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Higher Ed Athletics Podcast: Robert Morris’ Dr. Chris Howard

Guest Dr. Chris Howard (Robert Morris)
23:28 min listen
Travis Smith is joined by Robert Morris University President Dr. Chris Howard on the Higher Ed Athletics podcast. Smith and Dr. Howard discuss presidential oversight in the NCAA governance model and Dr. Howard shares his thoughts on how cash in the system has led us to the Name, Image and Likeness moment. As his term is now complete, Dr. Howard talks about the perspective a university president can provide to the College Football Playoff selection committee while also being honest about the limitations of options with so few Division I presidents having football experience. Howard ends the conversation with advice for both university presidents and athletic directors so that each can better understand one another’s role in American higher education.


1:30 – Why did you decide to pursue a college presidency?
4:00 – Did you ever consider being a college athletic director instead given your background?
6:00 – Explaining the role of a university president in the NCAA governance model
7:00 – Thoughts on Name, Image and Likeness
9:00 – Joining the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics
12:30 – What type of perspective can a university president bring to the College Football Playoff Selection Committee?
15:45 – Advice to institutional presidents on the role of college sports in American higher education
19:30 – Advice to athletic directors on how to stay current with higher education outside of athletics


Full Transcript


Travis Smith: You’re listening to the Higher Ed Athletics podcast where I focus on current events and governance in both higher education and intercollegiate athletics by having thought-provoking conversations with industry experts and leaders. Thanks for listening to the Higher Ed Athletics podcast with Travis Smith. Thanks for listening to the Higher Ed Athletics podcast presented by Athletic Director U. Today I’m joined on the phone by Dr. Chris Howard. Dr. Howard is the president of Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and serves on both the College Football Playoff Selection Committee as well as the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. Thanks for being with me today, Dr. Howard.


Chris Howard: Oh, it’s my pleasure, Travis. Happy to be doing this.


Travis Smith: Before we get into the questions, I just want to give our audience a kind of a glimpse into your, your resume highlights which is really impressive background for a university president, distinguished graduate of the United States Air Force Academy where you’re also an academic All-American running back, and winner of the Campbell Trophy given to the nation’s top football scholar athlete, also known to a lot of people as the Academic Heisman, a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford, studying a doctorate in politics, an MBA with a distinction from Harvard Business School, and earned a bronze star for service in Afghanistan. I believe you’re both a pilot and intelligence officer, so very impressive resume and we’re really happy to have you on the podcast with your ties to both higher ed and intercollegiate athletics. I want to first start asking with what made you, with all these things I just highlighted, made you want to become a university president. At what point did you kind of know that that’s what you want to do next?


Chris Howard: Well, I like to tell people that ask that question that I woke up when I was five years old, and I said, “By the time I’m 39, I’m going to be the president of then Hampden-Sydney College. But that would be a lie, because I did not come to this conclusion when I was five years old. I did come to the conclusion that I like to help people, to support people, to mentor would have been a strong word when I was very young, but I just was in the sort of the helping people achieve their… what they wanted to achieve business and it was very, very near and dear to my heart. And as time went on, one of the ways it manifested itself was getting into higher education. I also like to solve problems, and I like to solve problems for society at large. I had some time in corporate America later on and I enjoyed that. But I wanted to tackle some of the tough issues and then support young people. I ended up at Oxford on the Rhodes Scholarship, as you mentioned, when I left the Air Force Academy, and I, and I ran into Skip Gates, Professor Skip Gates from Harvard University, he was a very urbane, sophisticated professor, and I remember talking to him and really… at the Air Force Academy most of our professors were military, they were in uniform just like me when I was in uniform as a cadet. And when I saw Professor Gates, I thought, wow, maybe one day I could, I could be in higher education sort of full time. I was in no rush. I was enjoying my Air Force career. Between that, and then going back, going… leaving the military, going into business, doing some work with a nonprofit side and talking to a guy named Ben Dunlap, who was the president of Wofford College about the prospect of going on higher education. And I’ll never forget what he said. He said, “Travis, we need you here yesterday. You’re a practitioner. You’re an academic. You’re a pracademic. You can bring the practical experiences of the real world. You have some distinguished degree from some great institutions around the world. We need you yesterday.” And then shortly thereafter, I ended up leaving industry General Electric and going into higher education as a vice president at the University of Oklahoma.


Travis Smith: That’s, I think, bringing the practitioner side of it too is very well known by looking at this that you bring a lot of experience. And I have to be curious, though, about what you just mentioned, how those… how you like to solve problems. And, and given that in your background, were you ever thinking you might actually want to be an athletic director or oversee athletics at some scale before you decided to pursue a university president? Because obviously now you’re doing that anyways in your role, but I am always interested in people that kind of go into the leadership roles and likes to solve problems and then your corporate background, was, did that ever cross your mind that maybe being a big-time college athletic director might be something you’d be interested in before you got to this route?


Chris Howard: Now, that’s way too difficult a job. I mean, who would want to be an AD? That’s, that’s real work. This presidency stuff is much easier. Just kidding. I… it’s a very good question. I did not think about it directly. I, I was thinking about leadership at higher administration and education administration. I wanted to teach. I knew I wanted to be around the athletic program. Even when I was at Oklahoma, I used to teach a class for honors eligible student athletes, including Sam Bradford was one of my students; Kendall Dye, who’s on the LPGA, some other really good student athletes, and I wanted to be around it and leverage it and be a part of my experience, but I didn’t think about the AD part specifically. It’s been a lot of fun having work with, now, four ADs as a president, two at Hampden-Sydney College, D-III school. Now, my second AD here, Chris King here at the Robert Morris, but I never quite thought about going that route.


Travis Smith: Well, I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that presidents overall across the NCAA actually are the decision makers at the national level of policy and, and kind of, they are the NCAA, your institutions. And by leading those institutions, presidencies have a large role in that. The NCAA is facing its fair amount of challenges. I think you could say as a university president, yourself, what role do you see you and your president colleagues, having and working with the NCAA and government, maybe, to address these issues like name, image and likeness, how will… what kind of role do you think that you all will be playing in that in the future?


Chris Howard: Well, as you intimated before, we are the deciders. I mean, the NCAA charter is one that, in fact, it’s run by a former university president, two-time president, Mark Emmert, who ran Washington and LSU. We are the folks that set the bylaws. It’s a membership organization, and the way that the principles of the NCAA are laid out, and I’m also on the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which pushed years ago to say that ultimately, what’s decided in an athletic program comes from the presidents and the chancellors. So, like you said, they are we, we are they in terms of us as members of the NCAA being as important as a staff in Indianapolis, and presidents having kind of a pole position in all that. In terms of name, image and likeness, I think we’re just kind of at an inflection point in terms of what’s happening in higher… happening in college athletics. You know, the numbers have gotten so high in certain parts of the business, the business of sports that is, would the cost football playoff itself and that, I just picked the games and picked the, the rankings, I’m not on the management side, but is a, is a participant observer on the, on the management side, as a participant observer in the, in the whole membership part, I watched the dollars and CFP and how significant they are. And it is changing… the dollars are so great, it’s really, you know, kind of having the business almost eclipse the student athlete piece. By the same token that I put my Nike mission hat on I think about smaller schools like us majors, working very, very hard to remain relevant is to make very very smart strategic decisions and not bankrupt yourself whilst you’re trying to be competitive and there’s a tension there you you don’t want to walk away from it completely, but you have to be careful that That there’s differences in the smaller programs in the mid in the larger programs and trying to suss that out is the new reality that you put inside of that the student athletes, especially the ones playing the big revenue, sports, and having a sense of equity and fairness in terms of how they’re treated. We’ve taken some steps in the right direction in terms of full cost of attendance. I think that’s the right thing to do. And name image and likeness. I don’t have the right answer, but I know we have. We’re asking the right question. I have full faith and confidence and in the folk like Marc Emery gene Smith was on the committee with a CFP has been part of that name, image and likeness committee to come up with the right recommendations. But, you know, the song goes, a lot of times they are changing and we can’t do things precisely like we did 10 years ago with the impact of the CFP dollars and with the advent of social media, and just the glaring amount of dollars that are going into athletics and making sure that our student athletes, especially in revenue generating sports are not treated fairly.


Travis Smith: Well, you mentioned the knight Commission on intercollegiate athletics. So how long have you been on there? What’s that process like for you invited or you just get the opportunity to join that? And then it’s really an impressive roster of university presidents that are involved in that. But what has that experience been like? Just overall and the types of conversations you all have being part of that, that kind of committee?


Chris Howard: Well, I think about getting on a CFP been asked to join that being asked to join the Knight Commission is the old saw that first off is what you know, in life, then it’s who you know, and then it’s who knows you and respects you so I got tapped on the shoulder to join an occupation. As you as you know, you said it is a wonderful distinguished group of about two years. Arnie Duncan is one of the Carol Cartwright the former president at Kent State and already Duncan, the former secretary of education that the CO chairs they do a fine job and it’s been a great group of leaders in athletics and including David Robinson was on there with me for a while. Myron roll It really is an honor to be around the table and I kind of alluded to some of the things we work on the knight commission is is trying to make sure that the student athlete is, is alive and kicking today the student part is is more important than the athlete, part of the athlete part is important. The student part is more important. And what can we do systematically through the NCAA and other mechanisms and entities to make sure that the student athlete is is treated fairly and has the right kind of safe and sort of prosperous experience whilst they’re while they’re attending school. So it meets about two or three times a year. We’re kind of in an interesting time as we’re rethinking our strategy in the 21st century. And, you know, one of my heroes Theodore Hesburgh, who was a president at Notre Dame was one of the founders of the knight commission, Gerald Turner, friend of mine, who was the president of SMU, so you’ve been a part of it. Dr. Friday, who ran the University of Maryland system I think was also an associate very distinguished group that has to bring perspective to sport. years ago it was trying to make sure that we had issues of, you know, academics being first and foremost in the student athlete’s life. And now we’re thinking about everything from safety and well being to just like you said before name image and likeness in the in the in the significant amount of money that’s being poured into college board and making sure that the student athlete doesn’t get run over in the process.


Travis Smith: Yeah, and I think one thing that’s great about the knight commission is, for one, it gets you a little bit outside of the NCAA where you can kind of have maybe different types of conversations with the people on the commission, but also the two or three times that you all do me it’s actually recorded and streamed and audience can actually watch and look at the dialogue actually goes on in the thought provoking discussions, that I think the NCAA is very transparent. People need Go into a.org instead of com, they’ll see pretty much everything from the association is there. That is the one thing that I wish they would adopt the knight Commission does is these committee hearings and meetings are actually video recorded and posted. I think that would even be more transparent for people that realize there’s a lot of people that know what they’re talking about, such as yourself that are on these commissions and committees. And I think that would go a long way with the transparency. Now we’ve talked about university presidents and I did notice that correct me if I’m wrong, you are the only one on the CFP selection committee that the university president now you’re rolling off, you obviously have a huge football background being a former former running back at the Air Force. But what kind of perspective Do you think just overall knowing what a university president has to deal with? And what kind of perspective Do you think a university president can bring to that environment? Because I think what has happened is you have Rob Mullins has to sit out when Oregon’s Or gene Smith has to sit out at Ohio State in the conversation whenever he was on the committee. Do you think a university president brings something like that where they wouldn’t have to necessarily be that attached as an athletic director? So what kind of his perspective there do you think?


Chris Howard: Well, you know, the people that have to recuse themselves, recused himself not just because we’re athletic directors, but because they have a financial connection to the institution. So for example, if I remember correctly, I know coach RC Slocum, for example. This is all public is, still has an affiliation with Texas A&M. So he has a he’s a Yeah, he’s a former coach and a temporary at intermedia I think for a while but he’s having to recuse himself because of the financial connections to annelle not because he’s a sitting ad. But having said that, your comment Travis about perspective I think is a good one. So you know when you when you have any deliberative process, isn’t it nice to have people with different backgrounds come in the room to talk and now they need to have You know, working knowledge of which side of the football is up. I think that’s critically important. But, you know, coaches bring a perspective at bringing perspective and as a president, I think that you know, dealing with complex issues on a regular basis, trying to make sure people read some sort of consensus. Chewing through data and information is very, very important. Interesting enough, not a lot of D one. football players have gone on to lead universities with Dean one programs. I’m one, Bud Peterson who used to run Georgia Tech. He just stepped down actually with the chairman of the board at the NCAA, the NCAA as well. He played at Kansas, General Benny p at played at BMI. He was the dean Mills Institute, and a guy named Taylor regally played tackle at Princeton and it runs along with university they don’t have football but they are D one school. So the pickings are a little slim, no offense to any of those guys I’ve listed in terms of people who’ve actually played the one football that are that are university presidents, but I said to your point, having different perspectives around the room is very, very important, I think helps us come up with a better a better list of better writings that we then if we had done it otherwise.


Travis Smith: Yeah, I can just imagine having a university president, they’ve made it really clear at the NCAA, that it’s important for former university president to run kind of the association with with Mark Emmert and miles brand. Before that, and seems like having one on the CFP selection committee. There’s just been so much presidential leadership in college sports, and so hopefully, they’ll be another one as you’re rolling off, and I’m sure you’re really excited to see how the games play out now that you all are done the hard work of putting that, that selection together. How about last two questions are really kind of similar, but really just one different audience. So if you could send a message or advice to other college university presidents that into high schools You just mentioned how there’s not a lot of former football players, for example, but you know, most of them need to know a pretty good thing about intercollegiate athletics. But they have a lot of you have a lot of your players university president, but if you could tell into a school president’s some advice, what would you tell them to try and understand why college athletics can and should fit an American higher education? Because it is unique. We’re the only country that does it this way. So what would kind of advice for them just to understand the athletic component, what maybe you learned from it, and why it’s so valuable for American that higher education?


Chris Howard: Well, there’s an old saying that it’s the front porch of the university. I think Bobby Bowden, I said that Florida State as a coach, I think he’s right. When I speak to the teams here, and I’ve done over the years, I’ll say things like, well, so women’s basketball team, you know, you might be the only person from Robert Morris University that they ever meet or come in contact with you on the football team you on the lacrosse team. So you’re, you’re the front porch. You’re an ambassador. So take that Opportunity seriously and take it as an honorable opportunity to, to show to show our stuff I will you can port yourself. Also think that is from university president standpoint, recognize the draft letter programs like to like food coloring and water, you know, you put it in there and it’s it’s a small, it could be a small percentage but it’s going to impact the entire vessel. So you know if even if you didn’t grow up playing or being deeply involved in athletics, the modern construct of athletics today with social media and hypermedia, it’s over and so on, and institutional risk and opportunity. You should be you’d be well served to become more and more versed with with it just from a just from a leadership and sort of strategy sort of standpoint. In terms of you know, that I did that only America has this this form of sports. You know, I’ve been all over it. I studied in England. I was been Israel. In France, I mean, I’ve been been all over the world and you’re right. They don’t do it that way. But there’s a there’s something about there’s actually an article about this about the breather Corps and the, the sense of camaraderie and the sense of team spirit of school spirit that comes from an athletic program that actually does translate to other ways of alumni that people supporting your institution. I’m not here to say that you’ve got to have a top tier football team to get money for your science program. But there’s been some studies that show that there’s this, an almost, a spiritual connection made to a university because of the sharing the, the joy the athletic program that that you know, it’s hard to match. I got here after Robert Morris University to beat Kentucky but in my office, I have the seat of the coach of when we beat Kentucky basketball. If you go to our bad to basketball arena, you see that that Almost mythical story told of how, how David slay Goliath as being David and that story. So there’s there’s some soul craft stuff and sport that President can leverage to make a sense of community, real palpable. And then there’s also just understand that, hey, if you’re not on top of it, if you don’t understand it, you’re in control of it, it can control you and bad things can happen.


Travis Smith: Yeah, and let’s, let’s flip it now the audience so a lot of the audience or AthleticDirectorU, for example, and that listen to the higher at athletics podcast, or either current new or aspiring athletic directors. And so this kind of question is, from someone that is overseeing an athletic director, what would you urge those people to understand about higher education, maybe the at their own institution type when they’re looking at it? Any tips to make sure that they keep their athletic programs as an athletic director aligned with the institution’s overall mission really understand the vision of their president? What what do they need to be on the lookout for when they’re trying to step into that AD chair?


Chris Howard: Well, first off, figure out what the university’s mission and vision and strategic plan are, are moving toward the institution doing. So be well versed in, you know, and I think our athletic director here, Chris King does a fine job of this is understanding what it is we’re trying to be and do and accomplish full stop. And then we’re athletic fits into that as opposed to, you know, let’s do athletics to the hilt And oh, by the way, there’s a university across the street, right? I think if you if you get the carpet horse for the horse in that way, bad things can happen. Again, I said before, it’s a student athlete experience, and all your athletes are students first. And so if you don’t spend some time getting into that, which is you know, from a practical standpoint, if you are strategic plan has already been done, you should know it very well and not just your part and if the strategic plan is not being is being written while you’re there, whether you be coming up the ranks and athletic administration, or if you are the ad, you want to be in the strategic planning process, and not just the athletics messages, the athletics part, you should be volunteering to do other parts in the enterprise to figure out how all weaves together. And so I think that’s very, very important to to think about that. And also, in terms of your reading, I get to do one tracker from time to time but I think Athletic Director U should be reading inside higher education in the chronicle of higher education as well. And it’s not just reading about stories about athletics can understanding, overarching sort of where higher education is going. It’s there’s some tough times out there for most universities out there, tough times out there in terms of financials and what have you. And athletics are not an inexpensive enterprise. They’re important, but they’re not inexpensive. So the more athletic director understand how he or she fits into that enterprise and how we’re allocation is headed, they’re going to be Much, much better leader in the space.


Travis Smith: I think it’s great that you alluded to the inside higher ed and Chronicle of Higher Education, I’m unfortunate to have description for those to be able to read those and I, I try to tell athletic administrators that an aspiring assistant athletic directors as such that they need to be reading those, but you are going to learn a lot about higher education itself and, and be able to look at that, but I think that’s a great way to end it on some advice. And I want to just take a minute to thank you for being on the podcast. Someone’s your, your impressive resume as university president as a, as a veteran and, and also kind of dipping into the athletic component. Hopefully, we’ll see you on some more national committees. Now that you’re rolling off the, the selection committee, but I wanted to thank you for taking the time to be on the Higher Ed Athletics podcasts.


Chris Howard: Well, I appreciate it. I just rotated an off CFP. That’s my last year and I just joined effective today. All right, I’ll be effective in March I guess. The American Council on Education Board so I’m a glutton for punishment, but I see these things on a wonder. You know, I will get that done at once before. And the good news is that, you know, these are two sides of the same coin, you know, athletic excellence, overall institutional academic excellence. I’m proud to be a part of this whole enterprise to call higher education. I appreciate taking time. I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me and I enjoyed our chat.