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Philander Smith President Roderick Smothers: Barriers Breached, But Black Students Still Face Burdens

3 min read

Roderick Smothers was named the 14th president of Philander Smith College on Oct. 1, 2014, and began his tenure in January 2015.

Before coming to Philander Smith, Smothers, a native of Vidalia, Louisiana, was vice president for institutional advancement at two historically black universities: Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, and Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma.

Smothers earned a bachelor’s in psychology, a master’s in public administration (with a concentration in higher education administration) and a doctorate in educational leadership, research and counseling, all from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

He also has served as a U.S. Air Force reservist with active-duty time spent during Desert Shield/Desert Storm.

Why are historically black colleges and universities such as Philander Smith still needed today?

HBCUs mean so much more to our society and economy than simply being a response to segregated education. While many of the initial barriers that gave birth to HBCUs have been broken or at least somewhat breached, today’s HBCUs have evolved to address more intricate issues that exist in educating minority students. HBCUs are relevant today because of five key imperatives — success, economic, global competitiveness, access and diversity — which create a far greater value proposition than ever before.

What’s the most important thing you want to accomplish during your tenure at Philander Smith?

My vision for where we are going and what we can achieve is both vast and ambitious, but at the core is my desire to restore the college to the level of prominence it previously held. There was a time when we were ranked among the top 5 percent of HBCUs in America; currently, we place among the top 30 percent. I believe that we can return to that top tier.

College has become increasingly necessary to succeed, but increasingly expensive, and college students are graduating with increasing debt. Does Philander Smith have any programs to ensure that students don’t get in over their heads financially?

Certainly cost is a pertinent factor when selecting an institution of higher education, and our administration is aggressively working to help close the gap of affordability for our students. Foremost is our commitment to ensuring our students are availing themselves of all available scholarship opportunities, in addition to robust fundraising strategies that will ensure that more scholarship funds reach eligible students. Additionally, we provide counseling and guidance on all financial aid options. Over 85 percent of our students are Pell Grant-eligible.

You’re the product of a single-parent home and you’re a widower with children. How do these experiences inform your work as a college administrator?

Having grown up poor in a single-parent household is fundamental to who I am as an educator and administrator. I have the unique position of being able with relate to a large segment of our student base. Those experiences — the good, the bad and the sometimes turbulent — have made me more sensitive to our students’ challenges, which helps me to better serve them.

What advice would you now, as an adult, give your 18-year-old self?

“Don’t be afraid to share your story; it will become the bedrock for your special ministry.” My work at HBCUs reaches far beyond administration; it is a ministry. Everything that has occurred in my life has prepared me to uplift young African-American students, to show them a path through education while also removing the barriers that exist. Part of reaching them and gaining their attention is to share my experience, letting them know that I, too, have been where they are, and that I am here now as a testament to what they can achieve.

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