Hail to the Chief

A conversation with President James T. Harris III, DEd

With great excitement, the University of San Diego community welcomed President James T. Harris III, DEd upon his arrival to campus in August. An upcoming series of inaugural activities and events — which include faculty symposia, an Inaugural Mass at Founders Chapel and an installation ceremony at the Jenny Craig Pavilion — will take place in early December.

While we expect to get to know Dr. Harris well over the course of his tenure, an extended conversation with him earlier this summer provides some early insight into his background, character and vision as the next leader of the University of San Diego.

Q: What’s important to know about you as a person?

A: I believe in the transformative power of education. I believe education can change individuals for the better and is one of the greatest forces for good in the world today.

Q: What first sparked your interest in higher education?

A: I’m a first-generation college student, and three very important things happened during my time in college. First, I found my faith; I became a Roman Catholic while in college. Second, I found my vocation and fell in love with the idea of teaching and being an educator. And third, I found the love of my life, my wife, Mary.

So really, the three most important things that happened to me — that transformed me as a man and as a leader — happened in college. So I’ve experienced the transformative power of higher education.

Q: What about the University of San Diego specifically attracted you to pursue this position?

A: In many ways, it was love at first sight. A committee contacted me in regard to the position, and when I read the job description, it seemed as though it was written for me. Its Catholic identity and the need to have a leader who believed in the value associated with a Catholic university; the social justice mission of the institution; the Changemaker Hub, the strong commitment to liberal arts; all of these really resonated with who I am and the values that I hold dear.

So I thought that was a good fit, and it certainly led me to invest in the search process. Once I met people on the committee and met people at the university, I was a goner. I had to accept.

Q: How would you describe your leadership style?

A: The phrase that people use most often to describe my leadership style is, ‘What you see is what you get.’ I think it’s important to be yourself and to be transparent. If I had to define my leadership style, it would be that I try to keep people focused on our mission and vision and I attempt to surround myself with great people. As long as you have the right people in place, the organization can do great things.

Q: Is there such a thing as a typical day in the life of a university president?

A: No, and that’s what’s great about the job! I love the fact that something different happens every day and that you just don’t know who you’re going to come across. When we consider the intellectual prowess of the faculty, the way they engage students in the classroom, the research that they’re conducting and combine that with the spirit and energy of the students, the possibility for something good happening is enormous. I love the fact that we have all different opportunities to exchange ideas, to be with students and faculty, so there is no typical day.

Q: How are you approaching this opportunity to be president of a Catholic university?

A: With my 21 years of experience as a president, I’m looking forward to having an opportunity to lead an institution that understands its mission very clearly. At the University of San Diego, tying social justice issues with our faith is a powerful combination. I’m very excited about this opportunity, although I’m approaching it cautiously, given that I haven’t led a Catholic institution in my career.

Q: What challenges do you see ahead for the university?

A: I think the challenges for the University of San Diego, are, in some ways, no different than those faced by any other university across the country.

I’d really focus on three areas: The first is, ‘Are we accountable? Are we accountable to those who invest in the university? Are we accountable to our Catholic heritage, to our government and are we accountable to the communities we serve?’

The second is, ‘Are we accessible? Can we continue to make sure that all students have access to the great education that we provide at the University of San Diego?’

And third, ‘Are we inclusive?’ So it’s accountability, it’s accessibility and inclusivity.

For the University of San Diego specifically, it’s, ‘What is our vision for the future and where are we heading?’ We have so many positive things that are happening here; what does that mean for the future and how do we come together as a community to create a vision for this university? I’m really looking forward to having that conversation. People have been asking me about my vision for the university since the day I accepted the presidency earlier this year. And my answer has been, ‘The first step is to listen.’ I’m looking forward to listening to people both internally and externally. Together, we can create a bright vision for the future.

Q: Is there anything about leading an institution of this size that keeps you up at night?

A: What keeps me up at night is making sure that we’re focused on our mission and that we make decisions based on the values that come forth from that mission. Making sure that we live out our faith and live out our mission, that’s what I imagine will keep me awake at night. Hopefully, not too many of those nights, though!

Q: USD has been lauded nationally for its community engagement practices. How can your experience at previous institutions enhance USD’s connection to the greater San Diego community?

A: I’ve been very impressed with the work of our students in the community and the faculty’s work on very serious issues that our nation and the community of San Diego faces. What I might add is to lead a conversation about how all the wonderful engagement that is taking place in the community and classroom tie together. How do we make sure to always focus on our Catholic identity and our mission as we seek to be a model 21st century university?

Q: International studies are an integral component of the USD student experience. Can you speak to the importance of global education, and the opportunities it provides?

A: Global experiences are among the most important experiences a student can have while in college. When I was in graduate school, I had the opportunity to travel to a number of nations — both to visit but also to participate in service projects — and to be engaged directly in diverse communities. That was a transformational experience for me; I know the power of that. Every year, for the last 21 years, I’ve traveled with students and small groups internationally. I’ve spent a week or longer with them in those settings and I see firsthand the impact such an experience has on college students.

Even short-term international experiences can have an impact, but if students have the opportunity to spend a full semester — particularly if they can learn the language skills of that particular society or that particular culture — I think that’s the richest of all learning experiences. The challenge is to make sure that every student at USD has equal opportunity for those experiences. Sometimes students might be financially challenged, and we want to make sure that every student at USD has equal opportunity to grow and learn.

Q: In previous interviews, you’ve referenced your commitment to social justice. How has that commitment shaped you as a person?

A: It really stems from my grandparents, particularly my paternal grandmother, who was very instrumental in my growth and development. She was an immigrant who firmly believed in the principles of being a good citizen. That meant that we were going to volunteer in our community; that we were going to participate in the elections. When I was a child, she would always take me to the polls with her when she was going to vote.

My parents were both actively involved with their local unions. They were blue-collar workers, but they understood their duty as citizens and would solicit door to door for the United Way, my dad gave blood on a regular basis, so this sense of community came from my family. That commitment has stuck with me over the years. It helped me to grow as an individual, and step in the shoes of those who were less fortunate. I believe I am more empathetic because of those experiences.

Q: Is this something that you impart to your two sons?

A: We’ve tried to expose our sons to a number of opportunities around the world. They’ve told us that they have a better worldview because of that. We’ve taken them into developing nations, they volunteered on a regular basis with us as children and we often took them with us on alternative spring break, where we traveled with college students. So they’ve seen some of the great capitals of the world, but they’ve also seen some of the most underdeveloped countries in the world, and have had the opportunity to be exposed to both.

Q: There’s an acronym that you’ve been known to use frequently: HEART. What does that mean?

A: The acronym HEART comes from a class that I’ve been teaching for more than a dozen years at Harvard University, for a group of potential or future higher education leaders. My role is similar to that of a closer in a baseball game. I am the last faculty member they encounter and I talk about what really matters when it comes to leading others is leading from your heart.

So I use HEART as an acronym. H is that a leader should be honorable and do what they say they’re going to do. E stands for empowerment and encouraging those around you to be the best that they can be. A is to be your authentic self; since it is a well that will never run dry. R refers to focusing on relationships and individuals that are both personally and professionally in your life. And finally, T is to never lose the human touch.

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