Chris Howard, Hampden-Sydney’s new president, is a high-wattage hire who aims to raise the profile of a very traditional Southern college.
One Man at a Time - Feature
Seated at a dark solid oak table in his office, the new president of Hampden-Sydney College, Chris Howard, is having a chat with two acquaintances. One is retired Army Gen. Sam Wilson, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and president of H-SC from 1992 to 2000, and the other is Joe L. Galloway, a noted war correspondent and the only civilian to be awarded the Bronze Star during the war in Vietnam. Not every college president would be at ease chatting with a general, but Howard is a (former) military man himself—a graduate of the Air Force Academy and a Lt. Colonel in the Air Force Reserve. He earned a Bronze Star while on duty in Afghanistan in 2003.
The topic the three men are discussing has nothing to do with military battles on foreign soil, however. Rather, it is about the day-to-day skirmishes Howard faces to keep H-SC—which is 235 years old and just one of three remaining all-male colleges in America—relevant and economically buoyant in these changing academic times. “It’s a war for the hearts and minds of America’s youth,” Howard says at one point. Wilson, 87, sitting straight-backed with hands folded over a silver-tipped mahogany cane, agrees: “[Your job] is definitely a hot seat,” he tells Howard.
Wilson would know. A direct descendant of H-SC founding trustee Nathaniel Venable, he guided contentious debate during his tenure as president over whether to remain single-sex or go coed like Washington & Lee and the former Randolph-Macon Woman’s College (now Randolph College). (H-SC opted to remain a men-only institution.) After the meeting, Wilson allows, “Chris has great potential, but I think he is still figuring it all out, which is typical in the first year. I think this year we will see how his vision is to be translated.”
Howard, 41, is not a man to waste time. Indeed, he’s already set four goals for Hampden-Sydney, which he’s quick to enumerate. “First,” he says, “I want to re-imagine the liberal arts experience to ensure that our students receive a viable and vibrant education inside and outside the classroom. Second, I want to remind our students they are responsible for their actions and to engage them in a sustained conversation of what it means to be men of character in the 21st century. Third, [I have to] raise money and look for ways to increase the school’s endowment…and, finally, I want to raise the profile of the school nationally and internationally. H-SC is a national treasure, and my job is to provide the map.”
Howard is H-SC’s 24th president, and not incidentally, the first African-American president of the historically white and historically conservative rural college. The significance is not lost on Howard, but not something he dwells on, either. Quite the opposite, in fact. “It’s true that the school made a bold move when they hired me as their first ever Baptist president,” he says with a grin.
By all accounts, it wasn’t a decision that the H-SC Board of Trustees lost sleep over, given Howard’s impressive background. “He could have been purple with orange spots and we still would have hired him,” says Thomas Allen Jr., chairman of the board and head of the search committee. According to Allen, the board held a meeting before the hire to review the health of the college. Most everything was deemed to be in solid shape: A recently completed capital campaign had made huge improvements to the school’s infrastructure, and applications were up. With that in mind, adds Allen, the search committee was told to “go and shake things up.”
It may be that Howard will shake H-SC more than the institution will shake him. His CV reads like something out of a Tom Clancy novel—and if his own career is an indication, he’s got a laser-like focus on getting things done. Howard was a running back and Academic All-American at the Air Force Academy, went on to become a Rhodes Scholar and earn both a master of philosophy and a doctorate of philosophy in politics at Oxford University, then served as a helicopter pilot on active duty in the Air Force before moving to the Reserves. In 2003, he earned an M.B.A. at Harvard. Before getting hired at H-SC, he was vice president for leadership and strategic initiatives at the University of Oklahoma. He also had two stints in the corporate world, working on an HIV/AIDS initiative in southern Africa for Bristol-Myers Squibb and helping General Electric’s effort to expand its business in Africa as part of that company’s corporate initiatives group.
Howard begins each day with an hour-long workout, and seems to maintain a hectic pace throughout the day. Blackberry glued to his ear and assistant in tow, he’s a fixture on the Prince Edward County campus, juggling a dizzying array of meetings, events and impromptu chats. On fall Saturdays he paces up and down the football field in a houndstooth hat, cheering on his Tigers, who last year welcomed him with a 2009 Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) championship.
H-SC officials say that no matter how harried Howard might be, he never loses his patience and charm. “It’s just the way he’s wired, his discipline,” says Barbara Howard, his wife of 15 years. The two met in South Africa, her homeland, while he was on a trip to Johannesburg as part of his Oxford studies. They now have two sons. “Common sense, commitment and discipline have really contributed to how far he has come in his life,” she explains.
Howard grew up in East Plano, Texas. His father was a division manager at United Postal Service and hammered home one message to his two sons: Education is the key to everything. He listened to his mom and grandparents talk about the rigors of picking cotton—and the implicit message was received. “I told myself at an early age that I don’t have an excuse not to do my best,” Howard says.
The family later moved across the tracks to the more affluent West Plano for access to a better school system. In fourth grade at his new school in West Plano, says Howard, “I walked into the classroom, looked around and said [to myself], ‘There are two black people here, and one of them is leaving—that’s my mom.’ I was the only African-American kid in the fourth grade. My brother was the only African-American kid in the fifth grade. And we’d come from a school that had been 99 percent black.”
How did that cultural change affect him? “It taught me how to be a diplomat,” he says. Even so, he admits to getting in lots of fights early on at his new school.
But then, he explains, “We started playing football, and in Texas, all sins are forgiven if you’re a good player.” He was a good football player—and by adolescence a good student, too. “As it turned out often enough,” says Howard, “when I tried my best it turned out to be the best and I just excelled. My parents never said I had to be great at anything; they just said you had to be a great human being. But I wanted to excel at everything. What’s the excuse? I wasn’t picking cotton.” As a senior, he was class president and valedictorian—and during his graduation address Howard thanked the student body for not judging him by his color and for giving him a chance to succeed.
At the Air Force Academy, Howard was again a top student and leader—he was elected class president. As an all-purpose running back he helped his underdog team beat Ohio State in the 1990 Liberty Bowl. When he graduated, Howard admits he felt conflicted. There was pressure to become a pilot, but he wasn’t completely sold on the idea. He went to Oxford, thought about getting into law, but came back to the states and, despite his reservations, joined the Air Force. “I was doing it for the right reasons but it wasn’t what I really wanted to do,” he explains. In January 1995, while on a solo training mission Howard wrecked a helicopter and survived only by ejecting and parachuting safely to the ground. Though he was cleared of all wrongdoing, the mishap cemented Howard’s decision to leave active duty.
Nowadays, Howard’s attention is fully focused on raising Hampden-Sydney’s profile and boosting, as all college presidents must, alumni giving. Over the past two decades, H-SC officials have watched numerous private, single-sex schools turn coed due to the difficulties of attracting enough students and maintaining revenue. Hampden-Sydney has resisted the trend, but that means that increasing the size of the endowment (now approximately $120 million) is more important than ever. Institutions with robust endowments can recruit the sharpest students by providing financial aid and scholarships.
Anita Garland, H-SC’s Dean of Admissions, says the college had a record 2,528 applicants this year, up from roughly 1,500 applicants only three years ago. It was encouraging, but Garland knows that the increase was partly due to demographics—last year’s high school senior class was large—and the internet. Students today can apply online to one or 100 colleges at the same time, she says. “Back in 1985,” when H-SC had only 801 applicants “an increase in 1,000 applications in three years would have been cause for celebration—now it’s a blip on the screen.”
She says that the college, which has a student population of about 1,100, needs at least 300 new students a year to stay viable. It’s not as easy as it sounds, especially given that the total cost per year for a H-SC student (tuition plus room and board) is about $41,000. “When we go head-to-head with other private colleges,” says Garland, “we fair very well.”
Unfortunately for all private schools in the state, Virginia also has one of the most renowned and well-established public university systems in the country. It is difficult to recruit students who have been accepted by our public schools. Every year H-SC loses a significant number of cross-accepted students to Virginia Tech, James Madison, and the University of Virginia. Howard knows all too well that his success will greatly depend on his ability to recruit a greater portion of these students to H-SC.
It’s not only a battle for students and money, though. H-SC also fights a preconceived notion that the social life in Farmville is, well, arid. Not true, says Garland, who points out that starting on Thursday nights and lasting through the weekend, young women from the region who are both intelligent and attractive migrate to H-SC, mainly from sister schools Sweet Briar College and Hollins University. Says Garland: “Here, students can concentrate on the academic program without distractions and still have a vibrant social life [on weekends]. Then you can be as distracted as you want.”
Howard wants no distractions as he pursues his goals. He has begun formulating a new strategic plan for the college, and to help pull it together, he has hired two consultants—Charles Bryan Jr., former head of the Virginia Historical Society, and Daniel Jordan, the veteran director of Monticello and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Thomas Allen says that their extensive knowledge of historical preservation combined with their strategic skills makes them a good fit. “They’re local and they know our culture.”
Allen insists that the trustees will not be wasting any time debating whether or not to go coed. “I’ve sat through that once before” he explains, “None of us wants to go there again.” What will be in the offing is a new capital campaign. Under former presidents Walter M. Bortz III and Wilson, H-SC alumni contributed $154 million during a ten-year campaign that ended in 2009. With that money, H-SC built a new state-of-the art library, a new football stadium and a new dining hall—they also upgraded fraternity houses and renovated Jones Auditorium.
Howard and his family live in more traditional digs— Middlecourt, the red brick Federal-style home that serves as the college’s anchor and has been home to the president since 1939. There, and on campus, Howard daily mulls the “breadth of ideas and opportunities” he has for moving Hampden-Sydney ahead. As he says, “I look forward to engaging members of the college community, and to devising an audacious yet pragmatic plan to ensure we continue to build a better world—one Hampden-Sydney man at a time.”