President Speaks: Why one college leader joined a coronavirus vaccine trial

Editor’s note: Walter Kimbrough is the president of Dillard University, in New Orleans.

I was in Washington, D.C., during the last week of February for a bipartisan meeting of members of Congress and historically Black college and university presidents. This was the fourth year of the event, launched by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.). But over the past few years, members of both parties have engaged the presidents.

On this particular day, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) spoke to our group and shared that Senate Democrats just had a briefing about a growing health threat from the newly discovered coronavirus. He didn’t go into great detail, but it was something about the way he spoke about the threat.

I grabbed my phone and emailed our vice president for student success, telling him to pull together the threat management team. Being in hurricane country, we have a standing team that is always ready to address concerns. But this was something we had never seen before.

It was something none of us had seen before.

In a matter of weeks, we watched as schools moved to a virtual format; as cities, counties and states entered into some form of stay-at-home order; and as only essential services remained open. Soon, millions of people were filing for unemployment, and many were looking to the federal government to provide support.

Walter Kimbrough is the president of Dillard University

Walter Kimbrough is the president of Dillard University.

Permission granted by Dillard University


As the virus spread, we saw unprecedented numbers of deaths, on many days in the thousands. We realized that people of color were being disproportionately impacted by the disease itself; the economic byproduct was a rapid increase in unemployment by groups that had just before experienced record-low levels.

As an HBCU president, it was a mind-boggling storm. Over 95% of my students are Black, which meant they were more likely to know someone who not only had the disease but had died from it. Being Black also meant they were more likely to have been impacted by unemployment. In addition, 75% of my students receive the federal Pell Grant, meaning they generally come from families that earn $40,000 or less annually.

But we made it through the end of the semester and on to the next hurdle: What do we do about fall? By summer the entire nation realized that this was a serious problem likely not going anywhere anytime soon. Colleges and universities began to determine if they could return to some form of in-person instruction in the midst of a pandemic. Many schools pulled the plug early and decided to remain online for the fall. Others made plans to provide an in-person experience, only to back off as local conditions, both pandemic and political, deteriorated. Still others brought students back, many successfully so far, while others have had students quarantine on campus or return home due to outbreaks of the virus.

While a number of scholars and pundits strongly disagreed with campuses that planned to open in the fall, some institutions had populations who needed to be on campus, and for some students, even in a pandemic, being on campus was safer than being at home. For Dillard, 85% of our students who participated in a UNCF survey on fall 2020 opening indicated they wanted some ability to have an on-campus experience. Their answers to open-ended questions, and their direct appeals via email, made our planning easy. We had to open.

We’re one month in and so far, so good. Our students are highly motivated to remain here and have worked hard to maintain distance and not gather in large groups. The city of New Orleans, working closely with the state, continues to maintain low levels of positive tests. The entire higher education community here has worked together sharing ideas and best practices to have a successful start to the fall.

But to be brutally honest, I am sick and tired of this virus. I live in a city where people normally hug and kiss when they greet. Our campus is super friendly, with everyone speaking as they walk by. But the twinkle in their eyes is often masked by a face covering over their mouths that draws your attention first. We’re a campus where greetings are verbal, visual and physical, and COVID-19 has made it hard for us to fully experience the closeness Dillard University is known for.

I have felt helpless with this virus. I can’t make it go away magically. While my undergraduate degree is in biology, I can’t find a cure either. But listening to news reports about the concern that vaccine development was taking place without a significant number of African Americans, a group hit hardest by this disease, I found something I could do.

I volunteered to participate in a phase three vaccine trial.

I then told people I was participating and asked those in the Dillard community to think about doing so as well. Never did I think people would be outraged about suggesting we help with the solution. People were quick to remind me that there is a history of unethical medical procedures and subsequent abuses of African Americans, starting with slavery, through the Tuskegee experiment, and even recent studies about higher mortality rates of Black newborns if their physician is White. 

These facts have created a climate where there are some who are more afraid of the vaccine than the virus.

At this point, I don’t care who gets mad. I’m tired of reading about the deaths. The broader public’s faith in any eventual coronavirus vaccine, meanwhile, is weakening. Just over half of U.S. adults now say they would take a vaccine if it were available today, polling shows, a 21-point drop from earlier this year. 

I’m tired of not being able to attend large-scale events as a campus, missing those traditions that make us who we are.

Sound like I need a hug? I do.

But it feels good to acknowledge that. You should do it. And then let’s live by the Dillard motto, “Ex Fide Fortis.” Strong from faith.

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