Fitz Hill Fights for Young People, Community in New Role

Fitz Hill Fights for Young People, Community in New Role
Fitz Hill (file)

As he rose to address the Little Rock Rotary Club on Tuesday, Fitz Hill had a sobering announcement.

A student at Arkansas Baptist College of Little Rock, where Hill served as president for more than 10 years, had been shot earlier in the day. Though the student's wounds were not life threatening, the incident forced Hill to recall the fatal shooting of Arkansas Baptist student Derrick Olivier in 2012.

That murder and Tuesday's shooting occurred in the same location, 16th and Bishop Street, and both violent episodes underscore Hill's efforts to improve quality of life through educational and entrepreneurial opportunities for young African-American men.

"If you drop out you drop in somewhere," Hill said. "We're trying to dictate where they drop in."

Addressing the weekly Rotary Club luncheon at the Clinton Presidential Library, Hill recalled having to break the news and visit Olivier's family in his role as college president. Such things are exactly what Hill continues to try to prevent in his new job as executive director of the Arkansas Baptist College Foundation and the Scott Ford Center for Leadership and Community Development.

"Little Rock is very scaleable to change, for impact change that can happen very expeditiously," said Hill, who was also recently appointed to a seven-year term on the state board of education by Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

Hill compared the high rates of crime and incarceration among African-American men to a cancer and said it could be fought on three fronts: morality of community, access to education and economic sustainability resources.

"Everybody has a role to play in the war against our youth," Hill said.

Hill recalled his own tight-knit community growing up in Arkadelphia and said education should be about giving people a chance. He said he would wait until May and June to recruit students other schools had overlooked and go after kids from cities with higher crime rates than Little Rock.

Media sites frequently list Little Rock among the most dangerous cities based on FBI and U.S. Justice Department figures. Law Street Media rated Little Rock "The Most Dangerous Small City" in the U.S. in 2015.

Hill lamented a dearth of African-American owned businesses in local neighborhoods, which means dollars only stay in such neighborhoods for a period of hours, he added.

"Why is there not a bank in our community? Why is there not a Ruby Tuesday in our community?" Hill said.

Hill described how the college raised money through grants and donations to buy a car wash in one of the most dangerous spots in the Arkansas Baptist neighborhood, closing it and reopening it with the idea of pumping a percentage of the revenue into the purchase of nearby properties with an eye toward further development.

"For Little Rock to reach its full potential, the cancer that is in our community must be treated," Hill said, adding that money was the "chemotherapy."

To the financially risk-averse, Hill said it was more expensive and less productive to let crime run its course. Calculations differ as to the cost to society of one homicide, with some estimates in the millions, but Hill's estimate on Tuesday was $400,000, with $35,000 a year going strictly to incarceration.

His career in education and community development aren't what Hill, an Arkadelphia native, envisioned as an All American football player at Ouachita Baptist University, where he graduated in 1987. He said he wanted to be the first black head coach to win an NCAA national football championship, and worked toward his goal as a graduate assistant at Northwestern (Louisiana) State and as an assistant at the University of Arkansas, a stint interrupted by military service in the first Gulf War, where he earned the Bronze Star.

Hill was head coach at San Jose (California) State, but stepped down from the struggling program in his fourth year, returning to Ouachita Baptist in a major fundraising role before taking the Arkansas Baptist presidency in 2006.

As the 13th president of the historically black, 132-year-old school, Hill directed an era of financial and physical growth. Enrollment increased from under 200 to 1,193 — the school graduated its largest class, 161, in 2015 — and the budget increased from $2 million to a high of $21 million.

Hill also helped launch a more than $50 million, capital improvement campaign that included money for community revitalization.

"Educating the poor is very expensive," Hill said. "To the gifted, resources are available."

Hill's tenure was not without challenges. The quick enrollment growth led to what Hill called "cash flow problems" in 2013 and 2014, and aid checks to students and payments to employees were delayed. In December 2014, the college reached a $30 million funding agreement that relieved much of the financial stress. 

Hill left the president's post in 2016 to lead the college's foundation; Baptist hired Joseph L. Jones in July to be president.