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Celebrating Black Higher Education Leaders

Black history month- digital leader spotlight

In honor of Black History Month, I selected 30 inspiring Black Higher Education leaders (because, yes, they needed a full month’s worth) who come from all walks of life and serve in various roles, from Vice Presidents to Deans to Directors. 

Their excellence, impact, and influence on their communities and institutions are second to none. Through their stories, we can learn about their journey, the challenges they faced and overcame, and their remarkable accomplishments.

Let’s get to know them!

Decorative image of Myla Edmond, Gabe Willis, Shea Kidd Brown, Mordecai Ian Brownlee, Levester Johnson, Keith Curry, Gourjoine Wade

Myla Edmond

Associate Vice President, Communications and Marketing, California State University-Dominguez Hills

I’m so glad to be [finally] connected with Myla, a fellow SoCal resident who facilitated one of my Renew retreats. She’s a dedicated mentor to marketing and communication professionals and a strong advocate for DEI, speaking directly about the intersections and gaps of DEI in Marketing. As the chair of the 2022 AMA Higher Ed Conference, she expertly educates and supports others. Follow her on Twitter to see her amazing work in real-time!

Gabe Willis

Dean of Students/Deputy Title IX Coordinator, Southern Louisiana University

Even before the pandemic, Gabe used Instagram live and reels to provide students with immediate information and engagement. He’s also known to inspire students to stay active and healthy. Gabe is a rising star in student affairs, and his digital impact is only growing. He’s also participated in several panels I’ve hosted, where he expertly discussed the role of deans of students in the digital realm. Check out Gabe’s insightful, relevant, and real content on Instagram and other platforms!

Shea Kidd Brown

Vice President for Campus Life, Wake Forest University

I first met Shea Kidd Brown as the Dean of Students at UT Knoxville and was so impressed by the Instagram strategy her team had developed. Now, as the VPSA at Wake Forest, she’s showcasing daily life on Twitter and Instagram. With a keen focus on an authentic approach, I’ve even seen her wardrobe transition from orange and white to gold and black and a feed full of students and life around campus. I can’t wait to have Shea on my panel at NASPA this April: From Group Selfies to Public Statements – Digital Strategies for Student Affairs Executives.

Mordecai Ian Brownlee

President, Community College of Aurora

I am a super fan of this president! He has a big heart, and his hard work is evident online through his videos, impressive Twitter following, and growing impact on Instagram. Don’t forget he has a podcast and is creating content on TikTok too! In-person, he has a remarkable ability to connect with others – be prepared for him to really see you if you have the chance to connect. Dr. Mordecai was named 40 Under 40 by the prestigious Denver Business Journal. In 2022, he was featured by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education Magazine as a “New School” leader representing the next generation of college presidents.

Levester Johnson

Vice President for Student Affairs, Illinois State University

LJ is one of the OG’s of a VPSA on social media. He’s contributed many times to my research and was a feature in my book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education. It was also an honor to support his division at Illinois State social media for three years. LJ invested early on in a director of communications and marketing, videography, and a student ambassador team. As his Instagram says, he really is ‘Trying to #Bringit everyday!’

Keith Curry

President/CEO, Compton College

Prez Keith Curry is fire! He’s setting the bar high as a fierce advocate for students and bringing Compton College to the forefront with national and international recognition. Co-host of #EquityChat, he’s leading the charge in making Compton College the first CC in LA to have student housing. 250 beds for $80 million – one of the best investments from the state of California in CC student success. This critical step will support foster youth, veterans, and formerly incarcerated students in focusing on education and career goals in a safe and supportive environment. Under the dedicated leadership of Dr. Curry, Compton College was able to regain its ACCJC accreditation.

Gourjoine M. Wade

Vice President of Student Affairs, Texas Lutheran University

Introducing the Twitter sensation, Gourjoine – the verified VPSA taking the social media world by storm! He’s a truth-teller, delivering authentic content in a relatable way, and he always brings his A-game. I’ve had the chance to work with G (as friends/colleagues get to refer to him as), both as a NASPA panelist and with him as a future guest on my podcast. Check out his #FunkoFridays giveaway on Instagram, where he showcases his love for collecting these unique figures. Gourjoine doesn’t shy away from video and provides timely updates and encouragement. You can even get a glimpse of his day as a VPSA. He’s all about connecting with students through social media, and his LinkedIn is full of motivational insights.

Decorative image of Erika James, Effie Francis, Ashanti Hands, Robert Kelly, James Minor, Walter Kimbrough, Daria Willis

Erika James

Dean, The Wharton School

Meet Erika James! Recognized by Black Enterprise as one of the “Top 10 Women of Power in Education” and listed in Ebony’s “Power 100”. She’s been featured in top media outlets like Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, CNN, and Morning Joe, and her co-authored book “The Prepared Leader: Emerge from Any Crisis More Resilient Than Before” is a must-read. Not only does she have a solid strategy, but she also has a supportive team and a brand that aligns with the prestigious Wharton School. Be inspired by her dynamic LinkedIn videos, and follow her journey now!

Eddie Francis

Director of Communications & Marketing, Dillard University

When he’s not going viral posting about HBCU servant leadership, Eddie Francis serves as CMO at Dillard University. A nominee for AMA’s Higher Education Marketer of the Year, Eddie often shares insightful information about marketing in higher ed. Don’t miss out on his “For Our Edification” podcast, where he offers up food for thought on social and cultural issues. Did you know that he’s also a funny guy? He once opened for none other than Kevin Hart during his stand-up comedy days! Give Eddie a follow on Twitter at @eddiefrancis.

Ashanti Hands

President, San Diego Mesa College

As seen in her bio, this amazing community college president has a passion for #goodtrouble and #DistruptionOfStatusQuo. Ashanti is involved with Nadi, a brand new organization for women of African ancestry in the community college space. Nadi strives to support and empower women CC students, faculty, staff, and administrators. Let’s celebrate this incredible leader and her mission to uplift and empower others!

Robert D. Kelly

President, University of Portland

Robert D. Kelly is the President of the University of Portland and an Instagram influencer in his own right! Check out his dynamic video content on his Instagram page @uportlandpresident. From day one of his presidency, this president has been a visionary in the digital space, with a clear strategy and commitment to innovation. Rob will join me on the NASPA 2023 presidential panel, “Presidential: Digital Leadership Pathways for New Presidents.” Follow him on Instagram to stay up-to-date on his journey!

James T. Minor

Chancellor, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

JT Minor is the dynamic and engaging Chancellor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. As Chancellor, his mission is to solve pressing social problems, drive economic development, and make social mobility possible for entire families. JT is bringing life to his social media feeds with a focus on celebrating his community. From LinkedIn to Twitter, JT shares videos, selfies, storytelling, and more.

Walter M. Kimbrough

Interim Executive Director, Black Men’s Research Institute, Morehouse College

Walter M. Kimbrough is a digital leader in higher education, regardless of position. With a previous presidency at Dillard University and a current role as Interim Executive Director of the Black Men’s Research Institute, Walter is a consistent educator and advocate for HBCUs. This HipHopPrez has an entire chapter in my book “Digital Leadership in Higher Education.” In 2022, President Biden appointed him to his President’s Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Daria Willis

President, Howard Community College 

Get ready to be wowed by Daria, the digital leadership wonder woman who has a mastery of digital communications. Plus, she’s a fellow Peloton addict – talk about #fitspo! And if you haven’t heard already, Daria was recently named a living legend by her county council, and I couldn’t agree more. She’s setting a new standard for what a president should look like, with her unique style and flair. And let’s not forget, enrollment is UP this semester, thanks to her innovative leadership.

Decorative image of Melissa Shivers, Terrell Strayhorn, Amber Williams, LaTonya LT Rease Miles, David Surratt, Shaun Harper, Melva Williams, Kawanna Legett

Melissa Shivers

Senior Vice President for Student Life, The Ohio State University

Let’s give a warm round of applause to a fav motivator, Melissa Shivers, who never fails to bring us #mondaymotivations, shares ⭕hio State pride, and showcases Scarlet spirit! With customized graphics on Twitter, she educates, celebrates, and uplifts the entire community. Her passion for removing barriers to student and staff success is evident in everything she does, and her office even has a branded backdrop that doubles as a step and repeat.

Terrell Strayhorn

Provost and Senior Vice President  at Virginia Union University, Director of the Center for the Study of HBCUs, Professor of Higher Education at Illinois State University

As a researcher, author, and speaker, Dr. Strayhorn is a triple threat in higher education. His book, “College Students’ Sense of Belonging,” sheds light on the crucial role that relationships and feeling supported and valued play in students’ success. Terrell was recently featured in the highly shared article, “Everyone Is Talking About Belonging.” According to Dr. Strayhorn, “We have missed for decades the important role that relationships and feeling supported and valued, safe, and secure to be oneself at school and college played in the formula for success. That’s what belonging is.” Go learn from him on social, including on his Medium blog!

Amber Williams

Vice Provost for Student Success, University of Tennessee

Check out the energizing Dr. Amber Williams, recently featured in Inside Higher Ed! With a strong focus on leading through people, priorities, and projects, she brings unbeatable energy and enthusiasm to every team she’s a part of. And have you seen her daughter’s post on LinkedIn? She’s already planning on becoming the future chancellor of UT thanks to her inspiring mom! It’s giving generational boss energy!

La’Tonya “LT” Rease Miles

Director of University Partnerships, ReUp Education

As a first-generation college graduate and former “stop out” student, LT has a deep understanding of the challenges faced by first-gen students. She has dedicated her career to creating programs and providing support for these students, establishing two successful programs for first-generation college students at UCLA and Loyola Marymount University. In addition to her work in education, LT is the Chief Strategist for the “First Gen & Juice” brand, which promotes and supports first-gen students. She established and manages a national Facebook group called “Empowering First Generation Students,” which has been featured by Facebook itself.

David Surratt

Vice President For Student Affairs, Dean of Students

David is a leading voice in student affairs with a passion for trauma-informed approaches to leadership. He recently shared that resilience is the “the ability to respond and recover from difficult circumstances.” And during the COVID pandemic, he leaned into this approach to better manage his own anxiety and fear while also empathizing with others. But that’s not all – did you know that David also has a geeky side? He recently participated in a Comic-Con panel on geek culture in higher education! With his wide smile and dedication to interaction, he’s sure to inspire and empower anyone who crosses his path.

Shaun Harper

Provost Professor of Business and Education, USC Race & Equity Center Executive Director, University of Southern California

A prominent Forbes writer, Shaun Harper is ranked as one of the most influential professors and is the Provost Professor in the Marshall School of Business and the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. As founder and executive director of the USC Race and Equity Center, he advises companies on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and has worked with over 400 institutions. With 12 books and over 100 academic papers published, Dr. Shaun Harper’s research has been cited in over 19,000 studies and quoted in major news outlets. Follow him for more insights on DEI!

Melva K. Williams

President & CEO, Huston-Tillotson University

Congratulations to Dr. Melva K. Williams for being recognized as one of the Top 100 influential Texans and as one of the Top Women from Diverse Education in 2022. As only the second woman president of Huston-Tillotson University, Dr. Williams’ holistic approach to higher education and leadership is truly inspiring as well as her commitment to addressing the barriers that Black students face in accessing higher education. An additional shoutout to her impressive branding and IG videos! Let’s show our support for her and the university’s mission to empower Black and Brown students! 🎉

Kawanna Leggett

Senior Vice President for Student Affairs, Loyola Marymount University

Check out Kawanna Leggett, Loyola Marymount University’s new Senior Vice President of Student Affairs, who has come out swinging with Crimson and Blue pride! She’s been constantly present in the LMU community, from participating in Wellness Wednesday to staff celebrations, and don’t even get me started about her amazing team spirit. Go Lions! Did you know she even has her own radio show with KXLMU? I love how much she loves LMU.

Lamar Hylton

Senior Vice President for Student Affairs, Kent State University

Lamar R. Hylton, Ph.D. is dedicated to exploring ways to make higher education more affordable, accessible, and inclusive! Let’s talk about the #GoFlash spirit in his feed. I also love seeing his Greek life pride and family love too. Dr. Hylton is also making history as the first Black Vice President for Student Affairs in the history of Kent State. 🙌

Shelia Higgs Burkhalter

Vice President For Student Affairs, Winthrop University 

Affectionately known by students as “Shiggs,” Burkhalter is a first-generation graduate who has been a champion for first-generation student success. She helped guide Winthrop University’s efforts to receive a First-gen Forward designation from The Center for First-generation Student Success, an initiative of NASPA and the Suder Foundation. VP Burkhalter was recently named a NASPA Pillar of the Profession in 2023!! Shelia is also a certified executive and leadership transitions coach, accomplished speaker, facilitator, and best-selling author. Her coaching business, Shiggs B Coaching, specializes in helping aspiring executives and leaders transition to their next level of leadership.

Tia Brown McNair

Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Student Success, American Association of Colleges and Universities

As a recent book co-author of “From Equity Talk to Equity Walk: Expanding Practitioner Knowledge for Racial Justice in Higher Education,” Tia is helping to advance racial equity in the industry. Her impact has not gone unnoticed. In March 2020, Diverse: Issues In Higher Education named Tia Brown McNair one of thirty-five outstanding women who have tackled some of higher education’s toughest challenges, exhibited extraordinary leadership skills, and made a positive difference in their communities.

Renetta Garrison Tull

Vice Chancellor for DEI, University of California, Davis

Y’all gotta check out Dr. Renetta Garrison Tull, the Inaugural Vice Chancellor of DEI at UC Davis. As a founding Director of the NSF-funded program PROMISE, she has worked tirelessly to increase the number of underrepresented students in STEM. In her latest article, “Protect Your Peace,” Dr. Tull emphasizes prioritizing wellness while working towards DEI. Her passion for advancing diversity and inclusion in STEM has led her to be selected as the keynote speaker for the UNESCO event on the Commission on the Status of Women in Engineering Fields.

Michael Sorrell

President, Paul Quinn College

Michael Sorrell is the longest-serving president in the college’s 146-year history. President Sorrell’s leadership has resulted in numerous achievements, such as winning 2011 HBCU of the Year & 2012 HBCU Student Government Association of the Year awards. Additionally, under his guidance partnered with PepsiCo to transform an unused football field into the two-acre “WE over Me Farm.” Follow President Sorrell on social media to stay up-to-date on his innovative ideas for transforming communities and his unwavering commitment to justice and equality.

John B King, Jr

Chancellor, The State University of New York

The moment I came across John B. King Jr. in my feed I knew I had to press follow. He is the 15th Chancellor of the State University of New York and former U.S. Secretary of Education under President Barack Obama. As the first African American and first Puerto Rican Education Commissioner in New York State’s history, King has dedicated his career to improving education and ensuring equity and justice for all students. In his words, “excellence and equity go hand in hand.” Now, as Chancellor of SUNY, King is working to fulfill Governor Kathy Hochul’s vision of making SUNY the best public higher education system in the nation.

Tina King

President, San Diego College of Continuing Education

Congratulations to Tina for being named among the top 50 Black Leaders of Influence by the San Diego Business Journal and featured in Diverse: Issues In Higher Education as one of the Top 25 Outstanding Women for Women’s History Month! Tina is a trailblazer as the first Director of Institutional Research and Planning for noncredit in the nation. Her innovative leadership has paved the way for countless students to access quality education. I love following her on Instagram, documenting her advocacy, love for her community and the simple moments in her life.

J. Luke Wood

Vice President of Student Affairs and Campus Diversity, and Chief Diversity Officer Distinguished Professor of Education at San Diego State University

Dr. Wood has authored over 180 publications, including 16 books, such as “Black Minds Matter” and “Advancing Black Male Success from Preschool to Ph.D.” He has also been regularly sought out for his expertise by media outlets such as the New York Times, Huffington Post, and Fortune Magazine. Dr. Wood has just been appointed to serve on the California Racial Equity Commission, established in 2022, to promote racial equity and address structural racism. Congrats! In 2023, Dr. Wood was ranked nationally among the most influential education scholars by RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings, representing the top 1% of influential education scholars in the nation.

Celebrating Black Leaders All Year Long

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to highlight the extraordinary achievements of these 30 Black Higher Education leaders. Their stories are a testament to the resilience, hard work, and dedication required to succeed in higher education, and they inspire all of us. 

I hope that by sharing these Digital Leader Spotlights, we can celebrate their impact and influence and recognize their contributions. Let us continue to celebrate and honor the achievements of Black leaders not just during Black History Month but all year round. 

Be sure to give them a follow. I’m confident they’ll brighten and enlighten your feed!  

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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