NEW ORLEANS (March 4, 2018) – Actress/writer/director Issa Rae. Actress/author Gabrielle Union. Comedian/actress/author Tiffany Haddish. Talk show host and author Tavis Smiley. ESPN sports journalist Jemele Hill.
This is the celebrity lineup of speakers for President Walter Kimbrough’s “Brain Food” lecture series this spring semester, an event he brought with him six years ago when he moved to Dillard from Philander Smith College in Arkansas. He considers the events sort of a two-fer: a means of providing intellectual stimulation for campus and community while also serving as a marketing tool to get Dillard’s name out beyond its walls.
While the president conceded he’s seen a tweet recently from a student critical of its cost and has heard of other complaints, Kimbrough said he believes it’s money well spent, adding, “No one asks what the budget for anything else is on campus.”
Even so, he said, a student engagement survey last fall cited Brain Food as the highest-rated activity. And he suggested a more productive discussion might be the tuition students pay for and waste through class withdrawals (WFs and Ws) and failures (Fs and FAs).
That “academic waste,” as he called it, came to some $2.4 million last semester alone, Kimbrough said, including $88,000 that students cost themselves by getting Fs in FYS classes. He said some 371 students, or 29 percent of the fall enrollment, were responsible for this waste.
Kimbrough would not give an exact budget for bringing high-profile speakers to campus, but said the outlay comes to less than $150,000, sometimes even half that, and the funds come from his presidential budget, not from student event funds.
Is it worth it? Kimbrough answered a resounding yes: “Not only is it experience and exposure for the students, but it also is a marketing event.”
Coverage is unpaid advertising
He said, “If we have someone like Gabrielle Union, then we get news outlets – for free – talking about Dillard. Some people have to buy that press, but we get it for free.”
Additionally, he said, four sponsors share some of the costs, and additional sponsors sometimes are brought in for events. The four usual sponsors are Sodexo, which provides food for the pre-lecture dinner to which students and faculty are invited; Hyatt Regency, which provides housing for the speaker; Follett, book sales; and the American Program Bureau, through which speakers are booked.
Kimbrough said because of his long relationship with the booking agency, he is able to bring people to campus at a lower cost, sometimes at half the going rate.
When prima ballerina Misty Copeland appeared, the New Orleans Ballet Association was a sponsor and covered advertising. When the Dance Theatre of Harlem came, “we got a free program…It’s all about connections,” he said.
When Smiley appeared Jan. 30, Kimbrough said, that was free, noting he and Smiley have a close relationship. He said his ultimate goal is to develop more relationships so he can bring even more people to Dillard.
In addition to the lecture series, Kimbrough also brings in high-profile speakers to campus through his Philosophy 444 class, which he then opens to the public to attend.
And DU has had nationally known speakers for commencement such as first lady Michelle Obama; actor (and DU philanthropist) Denzel Washington; and most recently “Hidden Figures” actress Janelle Monae, which prompted national coverage of the DU physics program.
Next up? Hill, who was suspended from ESPN after she called Donald Trump a white supremacist, will speak at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 7, in Georges Auditorium.
So far for the fall 2018 lineup, Kimbrough plans in August to have Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement and among “The Silence Breakers” Time magazine named “Person of the Year.” A major actor that Kimbrough wouldn’t name because the deal isn’t final is expected in September. With midterm elections due, he plans to have a conservative and a liberal politician appear in October and November.
In a December blog on medium.com, Kimbrough said noted WDSU had reported Dillard was No. 1 Lyft destination for New Orleans universities, a surprise to some.
However, Kimbrough said in the blog: “We have been intentional to serve as the living room for the city where diverse people can come have important conversations,” among other activities. He said DU continues to build on the vision of the first DU president, William Stuart Nelson, “to have an aesthetic spirit ‘designed to build a closer relationship between the students and the community, and elevating awareness of the university throughout the nation.’ ”
(J. Quenton Cooper contributed to this report.)