SCHENECTADY -- David Robert Harris, installed Saturday as Union College’s 19th president, in his inaugural address, paid homage to the college’s long history and committed to expanding its diversity under his leadership.
His speech centered around the school’s motto: Under the laws of Minerva, we all become brothers and sisters.
Brothers and sisters at Union, he said, hail from different backgrounds and build relationships across disparate interests and pursuits.
“We must continue to live up to this second part of our motto by ensuring that there are more brothers and sisters of all backgrounds here,” Harris said as he neared the end of his inaugural address Saturday. “Both because what we offer is so special, and because a diverse community benefits all, it would be unacceptable to limit membership to those who are fortunate enough to have been born into privilege.”
Harkening to Union inaugural addresses delivered through the decades and centuries, Harris positioned his new tenure as part of a long continuum of leaders who took over Union with little awareness of what the future would hold but with a commitment to a foundational set of values to pursue wisdom through study of diverse views and subjects.
The college, and the people who inhabit it, now exists in an uncertain time, Harris said: A rise in partisanship and inequality and the unknowns of globalization and climate change buffet all sorts of institutions.
But even those challenges pale in comparison to what Union and its leaders have previously faced and endured over its long history, he said, citing inaugural addresses that came in the years following British rule, the Civil War, the Nixon resignation and in the era just before the internet unleashed disruption in all phases of life.
“I speak today knowing that there has been much change and much stability across our 223-year history, and that as with any journey, we don’t know what conditions await us,” he said.
Harris said he did not arrive on campus with any special insight into what the future holds or preconceived notions about how Union ought to make its way in the future. But he spelled out a desire to make Union “the preeminent, residential, liberal arts college” and said Union students will continue to pursue “coursework in the arts and humanities, the social sciences, the sciences, and engineering.”
“They must learn how to make an argument and how to tell if a point has been proven,” he said. “The goal of a Union College education is not to enter with a life plan and avoid anything that could possibly disrupt it. Rather, the point is for students to find out who they want to be by exploring many paths.”
He challenged his audience, and himself, to push themselves to uncomfortable places, to engage new and challenging ideas, to open up to perspectives different from their own.
“If we are to achieve our pursuit of wisdom, we must all learn to become more comfortable being uncomfortable,” Harris said.
Harris, who served as a political appointee at the Department of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration, promised to add a right-of-center political podcast to his listening mix and to take up yoga – the yoga may help him stay calm through the new podcasts, he said.
“The first step in getting out of one’s comfort zone is to acknowledge what makes us comfortable,” he said.
Harris, 49, started as Union president in July, taking the reins from Stephen Ainlay, who served in the position for 12 years. Harris joined Union from Tufts University near Boston, where he was provost and senior vice president since 2012. He has worked at Cornell University and researched race as a quantitative sociologist. Harris was joined Saturday by his wife, Anne, and their three daughters, Eve, Olivia and Maya.
A handful of Harris’ former colleagues and a close family friend testified to his strong character and readiness for the task ahead of him. They emphasized his integrity and openness and commitment to serving students.
Tufts President Anthony Monaco, on hand to welcome Harris to the ranks of a college president, said Harris has demonstrated traits key to a successful college administrator: a commitment to academic excellence, a comprehensive view of the university and its needs, a focus on innovation and a talent for building community, a strategic approach to improving student inclusion and access.
He also warned the Union community Harris may not stop with the 13-mile bike ride he plans to lead on Sunday morning.
“I will point out, however, that David’s famous century rides at Tufts were 100 miles long,” Monaco said.
Biddy Martin, president of Amherst College, pulled Harris onto an administrative track when they both worked at Cornell. She said Harris embodies the qualities important to any educator.
“David brings to this great college, this beautiful campus, to this community, the qualities of mind, heart and character that I associate with the best of liberal arts education and the best of leadership,” Martin said. “David Harris is courageous. He has one of the liveliest, most creative and synthetic minds I have ever had the pleasure to enjoy. He is principled, he is bold, he is one of the most curious people I have ever met.”
And his wife, Anne, who has worked as both a high school English teacher and a preschool teacher, surprised him with brief comments of her own.
“What immediately drew me to him was his humor, his wit, his integrity, his composure and his interest in the world around him,” she said.