23 May 2018
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Christopher B. Howard, MBA 2003

2018 Alumni Achievement Award Recipient
by Susan Young

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President, Robert Morris University

When the head of the presidential search committee for Robert Morris University (RMU) came across Chris Howard’s résumé, he thought the search firm was testing him. Howard was a sitting college president, veteran, and Rhodes Scholar—with nonprofit and corporate experience, a Harvard MBA, and a doctorate from Oxford. “He seemed too good to be true,” says RMU Board Chair Rich Harshman.

“I am a reflection of all the people who have raised, coached, taught, and advised me.”
“I am a reflection of all the people who have raised, coached, taught, and advised me.”

Harshman took the bait and asked to interview Howard. When the candidate arrived, the search committee immediately understood that this was not a test. In addition to his stellar résumé, Howard brought an unexpected quality: charisma. He could relate to everyone they introduced him to—from students, faculty, staff, and parents at RMU to Pittsburgh’s business and cultural leaders. Needless to say, he got the job.

Howard’s walls in the RMU president’s office are filled with photos of him with everyday people—students, alumni, his wife, his two sons—as well as with notable faces from political and entertainment realms: Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, George Bush, Bill Clinton. “I have never been anywhere with Chris where half the people in the room did not already know him,” observes Harshman. Given his vast, varied experiences, Howard usually makes connections quickly when he meets people. His early interest in politics is no surprise in light of his natural ability to relate to others.

Howard grew up in East Texas, a region that he, the great-great-grandson of a slave, observes, “wasn’t necessarily the most racially progressive place in 1969.” The second son, he was born while his father was serving in Vietnam. His parents were both the first in their families to go to college. They met in high school, where his mother was the class valedictorian and his father was the salutatorian.

“My narrative is the American narrative,” observes Howard, who often thinks about his own path as compared with that of his ancestors. “Everybody before me wanted to have a better life,” he says, not just for themselves, but for their children. “The bar my parents set was not necessarily about ambition or achievement, but about respect,” he adds.

Howard excelled at both academics and football in high school and at the US Air Force Academy. While completing his military service, he went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and earned master’s and doctoral degrees. “I worked really hard,” he says of his time at Oxford. “I was sitting next to brilliant people who were smarter than me.”

It was on a 1993 trip to South Africa that Howard met Barbara Noble, a nursing student. “I looked at her and thought, ‘I’m going to marry that woman,’” and two years later, he did. The pair launched a nonprofit to help South African students, and, after Howard worked for Bristol-Myers Squibb, the couple and their two sons moved to the Boston area for business school.

Howard’s HBS experience expanded his already broad sights. “I left feeling emboldened and empowered,” he says. His plans to join the corporate world were initially sidelined by a call to serve in Afghanistan, but later he worked at General Electric before joining the president’s office at the University of Oklahoma. “My mantra was that I wanted to lead, to serve, to grow,” he says. Running a university met all three criteria, so in 2009 he took the helm of Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, and after seven years, he joined RMU.

“Chris is lifting the standards and the expectations of RMU, and he’s broadening our reputation and reach,” says Harshman. Clearly, Chris Howard is proving himself a strong choice to lead the almost 100-year-old university. Howard, too, sees it as a good fit. “The Pittsburgh community is a wonderful place,” he says. “It’s like Robert Morris University: big enough to matter, yet small enough to care.”

• Return to Alumni Achievement Awards main page

TIMELINE
1969 Born, Mt. Pleasant, Texas
1991 Earns BS, Political Science, US Air Force Academy
1995 Awarded Doctorate, Politics, Oxford University
1996 Completes Flight School as a helicopter pilot
1998 Founds Impact Young Lives Foundation
1999 Joins Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Corporate Associates Program
2003 Earns MBA with Distinction
2003 Inducted into the Verizon Academic All-American Hall of Fame
2003 Serves as Chief of Human Intelligence Operations Cell, Afghanistan; receives Bronze Star
2003 Joins General Electric’s Corporate Initiatives Group
2006 Named VP, University of Oklahoma
2009 Named President, Hampden-Sydney College
2010 Coauthors Money Makers: Inside the New World of Finance and Business
2016 Named President, Robert Morris University
2017 Appointed to College Football Playoff Selection Committee

Photo by Susan Young

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Class of MBA 2003, Section K
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