ride to Howard because you’re Black.” It’s an HBCU.
I wanted to be in a space where my Blackness was not the first thing that people saw. And when I got to Howard, I experienced the diversity of Black folk that there was no monolithic way of being Black. And I loved that. And I was no longer an exception for anything that I did. Excellence was the expectation in the world.
Verite: You’ve had a long career in higher education. Tell me about an event or an incident, or even a person that helped shape who you are today.
Ford: I can tell you a story of when I knew I had to be excellent. I had studied under this professor and I really loved their class at my doctoral program at Southern Illinois Carbondale. And I thought that they were super smart and I would bring in books that I had read from Howard and other places. We would have these great intellectual conversations and I just knew I was going to have this person as my dissertation advisor. And now, mind you, I was commuting from Tennessee to Southern Illinois. It was like a two-and-a-half-hour drive one way. And I was a mom and I was a wife.
I still had my faculty appointment. I was advising students. I wasn’t teaching, but I was still doing service. And this faculty member, after reading my ideas, called me into his office so we could discuss them. He said, “I don’t like any of these. Maybe you’re not as smart as I thought that you were. Maybe you have gotten by on your personality.”
So I was like, “I’m sorry that you feel that way. I guess that we will not be working together. Thank you for your time and investment in me this far.” I walked out. I went to the bathroom and I cried.
But that was a turning point for me that said, I have to be excellent without excuse. I will invest in people who are willing to invest in me and I will not beg for somebody else’s approval because I knew that I was intelligent. I knew that I was there for a purpose and that no one was going to turn me around. And sure enough, not anybody directed my dissertation, the director of the school of journalism. And I was his only graduate student. Had I done the research that I was going to do with this other faculty member, I wouldn’t be the diversity equity inclusion scholar I am today.
If I wasn’t told to my face, all that was said to me and what they perceived of me, maybe I wouldn’t have learned the lesson of falling forward.
Verite: In January, it was announced that you planned to relaunch the National Center on Black-Jewish Relations that was created by former Dillard president Samuel Dubois Cook in 1989. Why was it important to you to bring the center back?
Ford: It was important to me to bring this center back because there was so much anti-Black and so much anti-Semitism that exists in our society. Our people are so much more closely linked than we realize and we’ve lost the sense of community and support of each other. And knowing the history of Dillard, the building that we’re in, Rosenwald Hall, [also] Stern Hall, Keller Avenue of the Oaks, Hertzel, Camphor Hertzel Hall, all of these are Jewish American families who ensured the existence of Dillard University. It was their philanthropic dollars that said, “We’re going to save this HBCU. Our students need to know why there was an interest in that community to have an investment in us. Why were they walking alongside Dr. King and all the civil rights leaders to ensure our people have equality? Let’s restore the dialogue. Let’s understand each other. Let’s work together to tackle the issues that our society is facing, not just here in New Orleans, but globally. How do we make sure that we have healthy and safe and innovative communities? How do we work together on that?
Verite: Let’s talk about goals. What would you like to achieve during your tenure as president of Dillard University?
Ford: I want us to live our mission. I want New Orleans, Louisiana, America, the world to know that we’re a “communiversity.” That it is not an ivy wall. It is not behind the iron fence. We are here to serve. We’re here to cultivate leaders in your companies. We’re here to cultivate leaders in your nonprofit, in your government, in your youth, in any aspect that we can assist with. And we will do that through being a living, learning, serving community.
What does that mean? I want to help with economic development in our community to create mixed-use residential halls and serve our students. But will [also] bring retail back into Gentilly, will bring mental health clinics and that will bring additional places for incubating businesses back into our community. Each of the new residence halls that we build will be a place where learning can extend from campus into the residence hall because we’ll have faculty and staff living in them.
How do we help with food insecurity? How do we revitalize these communities that surround us in the food desert for economic development? How do we help to meet the psychological emotional wellness, mental health wellness of this area? How do we really make communities safer?
We’re doing DOD (Department of Defense) funded laser physics research here on campus. We’re part of the IBM Quantum Computing Consortium innovation. We are working in partnership on cybersecurity with Cisco Systems and with eSports and with design with the Unreal Engine creators. So we’re going to be innovative. I want to be known as a communiversity that advances healthy, safe, and innovative communities through living, learning, serving. That’s my vision.
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