A Magazine for Alumni and Friends

WinterNott Memorial 2018

Union's 19th President Named

David Harris introduced as Union’s 19th president


avid R. Harris, a sociologist with a distinguished record as an innovative teacher, scholar and administrator, has been named the 19th president of Union College.

He was introduced on campus on Feb. 20 by John E. Kelly III `76, chairman of the Board of Trustees. Harris begins July 1, succeeding Stephen C. Ainlay, who is stepping down after 12 years.

“This is a great honor for me,” said Harris. “Union has a national reputation for the ability to integrate science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fully with the other liberal arts disciplines. The ability to offer students both a broad and a deep education is critical in today’s world. The College’s leadership position in this area creates a tremendous foundation for even greater success.”

Harris, 48, has been chief academic officer at Tufts University since July 2012, responsible for the academic initiatives at the university’s eight schools.

At Tufts, he led the creation of Tufts’ first university-wide strategic plan, which produced initiatives including 1 + 4, a program to energize civic renewal by providing students an opportunity to engage in a year of international or national service before starting at Tufts. The strategic plan also led to the creation of Bridge Professorships, which span two or more schools to advance research and teaching on complex issues.

At Tufts, Harris established the new position of chief diversity officer and associate provost. He launched Bridging Differences, an initiative to advance discussion around some of today’s most challenging topics.

In 2003, Harris joined Cornell University as professor of sociology. The next year, he became the founding director of Cornell's Institute for the Social Sciences, where he was responsible for launching several intellectual theme projects, seeding individual research projects, incubating a successful effort to attract external funding and adding new interdisciplinary courses to the curriculum.

From March 2010 to July 2011 he took a leave from Cornell to serve as deputy assistant secretary for human services policy at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Working with colleagues across HHS, several other federal agencies and the White House, he focused on programs designed to reduce poverty and promote opportunity.

Harris’s scholarship has focused on race and ethnicity, social stratification and public policy. His work has applied theories from sociology, economics and psychology to empirical studies of racial and ethnic disparities in socioeconomic status, the fluidity of race, and racial and nonracial determinants of residential mobility.

Raised in a neighborhood outside of Philadelphia, Harris was a first-generation college student. He attended Northwestern University, where he earned a B.S. in human development and social policy in 1991, and a Ph.D. in sociology in 1997. He credits financial aid, academic staff and faculty with opening doors to a range of transformational opportunities.

Harris and his wife, Anne, met as undergraduates at Northwestern. They have three daughters, ages 7, 18 and 20.

“I want to thank the search committee and the board of trustees for making this possible,” said Harris. “I especially want to thank President Ainlay for his remarkable stewardship of the institution these past 12 years. He leaves an institution that is likely stronger than at any other time in its history.”

John Kelly cited Trustee Kelly Williams ’86, chair of the presidential search committee, and other members of the search committee, who represented all of Union’s constituencies. He also thanked the Ainlays. “We are grateful for the outstanding job President Ainlay and his wife, Judith, have done in positioning Union to take the next step forward.”

‘Knowledge and expertise at the core of what we do’

David R. Harris was greeted by a boisterous standing ovation when he was introduced as Union’s 19th president in Memorial Chapel. He then introduced himself as first-generation college student who gratefully benefitted from financial aid, a liberal arts curriculum that allowed him to find his path and faculty who created opportunities that would lead him to a Ph.D.

He made the case for Union’s brand of interdisciplinarity by asking the audience to consider a societal challenge and then decide which academic discipline had responsibility for it. “The challenge almost never maps to a discipline,” he said. “If we’re going to address the challenges of our day, we need to have an educational system … that is as flexible as it needs to be to get at those questions.”

He advocated for access and cited the College for its policy of meeting demonstrated financial need, and for promoting diversity in the form of composition, inclusion, engagement and achievement.

Describing his style, he said he likes to engage with the community. He organized the Tufts Century Ride, a 100-mile cycling challenge that has grown to more than 80 riders. “You can’t be hierarchical in bike clothes,” he quipped. “It’s impossible.”

He called on the College to be part of a “renewed commitment to knowledge and expertise,” which he said “have been under assault by a troubling confluence of post-modernist theory, opportunism and disillusionment.”

“It’s what’s given us fake news, it’s what’s given us talking heads on cable news where no matter how certain a fact there’s always somebody who says they’re not so sure and we’ll put them on equal footing,” he said.

“There’s no doubt that success, however defined, is affected by who you know,” he continued. “There’s no doubt that the haves often seek to maintain what they have and to pass it on. At the same time, there’s little doubt that there are truths to learn, things to discover and that human capital and facts are critical to the further progress of individuals and society.

“Knowledge and expertise are at the core of what we do at Union,” he said. “It united the founders of this great school many years ago and it should unite us all now.”

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