New university provost David Harris brings experience, fresh ideas to the Hill
Published: Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, September 19, 2012 10:09
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 Jamshed Bharucha’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 senior faculty for the program, Harris drew important lessons that he says he will apply while at 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.