Union College introduces new leader

David Harris is 19th president and first African-American
Dr. David Harris, right, shakes hands with John E. Kelly III at Union College in Schenectady.
Dr. David Harris, right, shakes hands with John E. Kelly III at Union College in Schenectady.

SCHENECTADY — Dr. David Harris will become the first African-American president of Union College on July 1, college officials announced Tuesday.

Most recently he has been provost and senior vice president at Tufts University in Massachusetts, but he had held numerous academic and administrator positions.


Pictured: Dr. David Harris

Harris, 48, will succeed current President Stephen C. Ainlay, who is retiring on June 30 after 12 years at the helm of the 2,200-student private four-year liberal arts college that also has a strong engineering program. He will be the 19th president in the history of the college, which was founded in 1795 and is often rated among the best small liberal arts colleges in the country.

In a 20-minute address to more than 200 students, faculty and staff gathered at the college’s Memorial Chapel for the announcement, Harris called for the college to be part of a “renaissance of knowledge and expertise” in public and educational life, designed to counter “fake news” and denial of facts.

“Knowledge and expertise is at the core of what Union does, and what higher education does,” Harris said.

In a later interview, Harris, who grew up in Philadelphia and one of its suburbs, said he’s often been the first black to take leadership roles. “It’s funny, I was the first black kid in my Little League,” he said. “When you’re of my generation, there have been lots of these experiences as you see the browning of the suburbs and so forth.”

“With respect to Union College, I really don’t think about it that much, the race piece,” he added. “Wherever I go I’m black, so for me it’s not the same as it is for other people. I think I appreciate when I walk around Memorial Chapel and I see the portraits of the presidents and I see all white men and then I think someday, my portrait being there in the future, and how that will look very different.”

He was also the first black provost at Tufts, which is located primarily in the Boston of Medford.

The chairman of the college’s board of trustees, John E. Kelly III, said race wasn’t a significant factor in the decision to hire Harris, although all previous Union presidents have been white men. “We wanted the best candidates for the college, and we had great diversity among the applicants,” Kelly said. “He is excellent with students and faculty. We’re just thrilled.”

Harris said he doesn’t know enough yet to have a ten-year vision for the college or to comment about city-college relations, but he praised Schenectady for its revitalization, and told a story about city police officer Nick Contompasis giving him a downtown tour a few months ago, knowing only that Harris was visiting the city as a job applicant.

“Schenectady, Schenectady is quite exciting when you’re interested, as I am, in the revitalization of American cities,” he said. “Schenectady is doing it.”

Harris, a sociologist by background with both undergarduate degrees and a doctorate from Northwestern University, has also held multiple positions at Cornell University including professor of sociology, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and vice-provost.

On leave from Cornell, he was a deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration, in 2010-2011, focusing on programs to reduce poverty and promote opportunity.

He has been provost at Tufts since 2012. There, he led the development of the university’s first-ever university-wide strategic plan, and named the university’s first chief diversity officer. He said he wants Union to be an diverse, inclusive community, as well.

“We want to focus on making this a place where everyone can say, ‘This is my place,'” Harris said.

In a letter sent to friends of the college ahead of the announcement, Kelly described Harris in glowing terms. “I believe we have found an outstanding new leader who will build upon the distinguished legacy of President Ainlay and take Union to even greater heights in the future,” Kelly wrote.

The trustees have already voted on the appointment.

Ainlay announced last August that he would be stepping down in June. Trustee Kelly Williams, a 1986 Union graduate, headed the search committee, which conducted a search assisted by national recruitment firm Isaacson Miller. Harris said it was Isaacson Miller that initially contacted him about the Union College opening.

“David Harris brings to Union a wealth of experience from some of the top institutiuons in the country,” Williams said. “He has a distinct appreciation of the potential for higher education to transform lives.”

Kelly also praised the departing Ainlay’s leadership. He led a campaign that raised more than $250 million to overhaul more than a dozen major campus buildings. He spearheaded the biggest building project in the college’s history, which broke ground last spring: a $100 million expansion and renovation of its Science and Engineering Center. The new center is due to open this fall.

Harris has been married for nearly 25 years to his wife, Anne, whom he met when both were students at Northwestern. They have two college-age daughters and a 7-year-old daughter, Maya, who will be coming with them to Schenectady, and whom Harris said will be walking the family’s new puppy around campus.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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