A few minutes with David R. Harris

Publication Date

Why Union?

Union stood out for a number of reasons. First is the people. Everyone I’ve met in the Union community has been engaging, open and accomplished. Second, I love the location, in a city with a rich history that is bouncing back. Schenectady and the area provide myriad opportunities for students, faculty, and staff to engage, grow and contribute. Third, I welcome the opportunity to show the world how exceptional Union College is while working to make it even stronger. I enjoy academic leadership— identifying and achieving institutional goals, and academic engagement—growing through interactions with students, faculty, and staff. Union provides a unique opportunity to do both.

Describe your journey to Union.

David R. Harris

I grew up in the Philadelphia area. Neither of my parents attended college. I was fortunate to be well prepared at an exceptional public high school and decided on Northwestern University, which had one of the world’s best journalism programs and offered me very generous financial aid. After three weeks, I changed my major from journalism to civil engineering. In the spring of sophomore year, I dropped out. Both transitions were motivated by a lack of passion for what I was doing. I eventually found that the major that most interested me was social policy. It combined my passion for understanding and improving society, with my drive for rigor. I returned to Northwestern the next fall and graduated with my class. Although far from linear, my path exposed me to a broad array of ideas and methods, and forced me to choose a path after experiencing several alternatives.

Just as my major was not clear when I entered college, it was far from certain that I would earn a Ph.D. That changed late in my junior year, when Professor Karen Fuson said I would be a great fit for a program aimed at increasing the number of underrepresented students who pursue graduate study and research careers. I worked with Professor Roberto Fernandez on a research project that became a co-authored book chapter. After a long intellectual journey, I had finally found my passion.

You talk about the importance of flexibility in addressing societal challenges. How is Union suited for this?

In the inaugural addresses of past Union presidents, each shares his perspective on how the College can prepare young men and women. With the advantage of time, I can see challenges and opportunities coming that the presidents could not. For example, in May 1929, President Frank Parker Day could not have foreseen the Great Depression or World War II. It is key that we focus on core learning and developmental goals that prepare students to thrive in future opportunities and challenges we cannot anticipate

How can higher ed — and Union — advance our understanding of the complexities of poverty and disadvantage?

Over the past 50 years, the U.S. has experienced marked growth in residential segregation and inequality by socioeconomic status. As a result, we are less likely to have deep, personal knowledge of life experiences of those who are much poorer or richer.

Union’s broad and innovative liberal arts curriculum uses literature, history, economics, theater and other disciplines to teach students why some people thrive and others do not.

It is also critical that students learn through sustained experiential learning. By engaging deeply on- and off-campus, students will develop an appreciation for the constraints and opportunities of those with different life experiences.

How do we assure that all promising students have equal access to higher education? A Union education?

Unfortunately, due to many decisions made on campuses, as well as in state houses and at the national level, the cost of education at top colleges and universities is beyond the reach of the average American. Put simply, the advertised cost exceeds median family income.

It is unacceptable to conclude that more than half of American families need not apply to schools such as Union. We must therefore engage in a three-part strategy. First, we will continue to examine decisions at Union, mindful that as we make expenditures, we need to consider the impact on affordability and financial aid.

Second, we will continue to make the case to state and national leaders that expanding Opportunity Programs, Pell Grants, and other such programs while eliminating unnecessary regulations that increase our costs is a wise investment.

Third, we will work with our alumni and friends to make the case for philanthropy. I have already heard from alumni who attribute much of their success to the financial aid they received. I certainly feel the same way about what Northwestern did for me. Ensuring that students have the opportunity to thrive at a college that altered one’s life, or the life of a loved one, is perhaps the greatest way to show gratitude.

In addition to access, we must ensure that all Union students feel this place is their home and a place where they can reach their full potential. Access without inclusion and achievement means that we gave ourselves the opportunity to succeed, but did not.

In an era when news seems to rely on sound bites and false equivalence, what role can Union play in the national and international dialogue?

Colleges exist to pursue a number of goals, but chief among them are the creation of knowledge, the dissemination of knowledge and the nurturing of knowledge-based innovation. If everything is subjective, then the very foundation upon which higher education rests does not exist.

Union must continue to be a strong voice for the power of subjectivity, the reality of objectivity, and how to discern the importance of each in any given situation. It happens when every course confronts what is believed to be true. It happens when faculty and students produce and disseminate knowledge that helps the public better understand the world. It happens when we respectfully and constructively challenge one another when our perspectives differ. The future of our institution, and many others, likely rests on our ability to discern the boundaries between perception, perspective and objective reality.

What roles/opportunities do you envision for Union in the local community?

We must acknowledge that students and employees select Union because of all it has to offer, but also because of what local communities provide. As have many others, I see a tremendous opportunity for Union College to partner in the resurgence of Schenectady and other local communities. We do this through capital projects such as the Seward Street neighborhood, through the work of campus units such as the Kenney Center, and through the many alumni and employees who choose to make this their home. I have been engaging campus and community members to understand the roles we can play. Being engaged locally is good for our mission, it is good for our future and it is the right thing to do.

How do we foster free speech and open dialogue at a time when this is under fire at other institutions?

Free speech, at its core, means that someone gets up and says whatever he or she thinks and everybody else listens. Instead, I push hard for something I call constructive engagement. We need to figure out how we can engage across lines of difference in a constructive way, not so that we bludgeon one another, but so that we learn from one another. It starts with the repeated interactions that happen on a campus like this, where I know you and you know me. Hopefully, we can bring in speakers who help push those conversations, not to fight with, but to help stretch the campus in constructive ways.

How do we see potential in ourselves and others?

One of my favorite stories about this is from one of my pervious institutions. An African-American student told me he was walking by a dorm room and heard music from a favorite movie, The Little Mermaid. He knocked and said, “Can I join you guys?” Those people became some of his best friends, and they watched Disney movies together all the time. You see the potential in others when you are open to discovering who they are, not who you think they might be. And I think you find potential in yourself when you give yourself that same license to go where you want to go as opposed to going where you think you have to.

“Spare” time—why cycling?

In the modern era, work can follow us far beyond the office, thanks to the devices we choose to carry with us. Like many people, I had felt that I needed to be connected and monitoring email constantly. That stared to change in 2010 when I joined the Obama Administration. I starting riding at dawn, and found that not only did I feel better, but that I also was more productive. A six-mile ride led to a 100-mile charity ride a year later. I find riding to be a great way to clear my head and prepare for the day.


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