From combat to campus: Profile of a higher ed leader

Jack Hawkins, a former marine, shares how his background helps him to take on fear in leading Troy University
By: | Issue: January/February, 2020
January 9, 2020
Troy University Chancellor Jack Hawkins, shown here speaking at a ceremony recognizing the Tuskegee Airmen, says he knew at an early age that he wanted to join the U.S. Marines. He went on to lead a combat platoon in the Vietnam War and later returned to the country to launch the first U.S. degree program there.Troy University Chancellor Jack Hawkins, shown here speaking at a ceremony recognizing the Tuskegee Airmen, says he knew at an early age that he wanted to join the U.S. Marines. He went on to lead a combat platoon in the Vietnam War and later returned to the country to launch the first U.S. degree program there.

TROY, Alabama—Jack Hawkins, chancellor of Troy University, says “Lead from the front, not the rear.” And: “I came to serve, not to be served.”

Also: “Eat last.”

A platoon leader who follows those principles of combat command will earn the unflagging loyalty of his troops, says Hawkins, who fought as a lieutenant in the Vietnam War and has been chancellor of Troy University in Alabama since 1989.


More from UB: Watch UBTV—How Jack Hawkins keeps Troy University growing


“You have to do everything you can to make life better for them, but it’s always mission first, people second,” Jack Hawkins told UB during an interview in his office last September “If you take care of those Marines and they learn to trust you, they’ll do just anything and everything you ask them to do. It’s really no different at a university or in business.”

Some of Jack Hawkins’ Marines visited Troy University on a sweltering Saturday afternoon to help their former platoon leader commemorate his 30th year as chancellor—which made him the longest serving president of any public university in the U.S.

Despite decades in higher education, Hawkins said nothing has had a greater influence on him than the U.S. Marine Corps.

“Fear can be a great motivator, and anybody who has ever been in combat knows the fear of combat—the hotter the fire, the stronger the steel,” he said. “Either you succumb to it or grow from it.”

The most impressive thing Jack Hawkins had ever seen

Hawkins grew up in Mobile County in south Alabama, the child of parents who had struggled through the Great Depression. His father, a logger, left school after eighth grade, and his mother completed the 10th.

Chancellor Jack Hawkins moved Troy University into Division I athletics even though the school had huge success in Division II, winning two national championships in football and one in golf.

Chancellor Jack Hawkins moved Troy University into Division I athletics even though the school had huge success in Division II, winning two national championships in football and one in golf.

Hawkins recalls shopping for second-hand clothes at a local church, and that many of the men in his life had fought in either World War II or Korea. One seminal moment occurred when the man who would later become his brother-in-law visited Hawkins’ home wearing dress blues.

“That was the most impressive thing I’d ever seen—a Marine in uniform,” he said. “So I knew at a fairly early age that I wanted to be a Marine.”

But he didn’t enlist right after high school. A recruiter convinced Hawkins to go to college so he could get a commission as an officer. He enrolled in Alabama College (now the University of Montevallo) and participated in an officer training program at Quantico, Virginia, during the summers. He received his commission as a second lieutenant in 1967 and went to Vietnam the following year.

“I never went to an integrated school system—my college was not even integrated,” he says. “My introduction to an integrated community came when I became an officer in the U.S. Marines. One thing you learn in combat is that all blood flows red.”

Hawkins says the U.S. military strategy in Vietnam discouraged him and many others. “Those of us on the ground felt we could’ve won the war on the ground,” Hawkins said. “We lost it in the public and in politics.”

Also disappointing was the way U.S. troops were treated when they came home, and that some people couldn’t separate the warriors from the war, Hawkins says. “Until about two years ago,” he says, “I had never heard anybody ever say, ‘Thank you for your service in Vietnam.’ ”

‘A career killer’

Hawkins had spent some time in college thinking about other careers than the Marines. When he left the military, he got his graduate degree in counseling and guidance from Montevallo and a position as an educational specialist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s medical center, which had just split from the University of Alabama.


More from UB: How Jack Hawkins brings the world to small-town Alabama


Rising to associate professor and then assistant dean, Hawkins put together a consortium that allowed students to attend a two-year college as freshmen and then transfer to the medical center to earn an associate’s degree.

Leader at a glance

Jack Hawkins, chancellor of Troy University since 1989, grew up in Alabama

  • Undergraduate study: Alabama College (now the University of Montevallo)
  • Graduate degrees: Master of Education in counseling and guidance,University of Montevallo; Ph.d. in Administration and Higher Education, University of Alabama at Birmingham
  • On the way up:
    • Chancellor, Troy University of Houston System, 1989-present
    • President, Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind, 1979-1989
    • Assistant dean/associate professor (1978-79), director of student and public relations (1976-77), director of student services/assistant professor (1975-76), University of Alabama at Birmingham

“It kept the two-year colleges from having to duplicate expensive programming, and gave us the opportunity to distribute health-care workers around Alabama,” Hawkins said.

He finished his Pd.D., in administration and higher education, at UAB in 1976 and a few years later took a job that some of his colleagues described as “a career killer.” Having been inspired by his wife’s work establishing low-vision programs at the medical center’s school of optometry, Hawkins in 1979 became president of the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind.

Many in state government expected the institute to close within a few years. And Hawkins’ friends and colleagues thought that, at age 34, he had left a tenured position just to set himself up for failure.

But in the Institute’s dilapidated, un-air-conditioned buildings full of WWII-era furniture, Hawkins saw an opportunity to greatly improve the lives of children. “There was a certain a spiritual dimension to the work that you couldn’t find in most places,” Hawkins said.

In fact, it was a life-changing experience for his whole family. His daughters, for example, often had babysitters who were deaf or blind.

Hawkins, meanwhile, rebuilt the institute with state bond funds and initiated a statewide early intervention program to better equip parents to prepare their deaf and blind toddlers for preschool literacy. The institute expected 200 students to participate in the first year; 600 signed up.

“Years later, many of the students who had been served early were able to read at grade level,” Hawkins said. “I think we made a big difference in preparing them for life itself.”

Raising Troy University’s profile

Early in his tenure at Troy University, Hawkins declared a war on duplication. The institution was then a system of three schools with two other full-fledged presidents at Troy State University-Dothan and Troy State University-Montgomery.

Troy University works with students so they graduate with below-average debt. In another student success initiative, Chancellor Jack Hawkins has focused on growing research.

Troy University works with students so they graduate with below-average debt. In another student success initiative, Chancellor Jack Hawkins has focused on growing research.

Hawkins drove to merge the schools after a parent complained that administrators could not tell his daughter whether her credits would transfer if she switched campuses.

The eventual consolidation, in 2005, created Troy University and saved the institution about $20 million over the first 10 years. The merger has also better positioned the institution to survive as other institutions of higher education merge or close.

“The scourge of American higher education is debt,” Hawkins said. ”“In the 50 years since I entered the University of Alabama-Birmingham, I have never seen times more challenging than they are today.”

While the average individual college debt is $35,000, that number at TroyUniversity has dropped to around $18,900. Still, the university has to view its students and parents as shareholders, and be frugal with its funds.

“We do not hire eight people to do the work of six, we hire eight people to do the work of 10,” Hawkins says. “Busy people are happy people, and we want everybody at Troy University to be deliriously happy.”

Hawkins has focused on research and athletics to raise Troy University’s profile. It has formed closer connections with industry in southern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle to create research programs that meet regional business needs.

For instance, the world’s largest plastic recycling plant is located in Troy, Alabama, but the firm had only a small research and development budget. The university has now partnered with the plant to advance recycling technology.


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Hawkins moved Troy University into Division I athletics, even though the school had huge success in Division II, winning two national championships in football and one in golf. Since moving to Division I, the football team has scored some major upsets and played in three consecutive bowl games.

Men’s and women’s basketball have both reached the championship tournament.

“We might win a national championship in Division II and it might appear on the third page of The Birmingham News,” Jack Hawkins said. “Last year, we beat Nebraska in football, and it was national news. The year before we beat LSU, and it was international.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior writer