An Interview with Chris Howard

March 18, 2014
Tommy Shomo '69

President HowardChris Howard is in the fifth year as President of Hampden-Sydney College, and it is an appropriate time to reflect on those years.

On March 12, I sat down with President Howard to do just that, but before I relate that discussion it is worthwhile describing Hampden-Sydney on July 1, 2009.  The endowment had dropped 19%; the opening enrollment that August would be 1068, down 5%.  The 2009-2010 budget, which had been fashioned by the Board the previous spring, called for substantial belt tightening. 

Howard:  When I arrived on campus nearly five years ago, the Board had directed the elimination of a $1.8M deficit for 2009-10.  At the same time, families' ability to pay college costs had been devastated by the worst recession since the Great Depression.    Attracting and retaining the best students meant increasing financial aid, a point faculty made clear to me as I met with almost all of them during my first six months on campus.  More financial aid pushes up the discount rate.  However, in 2010 we increased scholarship and fellowship aid by over $1 million; by $1.5 million in 2011; by $1.9 million in 2012, and over $2 million this year.  The opening enrollment slipped by only 1% in 2010 and by only one student in 2011.  In 2012, the enrollment grew by 2%.  We saw a .9% drop in the opening enrollment this past August the result of reducing the discount rate for entering freshmen.

Note: "How The Cost Of College Went From Affordable To Sky-High,"  NPR Morning Edition, March 18, 2013
Note: "How America Pays for College," the 2013 survey by Sallie Mae found that grants and scholarships now fund the greatest share of college costs.

Please explain further what is meant by the discount rate.

Howard:  The discount rate refers to the amount of tuition and fees "discounted"  to students through scholarships and need-based financial aid.   I imagine that there has never been a time in the history of the College when we have not had to financially help some of our students.  Directly across from the door of my office hangs the portrait of Mr. P. T. Atkinson who was Treasurer of the College from 1919 to 1957.  There are still living alumni whom "Mr. P.T." helped with small sums in the informal way things were then done.    Today there is nothing small or informal about the process.  This year [2013-14] Hampden-Sydney will expend $22,409,208 in institutional funds for scholarships and fellowships.  That is 33.3% of the operating budget. 

What is the current status of the endowment?

Howard:  The estimated endowment market value at December 31, 2013, is $142.2M, almost matching the high $142.4M.  Our endowment investment policy is set by the Board of Trustees.  In 2009, the Finance Committee of the Board moved our investments under Spider Management Company which provides investment management services to endowments, one of which is the University of Richmond.   Spider Management has a specific charge to preserve capital.  The idea is to mitigate down-side risk but it also means you don't necessarily make out-sized gains.  We have taken a 5% draw (standard best practice for colleges of our size) in each of the last five years except one [2011-12] when we took a Board-approved additional draw of 2% for operations, including an across-the-board raise for faculty and staff.

Would you talk a little more about faculty and staff compensation?

Howard:  In the summer of 2010, I had a meeting with faculty and staff to announce an across-the-board pay cut of 1.54%.  I was happy that after that year's opening enrollment was established we were able to restore almost all the cut, but you can imagine the initial impact on morale.  In the last four years, all faculty and staff have had two pay raises - 2% in 2011-12 and 2% in 2013-14. Even in the years when faculty and most staff did not receive raises, we provided raises to our lowest paid employees.   In the last four years, faculty who were granted tenure received the commensurate raises, and no sabbaticals were denied for financial reasons.

Enough good cannot be said in praise of the men and women who make Hampden-Sydney what it is.  We have tried to assure that, although budgets are tight, we allocate sufficient resources to retain and attract high-quality faculty and to support their work.  Our tenure-track faculty turnover rate for the last ten years is less than 1.5% for non-retirees.  Professors like Kristian Hargadon '01, James Janowski, Sarah Hardy, Mike Wolyniak, and Alex Werth are publishing in the top journals and taking our students with them to conferences.   Student travel stipends  are requested by faculty and to date this year every request to include student travel to academic conferences has been funded by the Provost.  We are enormously proud of the achievements of our entire faculty.

Let's turn to over-all budget priorities.

Howard:  Scholarships and fellowship are 33.3% of the 2013-14 operating budget, making them our largest expenditure.  Second is instruction at 18.2% and to this should be added 3.9% for academic support which includes the library and computing center thus totaling 22.1%.  For comparison, Athletics [varsity and intramural} is 3.7%.   In the last five years scholarships and fellowships have increased by 45.7%.  In the same period total current revenues increased by 12.3%.  Individual allocations are always going to be subject to debate, but the two realities are that student aid is and will continue to be our greatest expense and instruction and academic support our first priority.

Please talk about the College's fund-raising.

Howard:  When I arrived, the College had just successfully completed a $100M capital campaign.  That substantial undertaking temporarily tapped out our donor base.  Many campaign gifts were made in five-year pledges and when the economy went sour, some donors had to stretch those pledges to eight years.  Feeling the impact of the economy, the College had to focus on the Annual Fund, now called the Hampden-Sydney Fund, which supports annual operations.   Current fund gifts (unrestricted and restricted combined) were $3,123,470 on June 30, 2009.  At the end of the next fiscal year, they increased to $3,181,443, for 2011 another increase to $3,460,465, for 2012 another increase to $4,054,631.  The last fiscal year was a paradox, the amount given dropped to $3,756,296 but the percentage of alumni donors was the highest in six years.  The increase in alumni donors is attributable to the CASE [Council for Advancement and Support of Education] award-winning "3000 Alumni Strong" campaign.

However, there is more to annual fund raising than the Hampden-Sydney Fund.   If you add gifts to the endowment, the physical plant and annuities/life funds, total annual giving was $11,320,944 the third highest total in the history of the College.   

I recognize the importance of the Hampden-Sydney Fund, but the College faces some significant capital needs.

Howard: As you know, in 2011 we completed the Ty Cobb Baseball Park, a project paid for in-full by the donors.  Also In 2011 the Wilson Center was expanded and remodeled providing meeting space for over 250 students  each semester.  There are now 115 students enrolled in Wilson Center programs.  We exceeded our goal of $1.6 million to renovate most academic class rooms on campus. The phased renovation will be completed in 2018.  Architects are currently working on a plan for a phased renovation of Winston Hall, which will provide greatly enhanced facilities for art, music, and photography.  $1M has been raised for this project.  We have a matching grant to substantially fund the design work on new science facilities.  Three million dollars is in hand for the new student center.    The renovation of Winston is a manageable project; the new student center is an achievable goal; new science facilities are a significant challenge.  We will see progress in the next two years on these capital projects.  The Strategic Plan approved by the Board in November 2011 calls for completion by 2020.

Howard with StudentLet's turn away from dollars and talk about students.  How many come here and how many stay?

Howard:  Enrollment numbers are critical.  Tuition and fees account for approximately three-fourths of the total cost of a student's education.  That has not changed in decades.  The freshman class that entered in August after I arrived in 2009 numbered 295, the smallest since 2000.  The freshman class entering in 2010 rose to 315; entering in 2011, 320: entering in 2012, 342, second highest in the history of the College.  Last August we dropped to 292 as a result of lowering the discount rate for freshmen. In the past four years, applications have increased by 15.5% and the acceptance rate declined by 1.1%.  For the freshman class entering in 2014, applications have exceeded 3500; that is the largest number in the history of the College. We anticipate a class of 310.  In the last four freshman classes we have seen a slight increase in high school GPAs and Mean SAT Composite scores.  

The graduation rate is the other part of the enrollment equation.  Anita Garland and her staff do a terrific job recruiting each freshman class only to see a third of them melt away over four years.  This is heartbreaking because every young man who is accepted by Hampden-Sydney is capable, with effort, of graduating.  It is not that our graduation rate is low but that it is lower than we want it to be.  In fact the graduation rate for Hampden-Sydney men is 11% higher than the national six-year average for men at all colleges and universities. Hampden-Sydney's graduation rate has averaged 66% in the last five years and 65% in the last 10.  The Strategic Plan calls for a graduation rate of 72% by 2020.

We don't improve the graduation rate by helping more juniors become seniors, which is too late.  The graduation rate is improved by helping more freshmen become sophomores and more sophomores become juniors.   The Strategic Plan calls for an emphasis on the first and second year experience.  To this end we have launched the Good Men Plan (GMP) and the Sophomore Vocational Reflection Project.  This is the first year for the GMP and the second for Sophomore Vocational Reflection.  We are working on the assumption that before a young man can determine what he wants to do as a career, he needs to understand what kind of man he is or wants to become and how that realization will shape his choices.  This is the essence of a liberal arts education, but Hampden-Sydney believes that reflection is legitimately conducted outside as well as inside the classroom.  The GMP and Sophomore Vocational Reflection stress the interdependence of talents, values, and vocation.  What am I good at and enjoy?  What do I value?  What is my calling?  Answering these questions provides an incentive for a student to succeed academically if we help him see a clear relationship between the classroom and his calling. 

What about after graduation?

Historically, about 50% Hampden-Sydney men go to graduate school within five years of graduation.  This is still true and, frankly, I believe that percentage will increase.

The College has numerous cooperative programs [13] and graduate business agreements [5].  A few are at the undergraduate level but all are designed to enhance professional preparation or advancement.  Four of the graduate business agreements [William & Mary, Duke - Fuqua, UVA - Darden School, Wake Forest] have been negotiated in the past four years.

The Noel-Levitz Student Satisfaction Inventory indicated a desire for more Career Education services and opportunities.  We provide practical job-search instruction through the recently instituted Professional Development Institute (PDI).  A number of career specific guides call Tiger Tracks were created at my direction  by Drew Prehmus '08.  These are used both in recruiting, advising, and career education.

However, I really believe that the best pre-professional program offered at Hampden-Sydney, or anywhere else, is the Rhetoric Program.  That is certainly what our alumni tell us.  Hampden-Sydney does not just offer rhetoric, we require it.

NOTE: "The Atlantic" Focuses on H-SC Rhetoric Program

What is the Noel-Levitz Student Satisfaction Survey?

Noel-Levitz is a highly respected higher education consulting firm which is working with Hampden-Sydney on service excellence and student engagement.  They conducted a survey of our students to determine those areas students consider of high importance and how satisfied students are in those areas. Their findings will, among other things, help us best utilize the new student center. 

Before we leave the topic of students, I would like to ask about diversity?

NOTE:  All statistics used above are public and can be found in the 2013-14 Fact Book.

President Howard & Barbara HowardWhen you were hired, the Board mandated that you "raise the College's profile."  How have you done that? 

Howard: One way is to affiliate with organizations, such as National Security Education Program Board,  the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Olmstead Foundation, known for excellence and populated with key opinion leaders from across civil society.  Hampden-Sydney College's name on the masthead of these groups has helped to achieve the Board's mandate.  In the last five years I have not agreed to any affiliation without making it clear that the duties involved cannot conflict with my obligations to the College.  Modern technology allows me to be in touch with College staff no matter where I am.   

It is not unusual for a college president to serve on the board of another institution as I serve on the board of Baylor University.  The networking opportunities for our College are many, for example on the recommendation of a fellow Baylor board member who personally contacted the headmaster, I was invited to speak at Episcopal High School, a top prep school in Houston.

My work with the Aspen Institute led to my moderating a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which was the inspiration for our "What Works" initiative. 

I am asked to be a guest speaker for many civic, religious, educational, and business groups.  Speaking engagements serve as opportunity to get the word out about Hampden-Sydney.  My talks about leadership, character, and the purpose of higher education reference the College and the great things happening on the Hill. 

I have spoken at over 55 public and private high schools in nine states to hundreds of potential students.   All honoraria I have received for such speaking engagements have been donated to the College.

Very quickly, what is "What Works"?

Howard: I think that as a men's college, Hampden-Sydney needs to be a national thought leader about the education of boys and young men.  Right now "What Works" is a booklet in production, a conference July 25th in planning, and various other ideas in development.  It is a little early to talk about it now, but when we do start talking about it, we believe a great many people will listen.

Where at Hampden-Sydney have you made an impact?

Howard: We talked earlier about the big challenges.  Some of the smaller things which I have helped to accomplish are important to me because they had a direct impact on individuals.  The "Philanthropy in Theory and Practice" taught by Dr. Saranna Thornton was funded by Doris Buffett's Learning by Giving Foundation and benefited our students and the Prince Edward County Community. The Berwick Endowed Scholarship, which benefits John Wirges '15, developed through Aspen Institute connections.  Ken Simon'11 and Akbar Salaam'12 had fellowships at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.   Five Hampden-Sydney students were selected for the College Leaders Program at the Sorenson Institute.  Dr. John Eastby was able to participate with several H-SC students in a program at the French- American  Foundation, and John attended a workshop at the Council on Foreign Relations.  Ben Durham '14 had a summer technology internship at the Olmsted Foundation; Dontae Buck '15 attended  the Character Education Partnership  at the Air Force Academy, and Nathan Shepherd '14 and Diego Velasco '14 attended the 2013 McDonald Cadet Leadership Conference at the United States Military Academy at West Point.  These initiatives are important to me but I realize that only by looking back from  future years is it is possible to assess what has had a significant impact on an institution as old as Hampden-Sydney.

We have talked about budgets and buildings, students and dollars, how do you feel about the College?

Group at MiddlecourtOn the day almost six years ago when I came to Hampden-Sydney after my first interview, I just knew it was special.  Since then I have learned from committed faculty and staff, engaged alumni, and involved students that there is no place like the Hill.

This is my family's home.   A few years ago, Barbara said something about our young men, and I thought she was referring to our two sons.  It took me a few minutes to realize she was referring to our students.  We love the students that much.

Love matters.  What also matters is the deep and abiding respect and appreciation we have for this unique place.  I never cease trying to do my best for Hampden-Sydney.   I am always on the move, networking, connecting, and talking.  Those on the receiving end of my comments may think I am trying to set a record for mentioning Hampden-Sydney in a single conversation. 

I am also listening to the comments, criticisms, and concerns of all those who are deeply committed to this College. 

It takes time to establish relationships - professional and personal - and there are always missteps in the process.  I am sincerely grateful for the devotion and work of the men and women of the Hampden-Sydney faculty and staff.  They are my colleagues in every sense.  Hampden-Sydney students are young men of honor, intelligence, ability, and potential.  I respect their individuality and support them as they make the final transition into manhood without shirking my obligation to help guide that course. 

I am lucky I found Hampden-Sydney.