When he arrived as provost at Tufts University in the summer of 2012, David R. Harris was looking for a fun way to connect with members of his new family. In collaboration with the cycling team, he created the Tufts Century Ride, an opportunity for faculty to ride for up to 105 miles along three of the school’s campuses. He persuaded a few dozen riders to participate.
Since that first year, the number of riders has more than doubled, and expanded to include staff, students and others.
“You can’t be hierarchical in bike clothes,” said Harris. “It’s impossible.”
His natural ability to connect with people and foster an inclusive environment was on display Tuesday afternoon when Harris was introduced as the 19th president of Union College.
Harris was selected by Union’s Board of Trustees after an extensive national search. He begins July 1, 2018.
“You will find, as I have found, that David is a true leader,” John E. Kelly III `76, chair of the Board of Trustees told the hundreds gathered in Memorial Chapel moments before Harris came on stage to a rousing welcome. “He has a deep interest in and a warm approach to all types. He’s a superb communicator, one who can share a vision, but then lead a team to accomplish that vision.”
A dynamic, engaging speaker, Harris spent 20 minutes sharing his life story and how, in many ways, it connects to Union and a liberal arts curriculum that allowed him to find his path and faculty who found opportunities that would lead him to a Ph.D.
Growing up outside of Philadelphia, Harris was a first generation college student at Northwestern University, thanks to generous financial aid. He decided to major in journalism but abandoned that pursuit after three weeks for civil engineering before ultimately finding his passion in human development and social policy.
Harris, 48, and his wife, Anne, met while at Northwestern. They have three daughters, including Maya, 7, who charmed her new Union family throughout the event. Eve, 20, and Olivia, 18, attend colleges in the Boston area and watched the event online.
Speaking of Union’s rich history, Harris said he was honored for the opportunity to lead an institution consistently ranked among the nation’s top liberal arts colleges.
He also thanked Kelly and the person he will succeed, President Stephen C. Ainlay, saying “it’s incredible what you all have built here.” Ainlay announced last August he would step down at the end of the academic year, completing 12 years of leading the College.
Harris also had high praise for Schenectady, saying he found the city “quite exciting.”
“How can we take American cities and help them bounce back?” he asked. “Schenectady is doing that.”
He made the case for Union’s brand of interdisciplinary learning 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.
As for Union’s next chapter, Harris said the College must be part of a renewed commitment to knowledge and expertise, which has been under assault by a “troubling confluence of post-modernist theory, opportunism and disillusionment.
“It’s what’s given us fake news,” he said. “It’s what’s given us talking heads on cable news where no matter how certain a fact there always somebody who says they’re not so sure, and we’ll put them on equal footing.”
There’s no doubt, he continued, that success, however defined, “is affected by who you know.
“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.”
Harris departed Memorial Chapel to the sounds of U2’s “Beautiful Day” and later attended a welcome reception in the Nott Memorial.