David Harris and Family

David Harris

Class of ’91 Alumnus On Taking Risks, Finding Opportunity

As Told To Colleen McNamera 

Last July I became the 19th president of Union College in Schenectady, New York. It’s an exciting opportunity with all the challenges of leading a great institution of higher education, but Union is small enough (2,200 undergraduates) that I get to know the faculty and students.

I also partner with Schenectady, a town that’s been through hard times and bounced back. Part of my job is to find ways for Union to support local education and economic development; that’s profoundly important to me because my career has been about understanding opportunity—who has it, who doesn’t— and learning how to close that gap.

Growing up, I was a black kid from Philly whose parents moved to a white suburb. We were never wealthy, but when my dad lost his job, we were financially devastated. I saw inequality up close. I worked briefly at a country club, which helped demystify wealth and white people for me. Without that exposure, I might have been intimidated, but I learned that people who lived in mansions were not smarter than I was. I was also fortunate because my family lived in a good school district. I worked hard academically, got into Northwestern, and landed a financial aid package that made becoming a first-generation college student possible.

At some level, my whole life has been about trying to understand the situation of the 12-year-old me and trying to make the world a better place for the 12-year-old me. In middle school and high school, I knew I wasn’t like the white kids, but I also wasn’t like my black cousins who grew up in the city. So early on, I understood that racial identity must be something more. That set me up to grapple with questions of inequality and to pursue a career to try to address them.

At Northwestern I found the beginnings of what would become my family and my profession. I met my wife, Anne, in sophomore year, and we now have three daughters. I earned my bachelor’s degree in human development and social policy and my PhD in sociology, focusing on race and class. After Northwestern I joined the University of Michigan faculty and later moved to Cornell University. Then I left academia briefly to serve in the Obama administration in the Department of Health and Human Services. After that, I became provost and chief academic officer at Tufts University.

Some people might call that a meandering path. But creating a meaningful and rewarding life is often about embracing uncertainty and being flexible. I tell Union students that part of their job in college is to identify the many paths they could take; then they can eliminate some and pinpoint others. When I entered Northwestern, I thought I was going to be a journalist. I switched my major to engineering and even dropped out for a quarter before I found SESP.

I’m glad I took risks. Each one helped clarify what I wanted to do.