SCHENECTADY -- When David Harris sat down at his new desk July 1, starting his tenure as Union College’s 18th president, he found a gift from the student body: a leather-bound journal emblazoned with “President Harris, we welcome U.”
“I thought, oh,OK, I guess I’m gonna have to keep a journal,” he said, curious why the students left him a notebook. “So I opened it up and that’s not what it was, it was filled with messages from the students.”
On page after page, the students shared with Harris the things they liked most about Union and their experience at the school; it include invites to clubs and activities, parting advice from graduating seniors, and at least one piece of criticism.
Still learning about the college and its various programs and still meeting with students and faculty members as he walks the campus with his dog, Hershey, Harris said he is starting to piece together his own vision of where Union should go in the coming years.
He is scheduled for a retreat with the college’s senior administrative team in the coming weeks, working toward themes and goals of a vision he plans to spell out at his inaugural address in early-September.
“That’s some of the input as well that’s going in, what are you hearing again and again, what’s exciting people,” he said of the student messages left in the journal.
Harris, 48 when he was named the school's first black president in February, came to Union after a stint as provost of Tufts College in Boston. He also worked as an administrator at Cornell University as well as an official in the Obama administration. He trained, studied and started his professional career as a sociologist specializing in neighborhood formation and racial identity.
While describing race as a social construct that differs from person to person and place to place, recalling his academic research, Harris also acknowledged his status as a Union first.
“It’s not new for me in the sense that I was like the first black kid in the little league,” he said of growing up in a largely-white community outside Philadelphia. “But when I walk into Memorial Chapel and see the portraits of the other 18 presidents, you kind of notice they are all white guys… I also see it for the students, especially the students of color, not just but especially, I do recognize that they see me as president, they see someone who looks more like them than maybe what they expected.”
Harris said he and his family will split time between the Union president’s house and a home they bought in Niskayuna; his 7-year-old daughter will start as a second-grader in Niskayuna schools in the fall. He and his wife of 25 years, Anne Harris, also have an 18-year-old and 20-year-old, who are in school at Tufts and Boston College.
“For a 7-year-old, it’s nice to be in a neighborhood with other 7-year-olds and not just 18-year-olds and 21-year-olds,” he said of living and sending his daughter to school outside the city. “It’s a personal family decision to figure out what best fits our family needs.”
When Union posted its presidential job opening after Stephen Ainlay announced he would retire after a dozen years on the job, the description emphasized a leader that could raise the college’s national profile – a goal Harris said will be important to his work.
“There are more students west of the Mississippi, there are more students in the South, there are more students on the Pacific Coast, more students oversees who would be excited about what Union has to offer,” he said. “We can find better ways to get the message out.”
He said Union alumni live all over the country and can help spread word about the college and its strengths. In outlining Union’s “distinctive” brand, Harris called the school “a place where you know the faculty and the faculty know you,” and said its small size makes it desirable to students interested in connecting with professors and other students.
He emphasized the college’s wide array of offerings, especially its mix of liberal arts with strong engineering and computer science programs, and said it was important to focus on the residential part of college life.
“Most of your time in college you’re not actually in the classroom, you are outside the classroom,” Harris said. “How do we use the time outside the classroom to further advance the core mission of the college. That’s about the residential environment. Is the residential environment just where you put your head down and do your homework or is it more than that … Does it help you develop and understand things about yourself and others?”
He said the residential piece also extends to the college’s position near the Adirondacks, the Capital Region and in Schenectady. He said Schenectady makes for a good laboratory for students interesting in engaging social issues and making an impact.
“A lot of what affects your daily life actually occurs at the city level,” he said. “A lot of students interested in making the world a better place, whether its poverty, whether its education, criminal justice, sustainability … cities have policies that affect that.”
When asked whether it was a goal to increase Union’s economic diversity –- about 15 percent of students are on Pell grants, available to students from families with income of $50,000 or less -– he said he still needed to learn about how much more the school can do on that front. But he also said it was important to focus not just on what students are coming to the college but how those students do while in school and whether they feel a part of the college community.
“What I want to do here at Union is to not only focus on this really important question of who is coming through the door, but also saying what do we do to be a place … where everyone feels like this is my home and everyone says I was able to achieve my full potential."