David R. Harris, a former deputy provost at Cornell University and currently senior associate dean of its College of Arts and Sciences, will join Tufts University on July 1 as provost and senior vice president. As the university’s chief academic officer, he will oversee the schools as well as multiple cross-school programs, centers and institutes.
A sociologist who applies diverse theories and methodologies in his research, Harris, 42, succeeds Vice Provost Peggy Newell, who has served as provost and senior vice president ad interim since July 2011, when Jamshed Bharucha left Tufts to assume the presidency of Cooper Union.
“David’s distinctive range of experiences and expertise will be invaluable as we chart a course that will position Tufts University to address the great global challenges of our times,” says President Anthony P. Monaco. “David’s life and career testify to the transformative influence of higher education on individuals, their communities and the larger society.”
Harris, who earned his B.S. and Ph.D. from Northwestern University, was the first in his immediate family to go to college, though he’s quick to point out that his paternal grandfather, a Methodist minister in Philadelphia, earned a college degree attending night school as an adult. A generous scholarship helped Harris attend a private university, a destination that otherwise might have been out of reach for someone growing up in his working-class neighborhood outside of Philadelphia.
He ended up majoring in social policy at Northwestern, realizing that it would allow him to employ the analytic rigor of science to understand how people navigate the social world. After graduation, he headed straight into a sociology doctoral program, thanks to his experiences in a summer research program between his junior and senior years.
His graduate work focused on black racial identity, and he wrote his dissertation on residential preferences as a way of understanding the consequences of race. What he found was a situation that is more complex than is typically presumed. When whites and blacks decide where to live, it often isn’t the race of their neighbors that they consider, but their class, Harris says. “More often than not, race is used as a proxy for class, but it isn’t the core concern,” he notes.
After receiving his doctorate, Harris was appointed to the sociology faculty at the University of Michigan. His work in sociology combines many disciplines with quantitative approaches, from hedonic price analysis to psychological insights about perception and categorization.
A Career of Firsts
As Harris was receiving tenure at Michigan in 2003, he got a call from Cornell, which wanted to recruit him for his expertise in racial equality. He moved to Ithaca, N.Y., and a full professorship, ready to teach and continue his research. But six months in, he was asked to become the founding director of Cornell’s Institute for the Social Sciences, and his path was set, even if he might not have realized it at the time. “I’m an accidental administrator,” he says with a laugh.
A self-described “social science omnivore,” Harris took to this new work, and the next year was appointed Cornell’s first vice provost for social sciences, reporting to then-provost Carolyn “Biddy” Martin (now president of Amherst College). In 2007, he was named Cornell’s first deputy provost, with responsibility for admissions, financial aid, social sciences and diversity. He helped guide the university through difficult financial circumstances at the depth of the economic crisis, while also serving as interim provost from August to December 2008.
In 2010, while preparing for a year’s sabbatical to conduct research on racial classification in South Africa, he received an unexpected call from Washington: Would he accept an appointment as deputy assistant secretary for human services policy in the Obama administration? He spent 16 months with the Department of Health and Human Services as a lead advisor on issues such as poverty, welfare and child support.
“I had done all my administrative work at Cornell, and [government work] was a challenge,” he says. “Could I do this in a different place where I don’t know anybody? I realized that I could figure out how to do that,” he says. “It was fun to work on these big collaborative projects that had to work across agencies.”
Returning to Cornell last summer, Harris sought a position that would give him a college-level perspective on the university. He was named senior associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and is responsible for day-to-day oversight of eight academic departments and two programs. He also is interim co-director of the university’s Africana Studies and Research Center.
Harris has an abiding interest in diversity. “The basic questions are the same across every campus: What is diversity? What are our goals? How will we know we’ve achieved our goals in diversity?” he asks. “My goal is to study race and ethnicity the same way people study things like unemployment. Yes, it has political implications, and yes, it’s a hot-button issue. But it can’t be led by knowing what my answers are and hoping the data goes there. It’s got to be led by the same rigorous analysis that people use to understand trends in employment.”
A Strong Team
Having observed three presidencies in his nine years at Cornell, Harris says he understands the importance of the president-provost relationship to an institution. When he met with Monaco during the Tufts search process, Harris says he realized that the president’s “values are similar to mine, his perspective on how the university works is similar to mine, and a lot of things are complementary, our backgrounds and areas of expertise,” he says.
“I liked very much that he has a young family, so he understands in a personal way, not in a retrospective way, the work-family challenges,” Harris says. “That was important to me, because my family is important to me.”
Harris will be moving to the Boston area in early July with his wife, Anne, and three daughters, ages 1, 12 and 14.
Taylor McNeil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.