“Even when I was in elementary school, high school, or even college, I didn’t have it in my mind that I was going to be a college president. I knew my trajectory was going to take me likely into higher education, but I just never knew what that journey was going to evolve into,” said Dr. Loren J. Blanchard, president of the historic University of Houston-Downtown.
In a family where most of his relatives were teachers, teaching came natural to the Louisiana native. He grew up during the Civil Rights era where there were more African Americans who went into the teaching field largely because they knew they would have more of an impact on children and the generations that followed. Also, because there weren’t many opportunities in terms of African Americans going into science and other fields because they were limited.
Neither one of his parents obtained a college education, but they understood the value of education and made sure their children had everything they needed. “They wanted to make sure that my life and the life of my sister would be much better than theirs.” Dr. Blanchard referred to this as social mobility. He further said, “As we were growing up, we never even felt that we were in a lower financial class, but we were, because my father and mother made so many sacrifices that we didn’t even realize those sacrifices were probably pretty dire. But they wanted to make sure we had better means.”
With a speech pathology education background, Dr. Blanchard knew his path would be somewhere in the classrooms with children who had any kind of speech and language impediment. Once he stepped into the field, he tried every aspect of K-12 including a hospital setting and private practice. Although he enjoyed his time in these roles, “there was just a yearning for more, something different.” Dr. Blanchard then stepped into educational administration and supervision. He worked as an assistant principal for a short period of time in Louisiana, but decided he still wanted “more.” What felt right for him at that point was moving into the area of educational psychology and obtaining his doctoral degree at the University of Georgia.
During his doctoral program he had a major professor, Mary Frasier, who supported him through his entire doctoral process. She was the only African American in the whole college of education at the University of Georgia during that time. “She was such a unique person and when I first went to visit the university she said to me, ‘if you really are interested in finishing your PhD from beginning to end within a three-year period, then this is the place you need to be, and I need to serve as your major professor.’” Frasier may have had unorthodox practices to some people in how she helped her students, but those practices worked. She had non-negotiables for all her students. They couldn’t engage in relationships unless they were married, once they finished their coursework, they had to stay in Athens, Georgia to do all their writing for their dissertation, and lastly, in their last semester, they had to live with her and her husband. Dr. Blanchard thought she was joking but she wasn’t. He agreed to her terms and finished his Ph.D. in Education Psychology in three years. Dr. Blanchard received a great amount of support to help him achieve this goal, which is what students need today. “When I say support, I know what support means to get people to the finish line. She was the best model that I could have ever had. She was like the pinnacle of it,” he reflected.
Everything Dr. Blanchard has experienced, has been “building blocks” to prepare him for the role he is in today. In his career he has served as division chair, Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic and Multicultural Affairs at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, Vice President for Accreditation Leadership and Accountability within the University of Louisiana system, Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs at Xavier University in New Orleans, and to Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs for the largest system in the country, California State University, which is made up of 23 universities and 600,000 students total. “That’s where I really refined my skill in student success and what student success meant and means today.”
Dr. Blanchard didn’t have “an appetite for presidency” even though many people said he would be a college president one day. One of his mentors, Norman Francis, who served as president of Xavier University of Louisiana for 34 years, which put him among the longest serving college presidents in the United States, encouraged Dr. Blanchard to apply for the presidency at Xavier, but Dr. Blanchard felt his wheelhouse had been second in command where he could really make needed changes. He simply didn’t want to be president. Francis told him, “Presidency may not be in your blood, but I tell you it’s in your DNA and one day it’s going to happen,” and it did.
Although he had other opportunities, UHD caught his eye and his heart largely because of the students they serve. “We are designated as the most diverse university in the southern region…That felt like my comfort spot, and I knew that I could come in and really help to make a difference in the lives of young people and adult learners.” It has been 19 months since he was selected as president and they just completed the strategic plan that really helps them “know the direction, the guideposts and the north stars they must pursue and are well into the heart of getting it done.”
When it comes to his leadership style, Dr. Blanchard hopes that others will say it’s a very “collaborative style”.” He believes that it takes everyone working together to reach the intended goals. He is also very equity minded and is focused on impacts because “that’s what matters most.” Dr. Liza Alonzo, Assistant Vice President for Presidential Affairs and Constituent Relations, who was once a student herself at UHD said, “Dr. Blanchard dares us to think differently and bigger than we ever have as an institution… I am just excited to work alongside him and the spirit of thinking bigger for our students.” Marie Jacinto, Executive Director of Communications Advancements and University Relations, said that Dr. Blanchard is a “visionary,” and how he articulates the vision well, which is what true leadership means to her.
One of the priorities for the institution is to move up the ladder in respect to socioeconomic mobility. According to Dr. Blanchard, UHD is ranked 133 in respect to the number of students within their university who have climbed the socioeconomic ladder by virtue of having their degree in hand. “It’s not just making money, but students live more productive lives, healthier, and the children they bare will likely have a higher education experience, and all of these positive outcomes with respect to students who climb the socioeconomic ladder,”
Overall, the main focus of UHD is student success, which is why they rolled out their new strategic plan. They have been very transparent about their financial needs, which is why they are seeking “55 million dollars from the legislature to really help move our strategic plan forward,” Dr. Blanchard mentioned. They are currently in the implementation phase and some of the focus will include the need for stronger advising, being able to meet the basic needs of students, a social enterprise and impact center to provide a union of what can happen with the power of undergraduate research and entrepreneurism, and “providing students the opportunity to really understand how important that can be in order to make the kind of impact within the city and state we’re looking for them to make.”
They are also looking to find a place to house their police department. When it rains, it is easy for the police building to flood, so they would like to purchase a building or land to construct a building to put their police on higher ground. Dr. Blanchard spoke highly of his police officers and how they do “a noble job” with their campus related work as well as the work they do in the community.
When discussing legacy, Dr. Blanchard proudly stated that his legacy is going to be centered around service and impact and how he would be happy with just the notion that while here on earth it really has been simply about making differences in people’s lives. He hopes that people will say that he was as selfless as he could be.
He concluded with, “There is nothing that can bring greater joy. No paycheck, no life experience other than knowing that I had the opportunity to have my hand in the life of that person and that somehow, and it might be just a little small portion of it, that I was able to make an impact on them in order to help them move to where they need to be. That matters more to me than anything else.”