New Philander Smith president shares excitement, faith, goals for the college

Dr. Roderick Smothers,  President, Philander Smith College

Dr. Roderick Smothers,
President, Philander Smith College

Dr. Roderick Smothers looks at students of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and sees himself.

Raised in Vidalia, La., in a single-parent household, he graduated second in his high school class and became the first in his family to go to college. Juggling the roles of student, husband, parent and Air Force Reservist, he earned his Ph.D. by age 29. Widowed 11 years ago, he raised his children into young adulthood while following a career path that led him into administration for HBCUs: from Langston University in Oklahoma to Huston-Tillotson University in Texas, and now his new role as the president of United Methodist-related Philander Smith College in Little Rock.

Since he arrived on campus Jan. 1, Smothers has held a “fireside chat” that drew about a quarter of the student body, spoken in weekly chapel, met with alumni and board members and begun dreaming about the school’s future. He spoke recently with Arkansas United Methodist editor Amy Forbus. Read on for excerpts of their conversation.

You’ve been here just a few weeks. What are your first impressions of Arkansas and Philander Smith College?

I have been a longtime fan of Arkansas. I have always liked to visit Little Rock… found it to be a kind and warm environment when I’ve visited. Folks here have always been just that: kind, welcoming, warm. [But] it seemed to not be moving fast enough for me. When I got here, I found actually just the opposite. Seeing all the growth and development here just in the last decade, I thought, “Wow…. There’s a lot of good things going on, a lot of synergy and momentum, and I like this.”

When I interviewed [at Philander Smith], I fell in love with three things. I first fell in love with the mission of the college. The college, in my opinion, has one of the most powerful missions: to graduate academically accomplished students who are rooted and grounded in the tenets of social justice, and who are ultimately prepared to go out and make the world a better place. How much more powerful can you get in a mission?

The second thing that drew me here to Philander was when I went online prior to interviewing here and saw some of the student testimonials and interactions. I thought, “Wow. These are some dynamic students. I’ve got to meet them.” And what I encountered face to face far exceeded what I was able to glean from social media interaction.

The third thing that drew me to the college was the wonderful work that the faculty and the staff were doing here. Because I am aware of the struggles of historically black colleges in 21st-century higher education, I know that we, meaning HBCUs, have to make reality every day out of having not the most resources, having not always the best facilities. But when I got here, these faculty and these staff members were doing absolutely phenomenal things.

And the icing on the cake was, if you go out and Google Philander and see who some of the prominent alumni are, and what they’ve done and been able to accomplish… I thought, “Wow. I’ve got to be a part of that.”

Tell me about your faith, and how it influences your work.

I consider the work that I do at historically black colleges and universities as a ministry. I will admit, I was a bit afraid that not being United Methodist would prevent me from getting the job. I am Baptist. But when I talked to the board and was very open with them about that, and said, “Hey look, I’m not Methodist, but I’m a Christian, and I love the Lord,” they said, “Well, if that’s the case, then we don’t think you’ll have a problem.”

I grew up in the church as a young boy… very active in Sunday school and youth ministry. So when I got to college at LSU, I joined Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church. Because I was in higher education, they immediately placed me on the scholarship committee at the church. From there, I became a Sunday school teacher, head of the youth ministry and also a member of the church’s school board, because they had their own school there at the church.

I think it just added to that lifelong relationship of working with young folks and being able to instill in them, in a different way, the importance of education—but in this instance, education about Christ, through the Bible.

When I discovered more about historically black colleges, and about church-based schools like Huston-Tillotson and Philander, one of the most exciting things for me—remember, prior to that I had worked at state-supported schools—was that I could be in an environment where we could openly and boldly proclaim our love for Jesus Christ…. That, to me, was very attractive about being at Huston-Tillotson, a United Methodist school, and ultimately about being at Philander Smith College…. to know that we can be so bold about our love for God and focus through our educational endeavors on the core values and tenets of the United Methodist Church, which are a part of our college’s core values. We can focus on character building. We can focus on spirituality. And we can do that unapologetically, and that to me is just absolutely what I think our kids need today.

What are your goals for Philander?

We inherited a strategic plan that has been approved by our board of trustees that is, in my opinion, a good strategic plan. It has goals, it has a vision, it has outcomes that, if achieved, will truly take Philander Smith College to the next level.

Once upon a time, Philander Smith College ranked in the top five percent of all HBCUs in America. We rivaled Fisk, we rivaled, Hampton, Howard, Morehouse and Spelman. The last ranking that came out, we were in the top 30 percent. I want to get us back to the top five percent. What do we need to do to get there? Well, here are the five things that I think it’s going to take for us to get there.

Number one, Philander has to figure out a way to thrive. For us to thrive, in my opinion, we have got to become more entrepreneurially focused… revisit our academic programs, and rethink them in a way that aligns them with current economic trends and drivers. We need to look at our degree programs and determine where there are opportunities to make them stronger, so that ultimately we can graduate students who can go into those industries that are the money-makers of tomorrow.

Secondly, I want to identify what I am going to refer to as programs of distinction…. I want to go out and find the absolute best and brightest faculty to come in and help us build those programs—not to say we don’t have good faculty already, because we do—but I want to identify what I like to refer to as rock-star faculty, who are out there doing the best and the most cutting-edge research, and I want to get them to this campus. Then I want to go and recruit equally talented, best and brightest students to become the majors of these programs of distinction. I think if we do that, it brings a level of prominence…. It makes us more competitive in the global marketplace.

The third thing I want to do is what I love to do, and that is increase the amount of resources that we have coming into Philander. Fundraising. I want to grow our endowment, and I want to increase the amount of scholarships that we have for our students…. My greatest fear is that I will get a student who will walk in and say to me, “I’m doing everything right, I’m serious about my education, I am an actively engaged student on this campus, but yet, I don’t have the funds to complete my degree.” I absolutely fear that one day, a student like that will walk into my office, and that I will not have the resources to say, “You know what? Because you are a good student, because you are doing what you’re supposed to do, here is how I can help you.” So I want to go out and get more scholarship dollars through fundraising.

The fourth thing I want to do is grow our enrollment. Right now, we are still having conversations about what is the right size for Philander Smith College…. Once we determine by working with our board, with our faculty members, the actual right size for the institution, I want to grow our enrollment to that number.

We know that we have challenges financially because our enrollment is not where it needs to be…. For us to be able to operate with optimal efficiency, budgetarily, it takes us having about 750 students. Right now we have about 550 students, so we have challenges in those areas.

The last thing that I want to do is tied to the hopes and dreams that have been expressed to me by countless alumni and by a number of community members, and that is embracing what I call Philander Smith College’s urban mission…. There are problems in this urban center. There’s poverty here, there are educational issues here, there are social issues here, there are violence issues here. A number of issues.

Philander, through its social justice mission, is poised very uniquely to be able to reach back out to the community and help to solve some of those problems. We have the intellectual fortitude to do so, we have students who have declared that they want to give back to their communities, and so we have to embrace that mission. We have to begin to contribute in a meaningful way to the issues that plague our urban community.

If I can get us to those places, those five things, in the next two to three years, then I really think that we are poised to move back to that top five percent that I referenced earlier. Is it going to be a lot of hard work? Absolutely. Is it going to require a new way of doing business at Philander Smith College? Absolutely. Is it going to require a new way of thinking by the faculty, by the staff, by the students, by the alumni, by the community? Yes, it absolutely will.

But the one thing that we all have in common is that we love Philander Smith College, and we want to see it soar. And so, if we want to see it soar, we’ll come together to do those things, and at the end of the day you’ll find, I think, a new Philander Smith College. We’re very excited.