David R. Harris, Ph.D., a sociologist with a distinguished record as an innovative teacher, scholar and administrator, became the 19th president of Union College on July 1, 2018.
At his inauguration, Harris set the tone for his presidency by launching the Union College Challenge, which encourages all members of the Union community to “become comfortable being uncomfortable” by committing to at least one thing that is new in their studies, personal lives or jobs.
Under his leadership, Union has developed a five-year strategic plan that aims to fully blend the liberal arts and engineering, transcend disciplinary boundaries, bridge classroom and immersive experiences, and engage and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives.
Key to meeting the goals of the Strategic Plan is the $300 million Powering Union philanthropic campaign, an effort launched by President Harris in 2020 with the announcement of a gift of $51 million from Class of 1980 graduates Mary and Rich Templeton. The Templeton Institute of Engineering and Computer Science will promote campus-wide and community access to engineering and computer science with a particular focus on enhancing diversity in those fields.
Diversity, equity and inclusion have been the cornerstone of the Harris presidency. In his first term at Union, he created the Making U Possible initiative to raise funds to ensure that all students can participate in the co-curricular and extra-curricular activities that comprise a full Union experience. He formed the Presidential Initiative on Race, Power and Privilege, a 40-member working group of students, faculty, staff and alumni that made recommendations to create and maintain an environment that values and respects all members. To provide a broad-based approach to fostering DEI, he appointed a four-member team of chief diversity officers. Harris moderates the Forum on Constructive Engagement, a series of events aimed at enhancing our appreciation of other perspectives.
Over the 2020-21 academic year, President Harris led the College’s successful response to the COVID pandemic. “Union Where You Are” offered students the option of remote, in-person or hybrid learning. Through comprehensive testing and safety protocols, the College had in-person classes all three terms and held campus Commencement exercises for the Classes of 2020 and 2021. The College did not just survive, it thrived.
During the COVID epidemic, President Harris formed “Planning for Multiple Tomorrows,” a working group of students, faculty and staff. The group surveyed the campus and made recommendations for policies and procedures that will make Union more flexible, equitable and agile.
Active in the local community, he is secretary of the Capital Region Chamber of Commerce, co-chair of the New York Capital Region Higher Education Council and served on the Schenectady Downtown Reinvestment Initiative Local Planning Committee.
Before joining Union, he was chief academic officer at Tufts University. During his tenure, he led the creation of a strategic plan, from which emerged a program to encourage students to perform a year of service before college; and Bridge Professorships, which span two or more schools to advance research and teaching on complex issues. He also established the new position of chief diversity officer and launched Bridging Differences, an initiative to encourage informed discussion around challenging topics.
From 2003 to 2012, Harris was at Cornell University, first as a professor of sociology and later as founding director of Cornell’s Institute for the Social Sciences, then successively as vice provost, deputy provost, and interim provost. From 2010 to 2011, he served as deputy assistant secretary for human services policy at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. His scholarship has focused on race and ethnicity, social stratification and public policy.
Harris 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 and his wife, Anne, met as undergraduates. They have three daughters.
His outside interests include cycling and exploring the latest technology.