On a recent Sunday morning on a rural Virginia college campus — some 170 miles south of D.C. — the gentlemen of Hampden-Sydney College are processing. They are en route to their futures, a mere tassel-swap, handshake and framed diploma away.
It is a Sunday in the South, which means seersucker, bow ties, boat shoes and blazers on the dads; sundresses on the moms. Here, on a campus where the opening (and closing, and mid-ceremony) prayers and biblical readings are anything but incidental, where conservative historical hero Patrick Henry was one of the original trustees, where the commencement speaker is Republican Congressman Robert Hurt, and where even P.R. head honcho Tommy Shomo jokes to me that there are “the Young Republicans and the Young Democrat” — here, impossibly enough, bestowing the degrees upon a roughly 82 percent white student body, is Christopher Howard, president of Hampden-Sydney College, registered Democrat, and, oh yeah, black. In fact, the first black president the college has ever had.
But let’s not be superficial. At 46, Howard stands out for more than just his race and politics. He’s one of the youngest college presidents in the country, and one of those sorts whose résumé will make you cringe with inadequacy. An All-American Texas high school football player, a veteran and graduate of the Air Force Academy — where he also killed it on the field; he’s worked at General Electric, helped hunt down Osama bin Laden and holds an MBA from Harvard and a doctorate from Oxford … where he was a Rhodes Scholar. In other words, he is a giant steal for this college of just over 1,000 men.
Howard’s life is genuinely multifaceted, making him a mouthwatering prospect for Southern Democrats.
He’s also a more apt choice for the job than he might seem at first glance. He says he’s always wanted to be in the South, whether working at a university or turning to politics (more on that inevitable ambition later); “I like the values,” he says — military, football, God, we’d surmise. “And the weather.” And his relative youth helps with his rather progressive mandate: help this nearly 240-year-old institution, one of only four all-male liberal arts schools in the country, update itself for the modern century. Because its future is a little less accessible than a graduation cap in the air. There’s the rarity of the all-male atmosphere. There’s the “hand-to-hand combat for every dollar,” as Howard tells me, managing the existing endowment while simultaneously courting potential students to keep enrollment steady, not to mention proving the relevance of the liberal arts — especially a curriculum emphasizing the classics, rhetoric, Greek philosophers, etc. — in the STEM-ified age.
The big debate today: Is college even worth it? summarizes Carrie Johnson of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Small non-research colleges have it particularly rough, because they subsist on a diet of steady enrollment rather than a huge prior endowment or grants. This is well on the mind of Howard and others, especially given the haunting presence of Sweet Briar College, a women’s liberal arts college not far from HSC, a kind of sister school, which has recently found itself in a battle over a potential closure.
A university prez’s job, he says, is like being “a mayor, a CEO, a pastor, a senator, a VP of sales. … I have the most political job in the world.” The night before commencement sees him playing all these roles, at a dinner for the 30-odd trustees of the college. Wearing a sharp light-gray double-breasted suit — which compounds the military stance in his shoulders — he and his brightly demeanored South African wife, Barbara, are warm hosts as they celebrate a few retiring professors and a few others who’ve just earned tenure. Howard gives a grand speech crescendoing at a deliciously DNC-friendly line — “We are America!” — which he built up to by citing the college’s long history since pre-Revolutionary War days, through the Civil War, in the state of Thomas Jefferson. All of it leading up to a comically blunt punch line: “Thank you for your generosity,” he tells the various rich dudes. “And please, for the love of God, keep on being generous.”
If Howard is a mayor, it’s of a parodically small village. Indeed, about half the college’s faculty and staff live on its 1,340-acre campus, along with about 95 percent of its students — which makes sense, given that the closest “town” is Farmville (not kidding) about 5 miles away. It would seem that Howard enjoys being the big fish on campus. He possesses a Clintonian habit of rattling off full names and attached epithets — so-and-so, ROTC, whatshisface, class of 1979. The young men he mentors treat him as one might a military superior. Like newly named Lt. John Wirges, who is heading to Fort Benning in a matter of weeks. Wirges — like every fella I meet on campus — unsettlingly insists on calling me “ma’am” and speaks in the lexicon that all the students do, at least while speaking to a female reporter. Character, integrity. What it means to be a man. The Hampden-Sydney man.
Over lunch at “the Birthplace,” the small, ancient building where the college was founded, filled with historical writing desks and musty books titled things like The Code of Virginia, Howard waxes nostalgic about his younger years. The son of an Army man growing up in Plano, Texas, he became “infatuated with service” by seventh grade, when he decided he was headed to West Point. He learned you earned admission by getting nominated by your congressman. So off he went to the library to find his representative’s name and request such a nomination, at the ripe old age of 13 or so. He penned a long letter and waited to hear back. He did, and the letter informed him that he had written to the wrong congressman.
A few years later found Howard a freshman running back on the undefeated football team in Friday Night Lights heartland. He was about to quit, to join JROTC. Dad got word, entered his room and delivered what one imagines is a very “Hampden-Sydney Man” speech. “Son,” Howard recalls him saying, “we don’t quit.” He’s got a bucket of stories like this. Another one: Senior year of high school, the Plano football team was 2-2, threatening to have one of the school’s worst-ever seasons. Until a crucial game, when in a Disney-movie ending, Howard got the touchdown that took them to 3-2. They went on to win state that year.
After the Air Force Academy — where his team pulled off a similar upset, this time against Ohio State in the Liberty Bowl — came the Rhodes; he met his wife, a then-nursing student, during those years on a trip to South Africa. After their meeting they proceeded to keep up, in seemingly typical old-fashioned-gentleman fashion, a long distance epistolary relationship before finally locking each other down. Following his first tour, he headed into the Army Reserve and, hoping to “learn how capitalism works,” took a job at General Electric, where he somehow landed a job working on corporate philanthropy. “I went from looking for Osama bin Laden to the corporate life,” he says, with a predictable inch of self-importance. And then, just as he’d begun considering a run for office back in Dallas, “war happened.” He went back to Afghanistan, where his job (at least as much as he’ll disclose) was so-called “overt” intelligence gathering, otherwise known as interviewing locals to gather intel. Hard to wheedle more out of him about those formative years than that.
As the war wound down and he considered his next move, he recalls that a friend asked him, “How are you going to go back to GE and ‘sell toilet seats?’” Hence a move to higher ed. Pause to consider the link between higher education and Howard’s larger ambitions; ironically, despite the trope of liberal arts campuses as Ivory Towers or irrelevant backwoods, leaders of universities and colleges often find their way to other, more obvious seats of power — and vice versa. Harvard’s Larry Summers’ time in Washington. Yale’s Rick Levin turned CEO of Coursera. The reverse: Janet Napolitano as the University of California president.
Howard, though, didn’t take the reins at such schmancy places. He began in Oklahoma by way of a Rhodes connection and soon decided to consider leading a liberal arts school. Which he looked for by Googling “top liberal arts colleges” and surveying the hiring landscape. Hampden-Sydney — with its classical education, military tradition, Southern values and his sense that it felt like a “well-worn Brooks Brothers blazer” — won him over.
So far, Howard seems to be doing pretty well. In 2013, HSC appeared on the Washington Post’s list of top 10 endowments-per-student in the region. Today, Hampden-Sydney’s endowment hangs around $150 million, up from $115 million in 2009, the year he took office, thanks to good old-fashioned fundraising, designated gifts and bequests. (One imagines Howard must have quite the knack for the latter; it probably doesn’t hurt to have the Air Force and football credentials when networking over brandy and cigars.) And then, of course, making a college this small run requires scrappy tinkering with quotidian questions of budgets. With little in the way of new revenue streams, says Glenn Culley, vice president for business affairs and finance, the school has turned to basics like not re-hiring some faculty and finding ways to avoid credit card fees. He adds that “tuition discounts” (read: financial aid) at the school that’ll run you $39,272 a year — Hampden-Sydney provides some full-tuition scholarships — are “not sustainable.”
Howard came on at a rough time financially, in 2009, right after the crash. But for another reason, too. A year before Howard arrived, on the advent of President Barack Obama’s election, a noose was hung outside a freshman residence hall “during a gathering of students disappointed in the election results,” writes David Klein, the dean of students, in an email. The student responsible was suspended for two semesters by judgment of an “honor court” of his peers. But just a few years later, upon Obama’s re-election, some 40 students (almost 20 percent of a given class) gathered near fraternity row, yelling racial slurs; Klein writes that the crowd included both revelers and detractors of the President’s re-election. That time, one student was expelled by a peer court.
Race, of course, is complex in a place like Virginia: Layers of history, much of it dark, mingle with unavoidable etiquette of Southern hospitality. Talking of race means speaking gently — gentlemanly, in fact. Howard, who quotes everyone from Douglas MacArthur to Robert Frost to Cornel West during our conversation, chooses Lincoln for his rhetorical reply when I ask about “the incident”: “The union is not yet perfect.” Clearly, according to students of color I spoke with. But the race stuff “just comes with being at a Southern prep school,” says sophomore Tyler Langhorn, a biracial student. Langhorn, like his president, embodies charisma, even while he handles a thorny question. He’s a damn dandy dresser in a bow-tie and green-checked shirt. He hands out programs while parents file into their commencement rows, and, at one point, turns to me: “Ma’am, you have a little leaf in your hair. If I may” — and then plucks it out with Rhett Butler charm. He adds, introspectively, with the perfect articulation of a Hampden-Sydney man, that he’s got both slave and KKK blood in him. “So I understand.”
This community insists on optimism when it comes to perfecting that union. They can see progress since the first black student arrived in the 1960s. Indeed, much has changed. A poignant example: On a campus built by slaves in the 1700s, one of the descendants of those slaves walked across the commencement stage six years ago, recounts Elizabeth Baker, who wrote her master’s thesis on black history at the college. What it comes down to: a black leader who can handle conversations about race in a mostly white environment is a promising leader. Couple that talent with a military background and a natural personability, and you can easily imagine Howard will soon be well-situated to make the run for office he never did in Dallas. He gets beyond code-switching — Howard’s life is genuinely multifaceted, making him, perhaps, a mouthwatering prospect for Southern Democrats.
It’s nowhere more visible than at that trustee dinner, where the Howards looked to be the only people of color (other than me, and possibly one other guest) in the room. Howard had joked: “When I told my mother I was coming to be the president of Hampden-Sydney College, her response was: ‘In Virginia?’” He laughed. A few minutes later came the quip: “So, I’m black,” he said, offhand. “I don’t know if you guys know. I waited seven years as president to tell y’all — I’m African-American!” The room chortled.
This article has been modified from an earlier version, which erroneously conflated the maximum financial aid available from federal Pell Grants with the amount available from the college.