With its red brick, Georgian-style buildings situated among the gently rolling hills of central Virginia, Hampden- Sydney College has long been considered a genteel place to raise crops of new leaders. For many years, they tended to be White, Southern and upper-middle class honed with academic rigor and a strong honor code. Then as now, they are all male.
Yet the 234-year-old school has been diversifying with a vengeance. Since the 1980s, three young African-Americans have served as student body presidents. And now, the school’s new president is African-American, too, as well as one of the youngest to hold such a position in the country. Dr. Christopher B. Howard, 40, took office earlier this month. Trim, tall Howard, a 1991 Air Force Academy graduate, has a résumé as powerful as the afterburners on the jet aircraft that he has flown. A R h o d e s scholar, he has a doctorate in political science from Oxford University and later earned an MBA from Harvard University. Fascinated with leadership issues, he has worked at such prominent corporations as Bristol-Myers Squibb and General Electric.
A reserve Air Force officer, Howard served with distinction in Bosnia and was called up again to handle a job in military intelligence hunting terrorist Osama bin Laden and his confederates in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2004. He still serves as a lieutenant colonel, holding a position as a defense attaché with the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia, Liberia, where he frequently travels.
“Hampden-Sydney represents character, leadership and service, and I want to be part of that,” says Howard. “At the Air Force Academy, I learned discipline. At Oxford I learned intellectual acumen and in corporate life I learned how to work in big organizations. I don’t have a vision for Hampden-Sydney just yet, but I want to impress upon the students individual and collective responsibility and remind them of what they’ve been given and what they owe.”
Howard got his strict sense of service from his father, an Army officer with combat experience in Vietnam. Growing up in Texas, Howard developed strong academic skills and was a promising athlete. He made All-American playing football for the Air Force Academy. After he graduated and won his pilot’s wings at flight school, Howard went off to St. Anne’s College, Oxford, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on how Congress handled defense issues from 1975 to 1991.
The experience pointed Howard toward a career in academia, but he made some side trips along the way, such as flying UH-1N helicopters at an Air Force base in New Mexico and accompanying Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen on a trip to South Africa. Howard was called up to serve in the war against terror in 2003 in Afghanistan. At Bagram Air Base, a major hub of special operations missions, Howard worked on intelligence. “Those were very tense days,” he says.
But at Bagram, he had a chance discussion about career planning with an Army officer who advised him to “go ahead and do something that fills your stomach up.” The meeting was a tipping point for Howard who decided that academia could do just that. He took up an offer to be vice president for leadership and strategic initiatives at the University of Oklahoma, where he had worked since 2005.
Students at Hampden-Sydney seem thrilled to have such a vigorous and multifaceted man as president. “I was part of the selection process and he was by far the best candidate,” says Fitz G. Robinson, student body president from 2008-2009 who just graduated. Robinson, an African-American from Queens, N.Y., will begin work as an investment banker in Manhattan.
For fun, Howard, who moved to Hampden-Sydney with his wife, a native of South Africa, and their two sons, works out at the gym and listens to jazz, especially John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Bill Evans. “I also chase my sons around a lot,” he says.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com