Interviewed by Cesca Janece Waterfield
Whoever said “Everything’s bigger in Texas” could have been talking about the dreams of Christopher Howard. As a boy in Plano, he set goals big as East Texas itself. But Christopher matched his ambition with even greater achievement. He credits his parents, Marvin and Caroline, for instilling the discipline that propelled his brother Reggie to Baylor University and Christopher to the Air Force Academy and then to Oxford, England as a Rhodes Scholar. When he traveled to South Africa as a Scholar, he met his future wife, Barbara Noble. Today they have two sons, Cohen and Joshua. Howard has earned his Doctorate in Politics from Oxford and an MBA with distinction from Harvard Business School. He has worked for General Electric and Bristol-Myers Squibb, where he managed a $100 million HIV/AIDS initiative in southern Africa. He has served as Vice President of the University of Oklahoma. While there, he was recommended for the Presidency at Virginia’s historic Hampden Sydney College, a liberal arts college for men. He was inaugurated in 2009. In 2010, Dr. Howard was named an African American Trailblazer in Virginia History by the Library of Virginia. He’s been featured on NPR and interviewed on CNN, PBS and more. He is a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter pilot and a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve.
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to learn more about Christopher Howard.
I feel like I’m in trouble when you call me Christopher.
Have you ever been in trouble, Dr. Howard?
Oh yeah, I think all of us have. That’s actually a great point. So many times we kind of get this halo effect. One of my mentors at the Air Force Academy, General Michelle Johnson– she just pinned on her second star. When she was a Captain she was my mentor – she used to say, when you do reasonably well in life, you kind of become this “walking resume.” The resume is actually a person who has all the foibles and the down side of being a human. You make mistakes. What you do is you try to have a sense of humor about it. [You live by] the old cliché, take life seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously. There have been plenty of bad days.
What was it like growing up in Plano?
It’s a wonderful school district that ranks highly. It’s blessed to have an abundance of resources. My joke is that when I showed up, there were two black people there. One of them was my mother. As the only African American in a community that didn’t have any African Americans to speak of, it was an interesting and even difficult time. People didn’t know where I’d come from. They wondered about my hair when I had hair [laughs]. I was a not very happy young man. I felt like a fish out of water. I got into my fair share of fights. What happened is I ended up being a pretty good football player. In Texas, all things are forgiven if you’re a good football player. I was a good student as well, but that eased the social pressure to some extent. I went from being a kid fighting about someone using the N-word on the playground to my senior year with 1300 people in my senior class – the biggest in the state of Texas – and I was the student body president. I got up at graduation and I thanked them for judging me by the content of my character rather than the color of my skin. It went literally from having a conversation with my fists to loving my classmates and them loving me. There were about 25 African Americans in my senior class. I think it’s a great story about Plano and a great story about America that after getting to know each other, we learned to love each other.
When did you decide you wanted to go to the Air Force Academy?
My father had been an Army officer and my uncle had served 20 years as a paratrooper. I had been around the military and always wanted to give back. My mom has this mantra, “One to whom much is given, much is expected.” I tried to live that. When I was in the seventh grade, I wrote a letter to my congressman. The gentleman read it and wrote back, “You are a neat young man, but I’m not your congressman. You sent the letter to the wrong person.” He forwarded the letter to the correct congressman. Starting in the ninth grade, I set out with precision planning to get into West Point. I ended up getting accepted by all three service academies, I was a good football player. I flipped on my decision [initially to attend West Point] the second semester of my senior year. To this day, some of my classmates think I went to West Point.
Did your parents support your dream to go to a military service academy?
My dad was the first African American to serve as an industrial engineer at UPS. He was a combat engineer in the Army and received the Bronze Star in Vietnam and was a math major coming out of college. He’s a very meticulous guy. My mom was valedictorian of her high school and was going to be a teacher but when my brother and me came along, her plans changed. She actually went to school for about 17 years off and on while we were in school and graduated from college the year my brother went to college. She’s a very diligent person. They’re both wired for focus and no excuses. That’s a good combination for a kid who wants to go into the military, right? They weren’t very fiendish about performance, they were fiendish about effort.
How do your parents respond to your success today?
We come from humble beginnings. My great-great grandfather was a slave. The arc of our rise is not lost on them at all. They grew up in Jim Crow Texas. They could never have even imagined for me to do what I’m doing. But at the same time, they expect me to do this with an air of grace and humility. Otherwise, I think they’d get the switch out on me if I decided to get a big head. But I think they’re proud of their little boy.
Do you know much about your great-great grandfather?
Amos Howard was his name. He died in the 1950s. He lived to be about 102. My father remembers him. My grandmother, who is still with us, definitely remembers him: a very distinguished looking gentleman, with a big, bushy mustache. He’s part of our collective memory.
When did you decide to apply for a Rhodes scholarship?
I was doing well at the Air Force Academy and one of my instructors encouraged me to apply for the Rhodes scholarship. I did not want to do that. I wanted to apply for a graduate school program at Harvard. In my junior year, one of my favorite professors told me for my final exam that I should apply for the Rhodes. [Then] I was working at Congress as an intern and was working on my essay. It was one of those wonderful, cathartic moments when you have to sit down and take stock of your life. The Rhodes process was cathartic, refreshing and difficult. It was a wonderful experience of getting to know myself. The process culminated in my being named a Rhodes Scholar. I’d never been out of the country before. Arriving at Oxford in 1994, having been a cadet at the Air Force Academy going to a large civilian and one of the oldest universities in the world and one of the most prestigious, it was another amazing chapter. I had 20 people that lived in my graduate house and there were 17 different nationalities. This was at the very end of the Cold War. I would sit and I would receive and dispense a breakfast table education. You’d find yourself being challenged on what you thought was just truth; certain ideas and ideals that you assumed everybody thought. But when you sit down with a Zambian, a Romanian, a Peruvian, a Dutch person, a Canadian, a Greek and a German, then all of a sudden, you find that things you take for granted, are not [universal]. That conversation reaffirmed my belief in America. America is an amazing country and it has so much to commend itself. When you’re challenged on that, you start seeing some of her flaws. But I came out of those conversations knowing that I was from a great country that I was proud of. But I definitely had my core beliefs challenged and that’s a great thing for a young person to go through. Later on when I was serving in Afghanistan and Bosnia, you start appreciating why you’re doing what you’re doing.
What is the greatest challenge of your job?
If you want excellence, you have to underwrite it to some extent. That takes resources. In a time when people feel a little squeamish about the economy, although I think the economy is moving in the right direction, it makes it tougher. Resources are great enablers. You can provide better programming, more programming, more opportunity for people to attend your institution. It’s kind of a common sense point. But if I had been named president five or seven years ago, maybe I would not be saying this right now. Resources are always a challenge, but I think it’s particularly so when you come in [during] the largest recession since the Great Depression.
The other challenge is it’s a wonderful, exhilarating, exhausting job. I love what I do. In some ways, maybe it’s more like being a Senator or a Governor than it is like being a CEO or General, in the sense that there are a lot of constituents that you have to manage, lead, work with. In the Presidency, and this is rightfully so, because it’s a shared governance, it becomes a nuanced way of trying to work with your organization, your constituency and move forth.
The final thing is, it’s a public job. You represent the hopes and dreams and aspirations of our graduates, students, the parents, the faculty, the staff. When they see you, they’re not shy about telling you what they think. It’s a pretty public endeavor.
What is your job’s greatest reward?
It’s a blessing and a privilege to lead an institution like Hampden Sydney College with its storied history and its amazing resources and alum. I was in France about three months ago and I was talking with a friend of mine and we were talking about what we did for a living and I told them I was in the dream-enabling business. To enable them to get an education and lead enriching lives; the faculty, to enable them to teach and follow their scholarly pursuits; staff, enable them to help run this great institution of ours; parents, to help their children achieve their dreams. That’s pretty doggone cool. With all the ups and downs of being a leader in higher education- I can probably speak for the Presidents of various colleges and universities in the Commonwealth and I’m friends with almost all of them – we consider it a privilege to be able to do that. I don’t have to even set my alarm in the morning because I’m ready for a great day to help someone make the world a better place and enable them to achieve their dreams.
The second thing is, it’s a very interesting time when it comes to men and education. We are an excellent liberal arts college for men in an age when many men are doing extraordinarily well but others are kind of falling by the wayside. I think of the wonderful line: If you want a great education for men, there’s an “ap” for that, and that’s Hampden Sydney. We’ve been doing this for over 200 years. We have extraordinary students and students of high character. They’re good guys when they come here, but they’re poised to be great men when they leave.
Why is a liberal arts education relevant in today’s world?
Take the toughest problem that you can imagine right now and come up with the one discipline that can address that problem holistically. Whether it’s global warming, HIV/AIDS, global war and terror, international relations in the Middle East, poverty – anything you come up with is going to take critical thinking, analytical thinking, good communication skills, written and oral, understanding of numeracy, quantitative reasoning, and all sorts of multi-faceted aspects of the human mind to make that happen. I can think of no better place than a liberal arts education to set you up to address the problem. The military says train for what you know and educate what you don’t know. I think a liberal arts education does that better than just about anything out there. We say “liberal arts,” but it really is a liberal arts and sciences degree. It also arms people with the ability to adapt, which is one of the central qualities of a great leader. It’s a character-based approach. We’ve seen what has happened in society when we forget about character and integrity. Schools like Hampden Sydney College, we’re arming people with the tools to be ethical, successful leaders who are going to make the world a better place.