SCHENECTADY -- Since starting his new job as Union College president in July, David Harris has explored his new neighborhood, regularly setting out from campus with his poodle-terrier mix, Hershey.
Some days, he heads a few blocks away into the GE Realty Plot. On other days, he walks to Eastern Avenue, cutting over toward State Street through some of the city’s less prosperous blocks.
“It’s just amazing to me the different worlds I can walk through on a 2-mile walk – north, south, east or west, wherever you go, it’s quite different,” Harris said during a question-and-answer session on campus Friday. “And it’s surprising how many people only live in one or two of those worlds. People say, 'I’ve never been over there.' It’s like two minutes, what do you mean you’ve never gone over there?”
Harris, who will be officially inaugurated as Union’s 19th president Saturday afternoon, said Union College should leverage the diversity of Schenectady as a “living, learning laboratory” for students to not just give back but also to enrich their learning. And despite the differences of the city’s disparate communities, he said, they have much in common.
“We grow by having a range of experiences, and I think interacting with Schenectady and various Schenectadys gives students, faculty and staff an opportunity to grow,” Harris said during Friday's Q&A. “It’s really interesting to take that walk … those are very different places, but this morning, I saw students waiting for the bus on Eastern Avenue just like students waiting for the bus in the GE Plot.”
At Friday's event, part of a weekend of inauguration activities, Union students, staff and alumni peppered Harris with questions about his career, his early impressions of Union and his plans for the future. Harris, promising not to spoil his inaugural address, defined the “ideal” student – someone “interested in ideas” and who drops by during office hours – as well as the “ideal” professor.
“I love the (faculty member) who cares passionately about what this institution will be 50 years after he or she is gone,” Harris said.
He also discussed his experience as an official in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, under former President Barack Obama. He said he learned there that the public servants he worked with were devoted to ideas and to doing good, but that political considerations often carried the day.
“What was frustrating was how often ideas didn’t matter -- was how often politics mattered,” he said. “What was striking was, we couldn’t talk about the Affordable Care Act as what it is, and what it is is the greatest anti-poverty program since the 1960s. We had to talk about it as something that lets 24-year-olds stay on their parents' health insurance.”
He touched on his academic work as a quantitative sociologist, examining how racial identities are formed and changed and how they are perceived. He also mentioned his work as an administrator at Tufts and other colleges in the Northeast. As an administrator, he said, his most proud accomplishments have come from finding ways to expand financial aid to more and more students.
Financial aid is also the root of some of his hardest moments as an administrator – and a project he said he hopes to take on at Union.
“The saddest moment is when someone has done all of the hard work to get into a college like Union and the last thing that stops them is they weren’t lucky enough to be born into a wealthy family,” Harris said. “Who has done what it takes to achieve at Union, and are we drawing a random sample of those people? If not, why not? Why do some people think this is a place to be and others don’t? And, why is this a place some people can get to and others cannot?"
His off-campus walks also take him down the street to a barber shop, where he gets his hair cut and soaks up local knowledge.
“I get my hair cut in places where I don’t think Union College presidents have gotten their haircuts before; I learn a lot,” he said. Sometimes those visits turn into off-campus Q&A sessions. “What’s it like for minority students up there?” They have asked him. “What are you doing about it?”