Making the case for a men’s college

Stimpert cites the concept of polarizing brands recruiting students

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Larry Stimpert says the college is putting a new emphasis
on experiential learning. Photo by Mark Rhodes

A college can spend a lot of money developing a phrase that sums up the school’s purpose in a few words.

Larry Stimpert, however, does not have that problem. The president of Hampden-Sydney College points to an advertisement published in The Virginia Gazette in 1775 by the school’s founding president, Samuel Smith. “We exist to form good men and good citizens,” it says.

“I tell folks if we had gone out and hired a marketing firm or a publicist, we couldn’t do better than our first president did in 1775,” says Stimpert, who became the college’s 25th president in March 2016. “It’s hard to argue against the need for good men and good citizens.” 

Stimpert, an economist, clearly appreciates an institution that has a strong sense of purpose. In an article published in 2004, he wrote that the “highly successful small college will have a compelling identity that communicates in just one or a few sentences what it is, what it aspires to be and what distinguishes it from the many other competing colleges and universities.”

Hampden-Sydney’s identity includes being one of only three men’s colleges in the U.S. The other two are Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., and Morehouse College in Atlanta. Stimpert sees Hampden-Sydney’s membership in that small group as an advantage and a challenge in recruiting students.

In explaining his stance, he cites the concept of polarizing brands. “These are brands some people will look at and say, ‘Never,’ while others find them irresistible,” he says.

Being a school for men, Hampden-Sydney automatically excludes more than half the college-bound population. On top of that, many male students aren’t at all interested in a men’s college. “Our job is to convince a critical number of young men that Hampden-Sydney is the ideal choice for them,” Stimpert says.

In making that pitch to prospective students, he emphasizes three points: the quality of the college’s academic program, its emphasis on character and development, and a “rich brotherhood” that extends far beyond a college career.

“We’re the ninth-best alumni program in the country,” he says. “We’ve gotten accolades from The Wall Street Journal as the 10th-best school for preparing you for a career.” Not bad for a school with just over 1,000 students.

Stimpert’s analytical insights contributed to his selection as the college’s president. “We were impressed with Dr. Stimpert’s understanding of the current business model in higher education, his appreciation of our culture and his ideas of how to move the College forward in light of both,” says M. Peebles Harrison, the chairman of the college’s board of trustees, adding that the new president has done “an outstanding job. His bias for action, strategic insights and communication skills have allowed him to effectively implement his plans for the college.” 

Before coming to Hampden-Sydney, Stimpert, 59, was vice president for academic affairs at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., where he oversaw 250 full- and part-time faculty in nearly 30 academic departments and interdisciplinary programs. He also was professor of economics and management at the university.

Before DePauw, Stimpert was professor of economics and business at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colo.  There he co-directed a campuswide master plan effort, leading a delegation of Colorado faculty and staff on fact-finding and benchmarking visits to Davidson, Carleton and Grinnell colleges. 

While on sabbatical from Colorado during the 2009-10 academic year, he was a Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Management Department of the U.S. Air Force Academy. 

Before his academic career, Stimpert worked for the Southern Railway Co. and for Norfolk Southern Corp. after Southern’s merger with Norfolk and Western.  He later worked for the Chicago and North Western Transportation Co.

Stimpert received his bachelor’s in economics from Illinois Wesleyan University, his MBA from Columbia University and his doctorate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Stimpert and his wife, Lesley, have two children who attend Prince Edward High School, a son who is a senior and a daughter who is a sophomore.

Virginia Business interviewed Stimpert on Dec. 8 at its offices in Richmond. The following is an edited transcript.

VB: What are some of the changes taking place at the school?
Stimpert:  I was asked by the search committee, “What would you do if you were the president of Hampden-Sydney College?” Of course, that’s a pretty presumptuous question, and you have to be very careful, especially if you’ve never set foot on the campus. I said at that time and certainly over the last year and a half that we’ve been heavily focused on three things: Telling our story better so the world knows about Hampden-Sydney and knows what we do here, knows what’s distinctive and special about the college; every private college has to focus on enrollment and admissions, so we’ve been doing a lot of work in that area; and then of course, the lifeblood of a small private college is fundraising, so we’ve been strengthening our fundraising efforts as well.
I was very fortunate to have arrived at Hampden-Sydney at a time when faculty had already begun a planning process really asking what should [a college curriculum] look like in the 21st century, especially what should  the curriculum for a college for men look like in the 21st century. Some really interesting things have come out of that planning work, and we’re now very much into an implementation phase. If I had to summarize the focus of that work in a sentence, it is an emphasis on experiential learning, or learning by doing. We all learn by doing, but we think that, for men especially, [that] type of education is very valuable. It also plays a lot into things that we are also trying to emphasize that go along with this. Career preparation and especially internships before students graduate [from college] are absolutely essential to get them ready for the job market, getting them ready for graduate school, etc. So that’s one of the prime forms of learning by doing: taking your classroom learning and spending your summer at an organization where you actually apply that learning. Students come back in a totally different place after that kind of experience.

VB: How is your enrollment doing?
Stimpert: The year I came in, which was the summer of 2016, we had met our target [for acceptances for the freshman class]. Our target was 305 students. We had come in at about 306. We lost a lot of students over the summer for a variety of reasons, [including the fact that] Virginia public colleges opened up their waitlists. So, we started in the fall of 2016 with 286 students, and that’s below where we want to be … This year, we started the year with 312, and we’ve set a pretty ambitious target for this upcoming year’s enrollment as well. We’re looking very good right now, so I’m very positive about where we are. One of our big initiatives is to expand our footprint both regionally and nationally. Before 2000, more than half the students at Hampden-Sydney came from outside of Virginia. Right now, we’ve flipped that with about 60 percent of our students from Virginia. Don’t get me wrong — I want to recruit every kid we can from Virginia, but we really want to get back to where we had a stronger regional/national footprint. We’re recruiting heavily now in mid-Atlantic states and New England. We’re recruiting throughout the South. We have plans to recruit much more aggressively in Texas. Basically we’re looking at markets where the growth is.

VB:  Many Virginia students want to stay in state [for college], and the state colleges have a good reputation. Doesn’t that make you a direct competitor in recruiting in Virginia?
Stimpert: Sure, and this is why I think the geographical expansion is really important. We’re going head-to-head with some of the finest public colleges in the country as well as the finest private colleges in the country. It’s not necessarily that the grass is greener elsewhere, but just, from a competitive standpoint, we need to expand ourselves. Virginia is kind of an interesting case in that there are so many high-quality private colleges in the state. About a third of the state’s undergraduates are going to a private college. That’s very unusual. The state does have the  [Tuition Assistance Grant program, which provides help to state students attending Virginia private colleges]. It’s worth noting that’s all we get from Virginia in terms of direct support in the [state] budget. Public schools, of course, still get subsidies — which is a reduced subsidy of what it has been in the past. But, of course, they get enormous capital and funding to devote to building projects. We have to raise that money on our own. We don’t expect there to be a level playing field, but as the state considers how we educate Virginians, thinking more intentionally about the partnership the state has with private institutions, I think, could be a very cost-effective way to meet future higher educational needs.

VB: [You wrote a journal article about college financing that] divides liberal-arts colleges into several groups, from strongest schools to at-risk schools. Where would you place Hampden-Sydney in that matrix?
Stimpert: We’re at the luxury of being in the middle of that matrix. We’re not at the strongest end, but we’re not at the weakest end, either. Certainly one of my goals over the next several years is to move Hampden-Sydney toward a stronger position on both of those dimensions. Basically, what the [article] was looking at was enrollment and endowment as two critical forces of financial strength for a college. I think I’ll just back up and share what I think is an important observation. I worked in the railroad industry for most of my 20s. I had an epiphany moment one day when I was sitting there at my desk. [I thought to myself], “The railroad industry is labor-intensive and capital-intensive.” When you’re both of those, it’s a really bad business to be in … I had a same sort of epiphany moment when I was a faculty member at Colorado College. Small private liberal-arts colleges have always been labor-intensive, but increasingly we have to be capital-intensive. We have to have great facilities, science laboratories, great athletic facilities, fine-arts facilities, and we have to equip our faculty with the technology to do our jobs. I think the answer to that is you have to have diversity in your revenue streams. You can’t just be relying on tuition or endowment; you have to have both. And so those are two of our key areas. That’s why we’re trying to strengthen our recruiting and fundraising efforts.

VB: One of the things you mentioned in that paper was new revenue streams, such as adding a graduate program. Is that something you would envision for Hampden-Sydney?
Stimpert: What I’ve shared with our senior staff is that I want to put everything on the table. What I also want to emphasize is that I want to make sure that we’re getting maximum benefits from what we already have in place. Are we getting everything we can from our undergraduate program? For example, last year the faculty started two new majors: biochemistry and engineering physics majors. I think we need to do more. The faculty already has plans for an environmental studies and science major. We’re talking about a major in neuroscience. I think we have to explore what we should do around computational science and data analytics because they’re both such important, emerging fields. Who do you want asking questions? Who do you want doing that kind of work? I think to be a liberal-arts college graduate, doing that work is an ideal combination. We have a May term, but enrollment in that term has declined. We’re doing some innovative things this coming spring. We’re going to offer more courses. We’re going to encourage more travel courses during that time. We’re going to offer courses here in Richmond. We have a one-course pilot program that we did at St. Christopher’s [School] last summer. We’re going to try to have at least a half dozen courses we offer there so there’s sort of a critical mass of courses. Those courses would be open to anybody in the community. We’re looking at what we can do to maximize the program we already have before we go venturing into master’s programs. 

VB: Your goal is to have your endowment up to $200 million by 2021. Where do you stand now?
Stimpert: We are close to $160 million in value right now. I want to emphasize that’s great. There are a lot of schools that would love to have that. But you’ve heard my rationale. I just think we have to have diversity of revenue streams. The income we receive from our endowment is a critical part of making our budget work. Any money we add to the endowment will only enhance that. The key issue is the access and affordability. The schools that have the $100 million endowments [or higher] are able to offer what we call “blind admissions,” not looking at how an applicant can afford to pay. Many of those schools have gone to a “no-loan” policy. I feel pretty good with where we are with loans, and I don’t think it hurts for a young man to have some skin in the game. Only 60 percent of our students graduate with loans. The average balance is below $30,000. Our starting salaries are around $50,000 on average. We don’t think we’re saddling our students with unreasonable amounts of debt, but the key is to get the endowment to a point where — again, we [would be able to help] young men who would be perfect fits for Hampden-Sydney, yet the family financial circumstances are such that a private education is just out of reach. This past May, 94 percent of the seniors who graduated finished in four years. The state average is more like 60 percent. So if you look at the earnings that our students receive on average and the savings of a year or year and a half of extra room and board, we think private education is an excellent value. But every parent believes their son is going to graduate in four years no matter where he goes.

VB: What percentage of your enrollment receives financial aid?
Stimpert: I would say it’s over 90 percent. We are doing a combination of merit and need-based aid. So many of our students are eligible for need-based aid.

VB: One of the things in the [national] news these days for the wrong reasons are fraternities. Do you think fraternities will remain at Hampden-Sydney?
Stimpert: I would certainly hope so. At Hampden-Sydney, the guys who tend to persist [to graduation at the college] are engaged, and that means many things. It could mean that they’re on an athletic team, maybe found a professor who is a special mentor and they’re engaged with science research with a faculty member, or they may be in a fraternity. They [feel like they] belong and are connected. This is not unique to Hampden-Sydney, but everywhere … It’s not that I want fraternities to be the only thing, but they are an important thing that creates that sense of brotherhood. Since I have arrived, we have been really proactive about a couple of endeavors ...  We have two codes our men live by: a traditional [academic] honor code [and] a code of conduct, which says students at Hampden-Sydney will behave as gentlemen at all times and all places. We really began the conversation with our fraternity men about to what extent does fraternity life mirror and embody our commitment to that conduct code. Through those kinds of conversations, we’ve gotten our fraternities to take a number of steps to strengthen our fraternity system on our campus, so I’m very encouraged.

VB: Anything else you would like to add?
Stimpert: When we had a visitor on campus last year, she mentioned something about the sidewalk effect: Every man she walked past told her hello. People are very impressed by this. I think we really try to socialize our freshman as they arrive for orientation with a tradition that when they walk down the sidewalk that they look at every person on the sidewalk and speak. I spoke with some alumni who walked around in the city of  New York saying hello to everyone before they realized they were going to get a lot of strange looks.

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