Homecoming: JCSU President Dr. Valerie Kinloch Returns to Her Roots

By Brenda Porter-RockwellHome is the place you return to after an absence. It’s where you start your journey. Of course, there’s no place like home, and home is where the heart is.

For Dr. Valerie Kinloch, a Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) class of 1996 alumna, returning home as the University’s 15th President, her return to the school last summer was a “true honor.” Kinloch, who had also been a member of JCSU’s Board of Trustees, began her tenure on a listening tour to better identify challenges and opportunities.

Among the challenges facing JCSU, nearly 70% of the HBCU’s current student population faces significant financial hardships, leaving graduation as an uncertainty. The nationwide outlook for prospective college students’ ability to pay for college is not much better. Nonetheless, Kinloch is optimistic and is steadfast in her goal to graduate scores of “global citizens” and create a pipeline to opportunity at JCSU.

“We must implement strategies to assist students with financial hardships, as financial hardships contribute to low enrollment and retention rates,” Kinloch said. “As I look ahead and reflect on this ‘New Era of Excellence,’ I want to position JCSU as a university that cultivates students who are global citizens to stand on the legacy of those who came before them.”

Her strategy for cultivating a crop of students ready to run the world? A $50 for 50 Campaign.

In January, Kinloch celebrated her 50th birthday and used the occasion to kickstart the fundraiser. She set a goal of raising at least $50,000 for the President’s Gap Scholarship Fund that would

 help students who want to call JCSU home for four years, but don’t have the financial means.

Kinloch has had success with raising money and surpassing fundraising goals.Prior to returning to JCSU, she served as Dean of the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh, where she oversaw 300 faculty and staff and nearly 1,000 students. She has led academic transformation and overseen more than $9 million in capital projects and renovations.

Her career in academia spans positions as Associate Dean and Professor at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, and as a faculty member at Teachers College-Columbia University in New York City and at the University of Houston-Downtown.

Leading as a woman

As President, Kinloch is charged with creating alignment among faculty, staff, students, alumni, and community partners with JCSU’s Gold(en) Blueprint strategic plan for learning and growth.

Even though the bulk of her time is spent creating opportunities for others, she is cognizant of the real challenges facing women leaders — especially Black, female leaders like herself. She’s led conversations, authored books and studied the writings of women leaders of the past, seeking to understand issues of equity and parity for women. Her research focuses on the literacies of Black people in urban and rural contexts and examines equitable forms of teaching, leading and learning.

“Yes, I am a Black woman and I lead from a Black, feminist perspective,” Kinloch said unequivocally. “I firmly believe that a problem is an opportunity in disguise. It takes a number of differing opinions and critical listening skills to come up with a solution that works best for the collective,” stated Kinloch.

Numerous surveys and studies have concluded that there are still significant barriers to equity and parity in the workplace for Black women leaders. As a collective of humans, Kinloch suggests we “honestly address and seek to overcome barriers that still exist for Black women in leadership roles.”

She continued, “A number of expectations are put on women because we are women and because there are still some people who do not believe — or don’t want to believe — that we are brilliant human beings who know how to lead,” said Kinloch.

As a result, she said, women and, in particular, Black women, can be subject to micro- and macro-aggressions and have their ability to lead scrutinized more closely than their white female or male counterparts.

“I think the key to eradicating these barriers in the workplace is to recognize the significance of critical equity and diversity work by all of us,” she said. “As Audre Lorde writes, ‘It’s not our differences that divide us. It’s our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences.’ If we would take the life experiences of our leaders into consideration and listen to them, believe them and follow them then Black women and Black women leaders would be more protected than we are now,” Kinloch explained.

Grounded by experience

With numerous accolades and accomplishments to her credit, Kinloch remains humbled by her early beginnings where she was raised by working class parents. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in English and Literature from JCSU then pursued a Master’s degree in English/African American Literature and a Doctorate in English, both from Wayne State University in Detroit. A first-generation college student, Kinloch carries that experience like fuel to give back to the school that brought her home to her academic roots and closer to her family in Charleston, South Carolina.

When she’s not on campus, Kinloch, a Lifetime Member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., spends her free time swimming, hiking and reading. She’s fond of spoken word and “found” poetry. Not so much a poet in the purest sense of the literary genre, Kinloch describes herself as “a literacy and equity scholar and writer with strong poetic tendencies.”

She said, “I guess I am a poet because I love to reframe complicated ideas into prose and poems that grab at heartstrings,” Kinloch said. “I have found myself doing that in a few of my speeches here at JCSU.”