Black President Stands Out At Mostly White College Just 40 years old, Chris Howard is Hampden-Sydney College's first black president. He comes with a resume most people can't match in a lifetime — and he's keeping his expectations high.
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Black President Stands Out At Mostly White College

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Black President Stands Out At Mostly White College

Black President Stands Out At Mostly White College

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GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

(Soundbite of bells)

The bells of Hampden-Sydney College chimed with tradition. They chime on the hour, and they chime between classes. This school is one of a handful of all-male liberal arts colleges left in America today. Its slogan is simple. It reads: Forming Good Men and Good Citizens Since 1776.

Those men include the sons of Patrick Henry and the leaders and children of the Confederate elite. Here, sartorial sensibility is taken seriously. At football games, for example, bow ties and jackets are preferred, and 93 percent of the young men here are white. But a small revolution is now underway at Hampden-Sydney.

Dr. CHRIS HOWARD (President, Hampden-Sydney College): That doesn't mean that we don't work like the Dickens on the annual fund�

RAZ: It's Wednesday morning, and Chris Howard, the new college president, leads a weekly senior staff meeting.

Dr. HOWARD: And secondly, I think that even with the economy having its challenges, I think that this is the kind of school that can do well. David, do you want to give us an update on�

Unidentified Man #1: �laundry list of things�

RAZ: Chris Howard sits at the head of the table. At 40 years old, he is one of the youngest college presidents in America.

Now, back in 1861, then-college president JMP Atkinson raised a company of Hampden-Sydney men to fight for the Confederacy. Now, nearly 150 years on, in Chris Howard, Hampden-Sydney has its first African-American president.

The staff meeting is always held in an old, single-room, clapboard house that was built around 1735. It has that musty smell of a different time and place. And when the meeting's over, Chris Howard takes us outside.

Dr. HOWARD: This building is powerful to me because it was the � in essence the original birthplace of the college, and it was on a plantation. And yet, someone who happens to be a great great grandson of a slave is the president of the institution. The history of that is just not lost on me.

RAZ: And this was probably a room where, 200 years ago, if you were allowed into the door, it wouldn't be through on the meeting.

Dr. HOWARD: Oh yeah, it wouldn't be the front door, now, would it? So it's humbling, but it's also inspirational. I keep the picture of my great great grandfather. It just wraps around beautifully and tells how much how far we've come.

RAZ: He was born a slave?

Dr. HOWARD: He was born a slave. He was Amos Howard. He lived to be 105 years old. I think he was 15 years old when the Civil War began and when it ended. So he was a very distinguished gentleman with a big silver mustache and who my father and most of my aunts and uncles knew.

He was a slave; he was chattel in Texas. And you know, that's part of my history. And to be a part of a place where that was begun in that time, in that era, but still has me as their titular head is really powerful.

Unidentified Man: How's it going, Dr. Howard?

Dr. HOWARD: Really well. How are you doing?

Unidentified Man #2: Good. Good to see you.

RAZ: On campus, Howard mixes easily with students not much younger than him. The occasional high five isn't off-limits. And at least twice a month, he convenes a lunchtime roundtable of student leaders to get some ground truth.

The young men seem genuinely at ease with a person whose pedigree might intimidate anyone. This afternoon, William Moss(ph), a student senator, makes a bold request for the homecoming football game.

Mr. WILLIAM MOSS (Student, Hampden-Sydney College): I've been approached by some friends who want a flyover, and they said can you talk to President Howard? I said, I'll see what I can do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. HOWARD: Going to the Air Force Academy, we had one every game. So I'm up. Let's just say that I wouldn't take it completely off the table, but I'm not promising anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: If anyone could make that flyover happen, it's Chris Howard. He was a star running back at Plano High School in Texas. He then went on to lead the team at the Air Force Academy. His senior year, Howard won the coveted Draddy Award, what some call the brainiac Heisman.

From the academy, it was a short leap to a Rhodes scholarship, a Ph.D. at Oxford, an MBA at Harvard Business School, and for his service in Afghanistan, Howard was awarded the Bronze Star.

At age 35, he was recruited by the University of Oklahoma to head up that school's honors college. And that eventually brought him here, to Hampden-Sydney, where I sat down with him in his office earlier this week.

In December of last year, Chris Howard was formally selected as the school's president in a ceremony at the Virginia Commonwealth Club in Richmond, a club that for much of its history was for whites only.

Dr. HOWARD: And as I was leaving, one of the gentlemen said, now, Dr. Howard, so do you do recognize that you are standing in front of a picture of Jefferson Davis, that you accept the presidency of Hampden-Sydney College? And I said, well, that's okay. I just passed by Bobby Lee on the way in and waved at him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. HOWARD: Now, I say this not to glorify the Civil War or the Confederacy. I'm only saying that we have a history in the South. The question is, and the question for our students, for our faculty, for our alumnus, how do you grow from there? And I want to be a person that symbolizes conversation, reconciliation and paying it forward.

RAZ: We're talking about a college that has educated seven of the sons of Patrick Henry, two Confederate generals, a school really steeped in the old South. Why did you decide to come here?

Dr. HOWARD: Because Churchill said there is but one race, and that's the human race. Sometimes you've got to peel down to the core what people stand for, and I think that Hampden-Sydney at its core, it's about honor, it's about civility, and that's not a white or black thing. That's just a good thing. And I am a guy who has lived in many different environments that have been multiracial, predominately black, predominately white, et cetera, et cetera.

I'll tell a quick story. My father was the first African-American industrial engineer at United Parcel Service. We were there in Arkansas for about three years. And then, in a predominately African-American environment, we moved to Plano when I was in fourth grade. As I walked into the room, I noticed something very significant: There were two black people, and one was leaving. That was my mom. So it was just me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. HOWARD: And the first thing they kids wanted to do is they wanted to touch my hair. They wanted to know: How different was I? But what you find yourself doing in an instance, when you happen to be the one who looks very different is you try to find some sort of common ground.

You know, coming to Hampden-Sydney is not different than a meeting on Wall Street or in corporate America where there may or may not be a lot of people of color, and I've been comfortable with that.

RAZ: The overwhelming majority of the student body here is white. This school has been described as the finishing school for Southern gentlemen. Is that a caricature you want to change?

Dr. HOWARD: I think the operative word is gentle man. Anything that speaks to being a gentle man, I think it's good and proper and just. It's we understand the Southern part of it. Well, you know, we don't do it the way that they did it when Madison and Henry were on the board of trustees. Some of those things are being refined and discussed and so forth and so on.

So what I'm focusing on is that last noun. It's almost like being an African-American, right? African is the adjective, but the noun is American. I never forget that. I never lose sight of that. So I guess when I come to Hampden-Sydney, I'm focusing on those precepts that no matter what, for boys, if their faculty, staff and teachers are helping them become gentle men, then I'm okay with that.

RAZ: Looking ahead, do you have any political ambitions?

Dr. HOWARD: I am not in a hurry to go anywhere. The board of trustees is a very savvy group, and they structured the contract in such a way that it makes sense for me to stay here, but I'm happy to stay here.

RAZ: Have political parties contacted you?

Dr. HOWARD: I have been contacted.

RAZ: Both parties.

Dr. HOWARD: Both sides of the aisle. I've been getting contacted by both sides of the aisle for the last 10 years or so.

RAZ: They don't know what you are, Democrat or Republican. They have no idea.

Dr. HOWARD: I'm an American, right? How corny is that. I mean, I'm just somebody that - you know, I would categorize myself as a moderate, and I - especially in this job, at the end of the day, my political affiliation doesn't make me a better president, and that's what I'm most concerned about right now.

RAZ: What do you want a kid graduating from Hampden-Sydney to say about Chris Howard in 10 years?

Dr. HOWARD: He really cared deeply about my soul. He cared deeply about the college and all of its constituencies. He helped us sort through and have a really civil conversation about some tough issues, and he raised a lot of money.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Chris Howard is the 24th president of Hampden-Sydney College in Farmville, Virginia. We spoke with him at his office here on campus.

Chris Howard, thank you.

RAZ: Thank you very much, Guy. I appreciate it. You're always welcome back.

(Soundbite of song, "The Hampden-Sydney Hymn")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Here's to old Hampden-Sydney, the garnet and the grey, and her sons by the thousands.

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