Personalities of Pittsburgh: Robert Morris University's Christopher Howard
Friday, July 29, 2016
Christopher Howard is the eighth president of Robert Morris University. His background is not one of a typical academic administrator. He has served in the U.S. Air Force and earned a bronze medal for his service in Afghanistan. He cut his teeth in corporate America at General Electric and Bristol-Myers Squibb. He also played football at the college level and earned the William V. Campbell Trophy, the nation’s highest academic honor for a senior college football player.
How does your experience in the Air Force help you as a college president?
Christopher Howard, president, Robert Morris University
I think there are several areas where there is some overlap. … [One] is the ability to kind of compartmentalize. You spend some pretty stressful times and then you have to get into an airplane and you can’t bring all that chaos into the cockpit with you. … You have to say, “OK, let me put this in another room for now, so I can compartmentalize, or focus, and then I can bring it back into focus when I need to.” That’s very useful when dealing with a very complex organization in a university. … You’re raising money in this place this year; you’re losing money in that place. You have to compartmentalize that. … So, I’m in my seventh year as a president, and people bring you very interesting news, and so your ability to absorb that news and not to let it overwhelm you is important because if you’re receiving the news, everybody is looking at you, and they’re wondering what’s going to happen? And how is the boss going to react to this?
You’re still unpacking your office. What was the most important thing you unpacked?
Before the main stuff came up last week, it was in storage. I had brought some personal effects that I had to have with me. There’s a picture of my family. … There’s a picture of my boys, there’s a picture of me and my wife.
The other [picture] is when I was named president of Robert Morris; it was almost like I got drafted to the NBA. I had a lot of fun with it, and people were great. So there’s a picture of me with an RMU hat. Those are the four items that I took with me when I first came to the office. Obviously, the family means so much. … There’s my boys separately, and my wife and I and our affection and love for each other — you need a separate picture of that. The RMU picture was cool because I thought that it’s all about RMU. It’s all about the hat. … My wife teased me. She said, “You’re not going to the NBA, Chris. You’re going to RMU.”
What are your hobbies?
I like to read. I’m an avid reader. Love listening to jazz music. Love travel. Love spending time with my family, with our dog Sammy. … He’s a mix beagle, rat terrier, kind of hound, and he’s named after Sam Bradford from the Philadelphia Eagles because Sam was one of my students at the University of Oklahoma and he was a quarterback — a Heisman Trophy quarterback — and one of my students. So, our dog is named after Sammy.
If you didn’t have this job, and you could have any other job instead, what would you do?
U.S. ambassador to South Africa. That’s pretty specific, isn’t it? My wife is South African, and we’ve been bringing kids over from South Africa for almost a decade. … Virtually everything I’ve done in my professional life I’ve tied back to South Africa. … I think that diplomacy is important. I think Africa is important. I think that South Africa is sort of the United States of Africa. From a strategic standpoint, I think it’s a very, very important relationship.
If you look back on the next five years and view your time at RMU as a success, what will that look like?
We are now a Carnegie-classified national research doctoral granting university, and I want us to be, in its full glory, a national research university, which means that you’re drawing people from geographies near and far. We knew that to some extent now we want to do more of that. We want our research portfolio to grow, but I’ve been saying to the staff for a while, I want us to remain big enough to matter but small enough to care.
I want us to continue to successfully be the preferred partner for corporations in the region. In terms of some of the research opportunities, … we do very well in that category, so I want some more of that. … I also want us to be more diverse in terms of gender. I want us to be more diverse in terms of the ethnicity of the students who attend here, the people who work here as faculty and staff. And I want Robert Morris to be thought of in the same breath as the great universities in the country, but especially in this region.
When you announced you’re becoming a national research university, you mentioned that it changes how you’re ranked in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Is moving up in college rankings important to you?
I think the U.S. News & World Report rankings are sort of flawed, yet popular. … Any measure is going to be somewhat flawed. But they indicate, they help people discern what they want to do, what they think they want to do and where there’s quality and where there’s excellence. But what I do like about the U.S. News & World Report rankings is the categories that you’re trying to do well in, we should be thinking about. … We should be thinking about graduation, retention rates. We should be thinking about our endowment. We should be thinking about acceptance rates.
See the original article in the Pittsburgh Business Journal.
Title: President, Robert Morris University
Education: B.S., political science, U.S. Air Force Academy; M.B.A., Harvard Business School; D. Phil., politics, University of Oxford
Experience: Prior to joining RMU, Howard was president for six years of Hampden-Sydney College, a private, liberal arts college for men in Virginia. Before that, he spent 21 years with the U.S. Air Force — eight active duty and 13 in the reserves — and served as vice president for leadership and strategic initiatives at the University of Oklahoma. Additionally, he has worked for General Electric and Bristol-Myers Squibb.