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2016 Silver Anniversary Award winner: Chris Howard

The former Air Force student-athlete welcomes big challenges

Chris Howard, 2016 Silver Anniversary Award winner.

Chris Howard thrives on balancing multiple roles. The former student-athlete pursued graduate studies at Harvard University while serving in the Air Force Reserve. He founded a nonprofit while working in higher education. He is currently wrapping up his stint as the president of Hampden-Sydney College while preparing to take over as president of Robert Morris University.

Through it all, the retired Air Force lieutenant colonel found that adversity almost always precedes success. To him, Gen. Douglas MacArthur summed up that correlation best:  “Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that, upon other fields, on other days will bear the fruits of victory.”

“Life lessons learned on playing fields, football in particular, prepare you to be a better soldier, sailor, airman and human being,” Howard said. “Those lessons were learned in other places, but the gridiron was a big part of it.”

Growing

A halfback for the U.S. Air Force Academy, Howard and the Falcons reached back-to-back bowl games, including an upset over Ohio State in the 1990 Liberty Bowl, but it was Howard’s lowest moment that forged enduring bonds with his teammates. Five days before the first game of his senior year, Howard’s girlfriend of two years was killed in car accident. The Plano, Texas, native recalls many of his teammates attending the funeral and those closest to him serving as pallbearers. “The team was always with me,” he said.

After graduating in 1991, the Rhodes Scholar earned his doctorate in politics at Oxford University in England. During his summers at Oxford, he went through military training, and was once forced to eject from a fighter plane, an incident that led to knee surgery and extensive rehabilitation.

“I credit (football for) getting me through that,” Howard said. “You learn a level of mental toughness that stays with you.”

Learning

In 2001, Howard continued his education at Harvard Business School. He and his classmates worked on an independent study for an executive at the General Electric Co., which ultimately led to a job in the GE corporate initiatives group.

A week before graduating from Harvard Business School and before starting at GE, Howard was called up to active military duty. He served as an intelligence officer for U.S. forces in Afghanistan and was awarded the Bronze Star for his efforts there.

“Getting hit by a linebacker is tough, but getting shot at by the Taliban is even tougher,” Howard said. “I really had to apply that mental toughness, that sense of teamwork and discipline I used in football.”

After returning to GE, Howard was exposed to the company’s rigorous leadership training at the Jack Welch Center. Much like branches of the military prepare officers for the next rank, he said, GE prepares its employees in the same way for the next tier of leadership.

“It’s really an attitude about management and leadership,” Howard said. “It’s very data-driven and rigorous. It taught me that if you say you’re going to do something, do it.”

Serving

In 2005, Howard founded the Impact Young Lives Foundation, a nonprofit that provides South African students of color the opportunity to visit the U.S. for summer educational and cultural tours.

But he wanted to serve in other ways as well. Around the same time, Howard saw University of Oklahoma President David Boren while on a visit back to Oxford. The two kept in touch, and Boren eventually recruited Howard to Oklahoma. 

He spent four years as vice president for leadership and strategic initiatives at the school, where he created and directed the Honors College Leadership Center. Serving the top 10 percent of undergraduate students, the center was designed to accelerate pupils’ leadership abilities.

Leading

Through his work at Oklahoma, Howard realized he wanted to take on a larger role in the academic world. After researching top liberal arts institutions, he applied to become president at Hampden-Sydney.

The small, all-male, private institution was facing challenges when Howard took the reins in 2009. Enrollment had declined from 1,122 in 2008-09 to 1,057 in 2011-12, and the endowment had fallen from $142 million to $115 million.

Howard helped cut expenses and balance the college’s budget. His heavy involvement in recruiting and fundraising resulted in the third-largest enrollment in school history (1,105) by the 2014-15 academic year.

Increases in annual giving and fundraising led to a new student center and enhanced athletic facilities on campus. Plus, plans to renovate all classrooms and upgrade teaching technology have been put into motion. 

In September, eager for a new test, Howard was named the next president at Robert Morris, a Division I school with 5,000 more students.  

“I wanted to see if I could take my leadership capacity to another level in terms of scale and scope,” Howard said. “I’m looking forward to the challenge.” 

He always has.