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A Conversation With David Harris

While the Sun beat us to it, MetaEzra was privileged enough to get a chance to sit down with interim provost, David Harris, and chat about Cornell in light of Harris's new, yet temporary, role. Harris, a noted scholar of race in America, is serving as interim provost until a search for Biddy Martin's replacement can be completed.

This is the first of two parts; today we focus on the position of the provost and developing the social sciences at Cornell. Tomorrow we will explore Harris's thoughts on diversity in 21st century America.

MetaEzra: Last August you accepted a position as Cornell’s first Deputy Provost. Did you suspect at the time that Biddy Martin would be considered for leadership positions at other schools, and that your appointment would help to bring some continuity to the provost’s office at Cornell?

David Harris: Given the duration and distinction of Biddy’s term as Cornell Provost, you had to assume that she would be a candidate for top academic leadership positions around the world, and at some point one of these opportunities would prove irresistible. The deputy provost position was always about getting the work of the office done during Biddy’s tenure, not about transitioning to a time after Biddy.

Acting as interim provost, what do you think will be the hardest part of Biddy’s role to fulfill? And even though you will only be provost on an interim basis, do you see yourself differing from her management style and direction in any way?

I think that my experience as Vice Provost for Social Sciences and Deputy Provost will ensure a smooth transition. For the past three years, I have attended multiple meetings each week with Biddy in which all of the major and minor issues have been discussed. I know what we are trying to do, and how we intend to succeed. I also have good working relationships with a broad range of administrators, staff, faculty, and alumni.

The hardest part will be the transition that the campus will have to make from thinking of Biddy as provost to thinking of me as provost. We have all become comfortable with Biddy over the past eight years. Adjusting to me and then to the permanent provost will take some time.

I do not expect any significant changes. I will strive to advance the academic priorities that have been established by the faculty and endorsed by the academic leadership. My term as interim provost will be marked by steady progress, not stasis nor inconsistency. You should not expect to see any significant differences in the focus or operations of the office.

You have publicly stated that you are not interested in being considered as the full time replacement for Biddy. Do you hope to devote more time to your research or your family instead?

I have stated that this is not the right time in my personal life or career to pursue the provost position. It is not the right time for me professionally because I would like to serve in more than one administration before taking on a position of this magnitude. It is not the right time for me personally because my children are 8 and 10, and I am 38. In 9 years my youngest child will complete high school. At age 47, I would rather look back and think that I missed the opportunity of being selected as Cornell provost in 2008, than look back and think that I was selected as provost in 2008, but that as a result I missed important time with my kids. As it is, the demands of my administrative positions and other professional responsibilities provide me with less time with my family than I would like. If I continue to be productive, I should have other high-level opportunities in the future. Hopefully, time is on my side.

My expectation is that after my time as interim provost, I will return to my current roles. It is possible that the next provost will decide that he or she does not want to retain these positions or does not want me to serve in these positions. That will be his or her choice. I think we all understand that we serve at the pleasure of the provost.

What qualities should Cornell be looking for in its next provost? Is it important for Cornell to hire somebody from the social sciences or humanities to balance President Skorton’s repertoire in the medical sciences and engineering?

I think it is important that we have an appropriate range of perspectives represented in senior leadership, but there are multiple ways to accomplish this. I do not think that we should require that the next provost be a humanist or social scientist. It is more important that the person be a strong leader who seeks out diverse perspectives, and makes decisions in a way that people respect, even if they do not agree with the decisions.

What current University priorities and initiatives do you see yourself carrying the torch for through the fall? We’re assuming that the capital campaign will consume a significant amount of your time, as it did for Biddy, but are there any exciting initiatives that you see developing in the pipeline?

There are a range of initiatives that will occupy my time in the fall. The capital campaign is certainly at or near the top of the list. Others will include our efforts in economics, diversity, the Cornell Council for the Arts, faculty recruitment and retention, tenure policies and expectations, the life sciences, the Center for Teaching Excellence, the Energy Recovery Linac, admissions and financial aid, the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future (CCSF), research support policies and operations, and our efforts to adapt to state and federal funding challenges. There will be many other demands on my time, some of which are more important than those listed above, but this gives you a sense of what the job entails.

While the University is world-class in many disciplines, including engineering, the natural sciences, and many of the humanistic disciplines, the social sciences at Cornell are arguably the weakest of the many strong suits the University offers (notwithstanding world-class programs in such niche disciplines as labor relations, international agriculture, and human development). To this end, much of the talk around the capital campaign has centered on bolstering the departments of economics and government. Can you talk a bit about the newly formed University Economics Council and any similar initiatives for the field of government?

In the fall we will formally announce our economics initiative. As you know, there are economists in a range of units across Cornell, including the Economics Department, ILR, Applied Economics and Management, Policy Analysis and Management, and the Johnson School. Our goals are to better support and engage the faculty we have, while also pursuing efforts to hire new cohorts of top economists.

Government had a phenomenal year of faculty hiring. Dean Peter Lepage worked closely with the department and our office to identify and recruit several outstanding tenure-track faculty members.

Last, I would take issue with the assertion that we are weak in the social sciences, with the exception of niche disciplines. A number of social science units have made fantastic hires in recent years. Cornell is also distinguishing itself as a power in interdisciplinary social science projects. The theme projects that have been supported by the Institute for the Social Sciences (ISS) are excellent examples.

[Editor's Note: MeteEzra previously talked about redundancy in the field of economics with Robert Frank.]

It strikes MetaEzra that a lot of the challenges with the social sciences at Cornell revolve around the fact that they are the most decentralized fields at Cornell. Economists can be found in all seven of the undergraduate colleges at Cornell, plus the law and business schools. Sociologists and psychologists are similarly dispersed across campus. Your previous post was as head for the cross-college, inter-disciplinary, Institute for the Social Sciences, which works to unite faculty from disparate corners of the University. What can the University do to further bolster and centralize the social science experience, from both a research perspective, as well as for the undergraduate experience?

The ISS is fostering collaborations across campus, as are a range of projects, such as the Cornell Population Program, the economic development area within the CCSF, and the law and psychology group. You are also seeing a number of courses that bring together students from across Cornell, such as the Inequality concentration and the Networks courses.

You were not only the first Vice-Provost of Social Sciences at Cornell, but you were also the first Deputy Provost at Cornell. Why do you think Cornell has added two high-level positions reporting to the provost in such a short time frame? And just what, exactly, does a deputy provost do?

The vice provost position emerged from the social sciences initiative, and the recognition that we needed coordination across the many colleges that have a significant social sciences presence. The deputy provost position was a response to President Skorton’s desire to involve Biddy in a broader array of university activities.

The deputy provost acts as the provost when she is unavailable, and as her designee for a number of key priorities. I have focused most of my attention on diversity, admissions, financial aid, the social sciences, Africana, and the Cornell Council for the Arts.

You spent the first ten years of your academic life at Northwestern University and subsequently became a professor at the University of Michigan. How can Ithaca compare to Evanston and Ann Arbor as a college town?

They are each special in their own way. Ithaca has been a great place to have a young family, and to explore the outdoors. The lake is a fantastic resource. This is a beautiful place to live.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on July 16, 2008 (#)

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