Dr. Grace Harris, one of the most highly regarded women in higher education, has retired as a distinguished professor of public policy at the leadership institute that bears her name.
By Tiffany Murray-Robertson
Dr. Grace E. Harris, one of the most highly regarded women in higher education, has retired as a distinguished professor of public policy at the leadership institute that bears her name. Since the formation of the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute, Harris has served as a mentor to countless alumni and colleagues.
“Dr. Harris leaves an impressive legacy that reflects her commitment to education and to serving the community," said Niraj Verma, Ph.D., dean of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, which houses the institute at Virginia Commonwealth University. "It has been an honor to work with such a dedicated educator whose remarkable career is a source of inspiration."
Dr. Harris’ retirement was effective December 25, bringing to an end a noteworthy career at VCU that spanned 48 years and included service as the dean of the VCU School of Social Work, provost and acting president. Her tenure was punctuated by a series of historic firsts—most notably a 1993 promotion to the position of provost and vice president of academic affairs, an appointment that made Dr. Harris the first African-American woman to serve as the chief academic officer of a four-year public university in Virginia.
In 1999, the VCU Board of Visitors established the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute (GEHLI) in recognition of Dr. Harris’ extraordinary dedication to affecting positive change within the university and beyond. The institute promotes the development of emerging leaders in academic institutions, other public, private and nonprofit organizations and communities. Until recently, Dr. Harris had served as a consultant and contributing lecturer to the institute.
Dr. Harris served as provost from 1993-99, during one of the most influential periods in VCU’s history. She was the chief architect of the university’s first strategic plan that set the tone for a contemporary VCU and forged the union between the MCV and Monroe campuses, once starkly disconnected grounds. She is also credited with mobilizing support for the establishment of the VCU School of Engineering and the physical expansion of the university into its surrounding communities, developments that radically expanded VCU’s physical presence and redefined its role as an anchor of regional economic and community development.
Former governor L. Douglas Wilder, longtime friend and colleague to Dr. Harris, described her as a “rare and iconic visionary” whose “extreme competence and connection to the needs of the community and its citizens had a dramatic impact on the identity of VCU and the way it engaged people.”
The story of Dr. Harris’ meteoric rise at VCU— an institution that denied her admission on the basis of race in 1954—makes her a compelling symbol for racial progress both within the university community and beyond. Nonetheless, to confine Harris’ contributions to a ‘segregation-to-integration’ narrative is to err, warns Nakeina Douglas-Glenn, Ph.D.
“While the unprecedented ascension of Dr. Harris is certainly part of her journey, her legacy—which will continue for generations to come—is much more than that ironic story,” said Douglas-Glenn, the director of GEHLI and the co-author of “Leadership with Grace,” an analysis and description of the leadership style of Dr. Harris. The document, which spans a 40-year period, is based on numerous interviews with Dr. Harris as well as former administrators and colleagues.
“When people speak of Dr. Harris, they often recount her unique ability to connect with people at all levels of the organization. Her strength as a leader was predicated upon her belief in the intrinsic value of people, and their intrinsic value to the institution. At GEHLI, we are guided by that same vision.”
Like the woman who inspired it, Douglas-Glenn said the mission of the institute is groundbreaking.
“We’re one of less than 20 such organizations in the nation dedicated to developing leadership skills among our own university faculty and staff, as well as members of the surrounding community. In addition, our affiliation with the Wilder School and our connection to public administration and the world of public policy is so vital to our mission of creating change within our institutions—change that will hopefully provide the space and opportunity for the next Grace Harris.”
Over the years, the institute’s niche has evolved to include capacity building programs for personnel at other academic institutions, as well as Higher Ground, a leadership development program for women at all career levels in public, private, nonprofit and entrepreneurial positions. GEHLI also administers the Minority Political Leadership Institute, a collaborative partnership with Virginia Legislative Black Caucus Foundation. MPLI is an intensive seven-month curriculum designed to promote leadership development for people interested in issues important to minority communities including community economics, political climate, civic engagement and equity.
Since its establishment in 1999, GEHLI has had an inestimable impact on VCU and its surrounding communities, serving more than 750 alumni through its flagship programs and an estimated 300 individuals annually at its professional development events and workshops. Notable institute alumni include Beverly Warren; president, Kent State University, former provost, Virginia Commonwealth University; Levar Stoney, Secretary of the Commonwealth of Virginia; and Del. Delores L. McQuinn, D-Richmond.
“It’s been such an honor to work with Dr. Harris and to be a part of the continuation of her unique brand of leadership, which is above all a celebration of excellence, collaboration and inclusion,” said Susan Gooden, Ph.D., a professor who served as GEHLI's chief from 2004 until 2015.
“By listening and engaging others as decisively as she led, Dr. Harris transformed the culture and values of this institution. She has been a celebrated member of the VCU community for decades and a treasured personal friend and mentor to me since my arrival. Her legacy is truly astonishing and universally respected.”