Jack Hawkins, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, barely survived his combat experience. But today, as chancellor of Troy University, he is working to use education to create a bond between nations that once met on the battlefield.
Hawkins guided Troy University in 2002 to form partnerships with institutions in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to offer degree programs for local Vietnamese students.
At the first graduation ceremony in Hanoi in 2008, a retired North Vietnamese colonel in military uniform hurried on stage to embrace Hawkins, dressed in his crimson-colored academic robe.
The man, who once would have been Hawkins’ mortal enemy, was eager to express gratitude after watching his great-nephew graduate from Troy University. This was the first time an American institution of higher education conferred the baccalaureate degree on students in Vietnam.
Despite this satisfying encounter, Hawkins admits to some trepidation when he embarked on that first return trip to Vietnam.
“I never wanted to go back, ” he says candidly. “If you went to Hanoi [during the war] you were going to prison. Forty years ago, we came with bullets. It feels a whole lot better now to be carrying books.”
Today, Troy University enrolls more than 1, 000 students in Vietnam, and about 70 Vietnamese students study on the Troy campus in Alabama, where nearly 800 international students are enrolled representing 76 countries.
“We might have lost the battle in Vietnam, but they come here to study the free market and capitalism, not communism, ” says Hawkins.
Much is said about the significance of globalization, yet few universities make turning out globally competitive students such a high priority as Troy University. Hawkins says international students comprise about 15 percent of Troy’s student body, compared to the typical 4 to 5 percent at the University of Alabama or Auburn University. And a lot of schools fall short of that, he adds.
Chinese students represent the largest international partnership at Troy, and in 2000 Troy initiated partnerships with five Chinese universities.
Opportunities for Troy students to gain global competiveness are offered at every turn. For instance, students in the risk management and insurance program can intern with Lloyds of London. Outreach programs are offered worldwide. Hawkins’ son-in-law, a captain in the U.S. Air Force, earned a degree from Troy University while stationed in Japan.
Hawkins takes a “three-legged stool” approach: attract international students to Alabama; grow a faculty committed to international education, and develop a strong study abroad program.
“As Americans, we expect the world to come to us, ” Hawkins observes. Gov. Robert Bentley has recognized his efforts and dubbed Troy “Alabama’s international university.”
Hawkins’ tenure as chancellor of Troy University began in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down — a fitting year, considering his efforts to figuratively take down walls between countries.
The military gave him the chance to see parts of the world far beyond Alabama. Hawkins and his wife, Janice, lived on bases in 10 countries.
Growing up in a blue-collar family in Mobile, travel and college were unaffordable luxuries. Hawkins says his parents made up for the material gifts they couldn’t afford by offering him moral principles and a strong work ethic.
“My dad expected us to value others, and the philosophy of service stayed with me.” From the age of 12, his goal was to attend college in order to get a commission in the Marine Corp.
“College was a growth experience I didn’t expect, because there was little talk of college growing up, ” remembers Hawkins, who earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Alabama College, now the University of Montevallo, and a doctorate from the University of Alabama.
“What brought me to a career in education was my wonderful experience at Alabama College. I fell in love with learning and became involved with student government. It was either stay in the Marines or go into education.”
After completing his bachelor’s degree in 1967, he served as a platoon leader during the Vietnam War. For his combat duty, he was awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and a citation from the Korean Marine Corps.
His military leadership skills transferred into academia: “In Vietnam I learned the concept of eating last, to take care of your men before yourself.”
The military also taught him the art of listening, not just to those in high positions but to others as well. “If you listen to the little people, you can solve big problems.”
Significant developments have occurred during the Hawkins era at Troy. He led the merger of the Troy State University system into the unified Troy University in an initiative called “One Great University.” More than $250 million has been invested in capital improvements during his administration, including new academic buildings on the four Troy campuses in Alabama.
Academic standards for admission were raised during his leadership. New degree programs were established, and intercollegiate athletics joined the highest level of NCAA competition.
Before replacing Ralph Adams as Troy’s chancellor, Hawkins served from 1971 to 1979 as an assistant dean at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. From 1979 to 1989 he was president of the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind in Talladega.
Mayor Todd Strange of Montgomery has been Hawkins’ close friend since seventh grade. Together they attended Murphy High School in Mobile and the University of Montevallo.
“There’s nothing he’s done that he hasn’t excelled in, and his innovations redefined Troy University, ” says Strange. “He made a tough decision eight years ago when he decided not to run for governor and stay at Troy.”
Troy University Board of Trustee member and Dothan businessman Charles Nailen says Hawkins has taken the school to the next level and beyond with his leadership, vision and execution of that vision.
“We were a little worried, ” recalls Nailen about Hawkins considering a run for governor. “It was Alabama’s loss, but certainly Troy’s gain that he stayed. He’s a fine human being that I’m proud to call my friend for a long time.”
It’s no surprise that Hawkins has earned many awards, sits on several boards and has buildings named in his honor. Yet even with these accomplishments and accolades, he sees himself simply as someone passing through, who one day will leave Troy University a little better off.
He’s just not quite sure when that day will arrive.
Hawkins turned 70 in March — an age when most people are ready for a life of leisure. Instead, he committed to his board’s request to continue as chancellor until October 2018. Asked about his plans at that point, he says, “I’ll face that issue when the time comes.”
Jessica Armstrong and Robert Fouts are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Auburn and he in Montgomery.
Text by Jessica Armstrong • Photos by Robert Fouts