Meet the New ProvostDavid R. Harris Draws On A Social Policy Background
A forty-two-year-old sociologist and senior administrator from Cornell University is Tufts’ new provost and senior vice president, starting July 1. As the university’s chief academic officer, David R. Harris will oversee the schools as well as multiple cross-school programs, centers, and institutes.
Harris has enjoyed one of those careers best described as meteoric. He grew up in a working-class neighborhood outside Philadelphia, where he was the first in his immediate family to go to college (his paternal grandfather, a Methodist minister, had earned a degree attending night school as an adult). “David’s life and career testify to the transformative influence of higher education,” says Tufts President Anthony P. Monaco.
Harris received a generous scholarship from Northwestern and majored in social policy, hoping to employ the analytic rigor of science to understand how people navigate the social world. After graduation, he headed straight into Northwestern’s sociology doctoral program, focusing on black racial identity. For his dissertation, he studied how people choose where to live, and concluded that class plays a bigger role than race. “More often than not,” he says, “race is used as a proxy for class.”
With his Ph.D. in hand, Harris was appointed to the sociology faculty at the University of Michigan. In 2003, as he was about to receive tenure, Cornell recruited him to a full professorship, and he accepted. But six months in, he was asked to become the founding director of Cornell’s Institute for the Social Sciences.
Although he continued his research, other leadership posts followed: vice provost, then deputy provost. In 2010, while preparing for a sabbatical to study racial classification in South Africa, he was tapped to join the Obama Administration. He spent sixteen months with the Department of Health and Human Services as a lead advisor on issues such as poverty, welfare, and child support. “It was fun to work on these big collaborative projects that had to work across agencies,” he says.
Returning to Cornell last summer, Harris was named senior associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and interim codirector of the university’s Africana Studies and Research Center. And now he is embarking on a new phase of his career at Tufts, where he 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.
Harris says he looks forward to a strong partnership with President Monaco. “His 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,” Harris says. He arrives in the Boston area with his wife, Anne, and three daughters, ages one, twelve, and fourteen.