Under the leadership of President Roderick Smothers, the legacy of Philander Smith College continues – providing more opportunities for students to succeed and change the world for the better.
By Kim Meyer-Webb | Photography by Dero Sanford
Philander Smith College has a rich history of academic excellence, cultivating civic leaders as well as esteemed professionals for more than a century. This small, liberal arts institution has ranked among the top five Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the country. It played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement, encouraging nonviolent resistance and resolve. Affiliated with the United Methodist Church, its mission – to graduate academically accomplished students who are grounded as advocates for social justice and determined to change the world for the better – continues and evolves to meet the needs of its students and the community. Under the leadership of President Roderick Smothers, the legacy of Philander Smith College continues. He inherently believes in the transformative power of education and the college’s current strategic plan – specifically the intention to marginalize the access dilemma and provide more opportunities for students to succeed.
A native of Vidalia, Louisiana, Roderick remembers and emulates his mother’s “tough but kind” approach to school and community. “There was ample opportunity for me to become distracted,” Roderick notes. “I was fortunate. My family made education a priority; it was never a question.” He recounts that good grades came easily, and he attended Louisiana State University with plans to follow the pre-med curriculum. “I was fortunate to find a job in the financial assistance office and encountered prospective students facing unimaginable odds,” he explains. “Something I took for granted, the privilege of higher education, wasn’t a feasible option for them.” This authentic relatability changed his perspective and his journey through life. “Education in our great country should be an opportunity available to all Americans.” Roderick completed his academic career at LSU with a doctoral degree in educational leadership, research and counseling.
His work spans beyond the traditional expectations of a university president. His revolutionary philosophy towards education is data-driven and research-based – analyzing urban school districts as well as effective mentoring programs and state merit-based tuition programs – and most importantly, increasing enrollment. “It’s as simple and as complex as creating an affordable option for higher education, then helping students realize their full potential to dream big and change the world.” As a visionary, his devotion to the students and the community aligns with the college’s mission and values.
These timeless values – respect, spirituality, service, scholarship and attitude – blend seamlessly into the culture of the campus and reflect the institution’s current initiative: Philander Forward. “Education is the great equalizer,” Roderick explains. “We must remove the barriers – the perceived social, economic and emotional boundaries – and create a pathway for all students to succeed. Philander Forward represents progress: moving our students, our community and world forward for the better.”
The Student Tuition Assistance and Readiness Tracks/Pathway is one of the programs established to specifically address the college preparatory needs of an evolving, diverse community. The START Summer Bridge Program offers prospective students the opportunity to enroll in an enrichment curriculum to improve math and reading proficiency prior to their freshman year. “Not only does START focus on academic credentials, the readiness tracks also include personal accountability and leadership skills.” Roderick explains that too many students whose grades and test scores fall below the scholarship qualifications are also the students who require financial support. “A significant number of these individuals are first-generation college students who, with the appropriate encouragement and opportunity, can move forward with a promising future.”
The annual President’s Scholarship Gala provides critical awareness and support for this key demographic. The evening of dancing, dinner and fellowship generates additional revenue for START and other enrichment programs. Last year, the gala celebrated the inauguration of Roderick as president of Philander Smith College. Again this year, the evening will showcase student success stories and the role affordable education plays in the lives of all Arkansans.
Philander Smith College Board of Trustee Emeritus Dr. Charles W. Donaldson notes, “In selecting Dr. Smothers as the 14th president of Philander Smith College, we felt we identified a leader that would continue this legacy and motivate faculty, staff and students towards continued excellence. Deeply rooted in the United Methodist Church and the teachings of John Wesley, caring for others is embedded in the college’s curriculum.” During his short tenure, Roderick’s heartfelt dedication seems more like a ministry than simply a profession. He believes giving through service is a civic and moral responsibility.
This steadfast commitment to building a stronger community comprised of Philander Smith College alumni is unwavering. Roderick’s confidence that a brighter future is as simple as making education more accessible to more students is inspiring. “I believe that the sky is not our limit – we are. Philander Smith College offers unlimited possibilities with the expectation that each student will succeed and fulfill their potential to make the world better.”