First (print!) article of the semester! Interview with Provost David Harris

New university provost David Harris brings experience, fresh ideas to the Hill

By Brionna Jimerson

Published: Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, September 12, 2012 09:09

Provost David Harris sat down with the Daily to discuss his history at Cornell and his future at Tufts.

As a sociologist, dean, Obama administration advisor and the interim head of Cornell University’s Africana Studies and Research Center, new Provost and Senior Vice President David Harris has a past steeped in administrative experience that he says will inform and benefit the work ahead of him at Tufts.

Harris’ appointment, the result of extensive and prolonged efforts of a Tufts search committee, follows former Provost JamshedBharucha’s departure in March 2011 and the temporary appointment of interim Vice Provost Peggy Newell soon after.

It is one of several major administrative changes Tufts has made in the last few years including the arrival of University President Anthony Monaco in 2011.

The university provost is the chief academic officer at Tufts.

In this position, Harris will represent the academic side of the university in all meetings at the senior level.

The university’s deans report to the provost, as do the vice provost and associate provost.

Harris’ responsibilities include overseeing the organizational structure of the Tufts curriculum and the overall academic growth of the university – areas to which he hopes to bring an interdisciplinary approach.

“I’m heavily involved in interdisciplinary [education] not because it’s the cool thing to do, but because it’s required to answer critical questions you want to answer,” he said.

Head first into a tough job

Harris’ time at Tufts won’t be the first opportunity the seasoned administrator has had to answer these types of critical questions.

This fall Tufts debuted an interdisciplinary Africana Studies major and minor in response to student demand, and Harris’ duties include overseeing the department’s development – an area in which he has some, albeit unanticipated, experience.

In 2011, Cornell appointed Harris as an interim co-director of the university’s Africana Studies and Research Center (ASRC) at a particularly contentious time in the department’s history.

In July of that year, Robert Harris, Jr. had resigned as director of the program in protest of the university’s decision to incorporate the center into the College of Arts and Sciences as a new department.

The incorporation of the ASRC, which had stood independently from the other undergraduate colleges at Cornell for over 40 years, resulted in passionate and unrelenting opposition from Cornell faculty and students, many of whom said the decision was sidestepping the ASRC’s autonomy, according to numerous articles published at the time in the Cornell Daily Sun.

It was a formative experience for Harris, who said he assumed the post of interim co-director out of a sense of duty to make Africana studies work at Cornell.

“Being co-director was definitely not something I was looking to do,” he said. “It was something I did because there were no options.”

From the process of finding a permanent director for the program, Harris drew important lessons that he says he will apply R Tufts.

“The experience reinforced in me the importance of transparency,” he said.

“When we searched for a director, we had the faculty involved in drafting the position description, vetting candidates, interviewing. We were trying to make sure that Africana could achieve what it wanted to be. So here at Tufts, I want to try to figure out where Tufts wants to go.”

Research and leadership background 

Harris grew up in a working class suburb of Philadelphia and earned both his B.S. and Ph.D from Northwestern University.

He found his academic and social interests later than most students, after much trial and error.

“I went to Northwestern

because I was going to be a journalist,” Harris said.

He transferred out of journalism into civil engineering after three weeks, briefly dropped out after two years and then returned for a new start.

“[I] realized there was something called ‘social policy’ that you could major in and have a career,” Harris said. “I had no idea. I found who I wanted to be, and I’ve been doing social policy work ever since.”

He explained that in recent years he has addressed social policy from an administrative angle within higher education.

Harris arrived at Cornell from the University of Michigan in 2003 as a full professor, having earned tenure at Michigan with research on racial classification and its role in social policy.

His research, however, soon gave way to more bureaucratic duties at Cornell.

“I was happy to move along doing this work, but I was quickly pulled into senior administrative work,” Harris said.

He held several positions within the senior administrative level at Cornell, including becoming the founding director of the university’s Institute for the Social Sciences (ISS), serving as the school’s vice provost for social sciences, deputy provost and, in 2008, provost ad interim.

In 2010, Harris left Cornell to serve as deputy assistant secretary for Human Services Policy in the Obama administration, working with the Department of Health and Human Services as an advisor on vital issues such as poverty and child support.

Slow, steady and aware wins the race

Harris arrived on the Hill in August and has since then made an effort to meet students and gather the diverse opinions he says will inform his work as provost.

Senior Barbara Florvil was impressed by Harris, whom she met during a recent Welcome Back BBQ hosted by theAfricana Center.

“He seemed very in tune with what Tufts may need, which is a provost who is available to talk with students about their day-to-day thoughts,” she said.

Harris said he will spend much of his first semester on the Hill looking at Tufts from multiple perspectives, using his time at several universities as a toolkit to decipher Tufts’ unique history.

“You have to spend time upfront learning the place,” he said.

“The challenge for an outsider is figuring out if it is a conversation that you have heard before, or if it is different. It may look like I’m being quiet, but it’s much better than the alternative

to come in and say

‘I’m going to tell you day one, here’s my plan for where we’re going to be in five years, we’re going to do A, B and C.’ That’s a great way to fail,” Harris said.

Through regular office hours, Harris hopes to maintain constant contact with students. His commitment to accessibility also extends to faculty – in August, Harris led 28 faculty members on a nearly 105 mile-long bike tour of Tufts’ campuses in Medford/Somerville, Boston and Grafton.

School of Dental Medicine Professor Jonathan Garlick was one of the faculty members on the bike tour.

“It was a great way to connect faculty and the campuses,” Garlick said.

“It gave me a feeling of how connected we are; it was a great way to get to know faculty and colleagues. It’s going to be a great tradition.”

Looking toward the future 

With years of academic, political and leadership experience, Harris remains confident that his background will color his decision-making at Tufts.

Harris recognizes that he is joining the Hill at a time of change.

“It’s clear that the university is undergoing a transition – the president and the provost were here for a decade, and then left,” he said.

“That is a significant transition in an institution. Now, Anthony [Monaco] and I are building our relationship, as we’ll be responsible for the next chapter.”

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