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Helping young men become heroes

Hampden-Sydney president defines the mission of a men’s college

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In this video interview, Chris Howard discusses how Hampden-Sydney stacks up to its co-ed counterparts.

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Virginia Business Video Virginia Business Video
In this video interview, Chris Howard discusses how Hampden-Sydney stacks up to its co-ed counterparts.

Watch the video

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Christopher B. Howard, President
Hampden-Sydney College
Photo by Mark Rhodes

Christopher Howard says that, before he stepped onto the Hampden-Sydney College campus near Farmville for the first time, he “knew it in spirit.”

A retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Howard was impressed by Hampden-Sydney graduates he had met in the military.

The college “really resonated with me,” says Howard, who was vice president for leadership and strategic initiatives at the University of Oklahoma when he applied to become Hampden-Sydney’s 24th president.

“I loved the fact that it was in the South.  I loved the fact that it had a strong military tradition.  I loved the fact that sports were intertwined with the desire to build men of character.  I liked the fact that it was focusing on men,” he says. “Although I had never gone to a single-sex school in my life, I had an affinity for schools that focus on the journey from boyhood to guyhood to manhood.”

Hampden-Sydney began classes on Nov. 10, 1775, the same day the Marine Corps was founded. It is one of only four men’s colleges in the U.S. The others are Morehouse College in Atlanta, Wabash College in Indiana and St. John’s University in Minnesota.

In 2009, at age 40, Howard became the 238-year-old college’s first African-American president. The position has fit him “like a Brooks Brothers blue blazer,” he says. “It’s been really good.”

Tom Allen, the chairman of Hampden-Sydney’s board of trustees, says that when Howard was hired, the board was looking for a president who could take the college to a higher level, “someone who could light up a room” and bring attention to the school.  “He has done that excellently,” Allen says.

Howard came to the college with an impressive list of accomplishments. He played football at the Air Force Academy where he received the Campbell Award, given to the American college football player with the best combination of academics, community service and on-field performance, and was inducted into the Verizon Academic All-America Hall of Fame.

Graduating from the academy with a degree in political science, Howard became a Rhodes Scholar, earning a doctorate in politics from Oxford University. He later earned an MBA with distinction from Harvard Business School.

In the Air Force, Howard served as intelligence operations and plans officer with the Joint Special Operations Command. Recalled to active duty in 2003 in Afghanistan, he was awarded a Bronze Star.

His business career has included management positions with Bristol-Myers-Squibb and General Electric.

A plaque at the entrance to the Hampden-Sydney campus reads, “Enter as youth so you may leave as men.”

“Young men want to be heroes,” Howard says. “Let’s help them do it in the right way.” The message seems to be taking. He says the college’s current enrollment of about 1,070 students ranks among the highest in its history.

Allen says Howard has been instrumental in ramping up the college’s academic reputation, putting together a “dynamite” board of trustees and creating a strategic plan that is a true roadmap for Hampden-Sydney’s future, not simply a fundraising document.

One of Allen’s concerns is keeping the young president beyond five years at the school. “I know the phone rings with increasing frequency because he’s a visionary and makes things happen,” Allen says. “My hope is that he will continue to be president.”

In addition to his responsibilities at the college, Howard is a senior adviser on African Affairs at The Albright Stonebridge Group, a fellow at the Aspen Institute and a member of the National Security Education Program Board, the Baylor University Board of Regents and the Higher Education Working Group on Global Issues of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Howard and his wife, Barbara, a native of South Africa, have two sons, Cohen and Joshua. About 10 years ago, the couple founded Impact Young Lives, a nonprofit group that provides scholarships and travel opportunities to college students of color in that country. A trip to the U.S. for these students, he says, gives them a chance to see an “older democracy in action.”

Virginia Business interviewed Howard at his office on the Hampden-Sydney campus on Sept. 19. A video of the interview is available at


Virginia Business: The overall number of high school students is apparently declining, and some schools are reporting their enrollment is dropping partly as a result.  How do men’s colleges and women’s colleges compete and maintain the quality that they’ve had with a smaller group [of potential students]?

Howard: Although the overall number of high school students is declining, in some regions it is actually increasing, in the South and Southwest … We are in a region that does not necessarily have a declining number of high school graduates.  That is the first thing to point out …

You’ve read the press about some challenges that liberal arts have encountered in terms of enrollment, which is the conversation that we’re having on the value of a liberal arts education.  That is not a male thing, a female thing, a coed thing or whatever.  Let’s make sure that this society appreciates and understands that a lot of the people running the businesses, making the laws and leading across civil society actually went to liberal arts colleges and got great educations.  When we are able to communicate that, we’re very successful.

For Hampden-Sydney our enrollment is about 1,070, which is maybe the fifth highest ever in 238 years …  At Hampden-Sydney we’re not seeing declining enrollment.  We’re about as big as we’ve ever been …
The larger point is why people choose schools … John Adams [the chairman of The Martin Agency in Richmond, a major advertising agency] is a Hampden-Sydney alum who serves on our board of trustees.  He made a great point.    He says, “You know, Chris, it’s best to make decisions on what people actually do rather than what they say they do.”

So [students] might say things like, “I don’t want to go to an all-women’s college or an all-men’s college.  I don’t want to go to a historically black college.  I don’t want to go to a urban college.  I don’t want to go to a rural college.” Then they go to the place, and they go, “Damn, this is nice.  I want to be here.”

So, am I saying that people choose Hampden-Sydney because it’s all male?  No.  We’re proud of being a liberal arts college for men, and we’re proud of being an excellent college that puts people in a position to be successful in the 21st century. 

I will tell you that only 2 percent of students who [are accepted by the college but decide to attend another school] say they’re not coming here because it’s all male.  [Applicants that do enroll] … they get here and say this is a great school.  In addition, it happens to be single sex …

Everybody has their challenges, but we’re moving in the right direction.

VB: What is the message that you try to convey when you try to reach these students?

Howard: I tell them my working thesis about young men.  I wrote a piece in the Huffington Post … Young men want to be heroes.  Let’s help them do it the right way.

I just talked to a group of about 85 percent of our freshman class at this program called the “Good Men Plan.” I said, “My guess is that you all want to be your own hero in your own comic book, and you’re just looking for the opportunity.  You want to be good fathers.  You want to be good uncles.  You want to be good business leaders.

“It’s not that you can’t get it at other institution, but I can promise you you have an opportunity to do it here …”

The former president of Wabash College used to say, “If you want to go get a couple of credits and some badges and move on, then this is not the place for you.  But if you want to be in an engaged community where you’re going to grow up and be somebody of significance, no matter where you came from, then you have an opportunity to do that here.”

[Two Hampden-Sydney alumni are] Gene Hickok, deputy secretary of education under [George W. Bush], and Maurice Jones, the deputy secretary of HUD right now in the Obama administration. 

How many schools can say they have back-to-back deputy secretaries? One a Republican and one a Democrat, one Caucasian and one African-American, both graduates of this institution …

We punch above our weight … Guys start seeing themselves in the men they’re going to become, and that narrative is compelling.  Even in cynical 2013 guys want that.

VB:  Going back to liberal arts, there’s been a lot of talk about STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] and STEM majors.  Does that ignore the value of liberal arts? 
Howard: I think that’s a false dichotomy.  First off, it’s the liberal arts and sciences. So there’s a lot of STEM in the liberal arts.  I am a graduate of an institution that I used to say was a liberal arts college masquerading as an engineering school, the Air Force Academy … .

I’ve been blessed to work in various parts of civil society. The top people have an understanding of the world around them and the human condition.  They have a sense of about how humans interact. [They gained that perspective] through history, through science, through philosophy, through music, through the natural sciences … You need this foundation … .

We are committed to the liberal arts as a foundation, and we know that in the long run it’s going to make all the difference in the world.  We’d be STPEM, because we do pre-engineering.  … We have dual agreements with ODU, with U.Va.  We’re about to strike up another agreement with Columbia University in New York.  I always tell President Steger at Virginia Tech that we’re just going to produce a bunch of engineers that can write well and have read Pericles ... .

I’ll never forget this … when I worked at GE, Jeff Immelt, the CEO, said, “I never met a leader who couldn’t see around corners, at least a little bit.”  To be able to see around corners you need to have read some history and some philosophy.

VB:   Had you been here before [you applied to be president]?
Howard:  No, I had not been here before I got into the application and interview process …  I met a few Hampden-Sydney folks in the military that I was very impressed by.  I was just really impressed by the concept of a liberal arts school that produced great citizens. 

When I was at Oklahoma looking at my next move, I wanted to go to a liberal arts college, and when I looked at a few institutions that were looking for presidents, of the four, this one really resonated with me.  I loved the fact that it was in the South.  I loved the fact that it had a strong military tradition.  I loved the fact that sports were intertwined with the desire to build men of character.  I liked the fact that it was focusing on men. 

I’m raising two sons, and both of my sons’ godfathers went to Morehouse.  

Although I had never gone to a single-sex school in my life, I had an affinity for schools that focus on the journey from boyhood to guyhood to manhood. I convinced the trustees that I knew what I was getting into, and even though I hadn’t known Hampden-Sydney by name, I knew it in spirit. It fits like a Brooks Brothers blue blazer. It’s been good. It’s been really good.

VB:  Has Hampden-Sydney ever considered going coed, and what would it lose if it did?
Howard:  The coeducation decision has been considered many times throughout the history of this school.  In the ’90s … I think the board actually voted. It is a board decision.  It is not a president’s decision.  It is not a faculty decision … .

I would not venture a guess of what it would lose.  I’m more focused on what we are now and what we can do now … If we weren’t around as we were today, somebody would probably try to invent us … .

[Of the nation’s top 100 liberal arts colleges], 19 have more than 1,000 men, coed or single sex.  Only nine have 1,000 men that don’t have engineering or [Division 1] athletics. And those nine that have 1,000 men, ranked top 100 and no D1 athletics or engineering, only one is south of the Mason-Dixon line, and that’s us … . 

Presidents from other colleges and universities call us fairly regularly and ask us, “What are you doing with your guys? ... What are you doing at Hampden-Sydney to get your guys to minor in rhetoric or major in English? …We’re coed and big, but our guys are kind of spinning their wheels a little bit.  What are you guys doing?”

That’s something that’s kind of nice to stand by.

VB:  What percentage of your student body comes from Virginia?
Howard: Close to 70 percent. About 70 percent in-state and 30 percent out of state. Our goal is that it be 60/40 in the strategic plan.

VB:  What proportion of those get student aid?
Howard: Virtually all of them, like most liberal arts colleges.

VB:   How big is your endowment right now?
Howard: Our endowment is about $130 million, which is just okay, but we want it to be better.  We’d love to see that be about $200 million. 
Every year I have my special assistant … look at all the “top 100” schools and look at a bunch of different metrics, such as graduation retention rate, selectivity, placement of jobs afterwards and so on, including endowment. It’s very interesting that, for liberal arts colleges, the endowment is a great bellwether in terms of the ranking …

At the end of the day, the endowment is something every college focuses on it.  We’re doing OK, and we want to do better. As I talk to our community I say, “You’ve got to underwrite excellence.  If you want to be able to provide tickets to the American Dream, and you want to be able to provide opportunities for people from whatever background, you need to underwrite that.”  The endowment is part of that.

VB:   What portion of your day or your typical workweek is devoted to fundraising as opposed to other administrative duties?
Howard: Every action that a modern president or chancellor takes is informed by fundraising, public or private [college], it doesn’t matter …

Therefore I unabashedly think about how I can garner resources so that we can fulfill our mission … So whether you’re teaching a class or interacting with faculty or doing something with the athletic director, you’re always thinking about resources because you have to. 

VB:  Now, you’re the first African-American president of this institution.  Is that especially significant given the fact that, just down the road, we have the Moton Museum, which was [an African-American school involved in the decisive Supreme Court desegregation case] Brown v. Board of Education?
Howard:  We’re actually sponsoring [the museum’s] annual dinner …  Almost all of our [freshmen] students spent some time down there [as part of a public service project] to think about that trajectory of American progress that’s manifested in Prince Edward County.

I’ve been saying this for four or five years now, but I’m the president of Hampden-Sydney College.  If you cut me, I bleed garnet and gray, as my chairman, Tom Allen, would say. 

It is not lost on me that I’m a direct descendant of a slave, Amos Howard, my great-great-grandfather.  What a story about the American narrative, that my great-great-grandfather [was treated] no different than the chair you sit upon, as chattel or property, and three generations later, I’m the president of one of the finest colleges in the country.

I know that informs who I am as a human being, but I think Barack Obama said that he thought about being the first black president for the first 15 minutes of the job, and then all of a sudden the job was upon him.  It is my job to lead the Tiger Nation as best I possibly can.

VB:  Tell me a little bit about the [Impact and Lives Foundation].
Howard:  My wife and I founded it to bring South African kids of color to see America … sort of democracy in action … civil society in action.  With South Africa being a very young democracy, sometimes some of the citizenry, especially the citizenry of color who were disenfranchised, are well served to see another civil society that’s older.

We bring these kids over for two or three weeks … They are college students … college sophomores … [who come to see] business, government, education, military and media, for example, in action. 

Last summer was the first time we brought them to Hampden-Sydney.  That was just amazing because you have so much of America’s narrative here.  You’ve got the Revolutionary War — [James] Madison was on our original board of trustees and seven of Patrick Henry’s sons went to Hampden-Sydney.  The Revolutionary Trail literally runs right through our campus. 

[Other historic sites in the area include the Moton Museum; Patrick Henry’s home, Red Hill; the Museum of the Confederacy in Appomattox; and the site of the Civil War Battle of Saylor’s Creek.]

So you have the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement all right here. We had opportunities to take them there, to kind of root them, and they really enjoyed it. 

Then we took them up north from there, and they went all the way up to New York City. I said, “It’s going to be a little different in New York City, but you’ll like them both for different reasons.”  They really did enjoy it.  It was great trip.

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