Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

AND THE LAST SHALL BE FIRST: VCU's Soon-to-Be Acting President Outlasted Segregation to Climb to the Top

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

AND THE LAST SHALL BE FIRST: VCU's Soon-to-Be Acting President Outlasted Segregation to Climb to the Top

Article excerpt

And The Last Shall Be First: VCU's Soon-to-be Acting President. Outlasted Segregation to Climb to the Top

by SuSan Thomas

RICHMOND, VA -- Dr. Grace Harris was denied admission into Virginia Commonwealth University's (VCU) Graduate School of Social Work in 1954 because she was Black. So the Halifax native temporarily moved away from her husband and went instead to Boston University.

Today, Harris walks through the doors as a welcome member of the university community, and this summer, she will become the acting president of Virginia Commonwealth, the same school that denied her admission more than 30 years ago.

"In my mind that was an achievement, a recognition, because they [university administrators] came after me. I didn't seek them out," said Harris.

She enjoys the irony of it all.

When the current president, Dr. Eugene Trani, goes on sabbatical. Harris, who now fills the university's provost position, will then move into Trani's chair.

Upward Bound

While the summer position may seem a small accomplishment to some, the move comes as a long overdue recognition of a woman who was among the institution's first Black assistant professors in 1967. Harris served as the director of student affairs in 1975 and rose through the administrative ranks in a series of firsts. Along the way, she has weathered many storms.

In the early 1980s, VCU, like many institutions, was feeling the impact of the Reagan administration's budget cuts. As a consequence, enrollment was down in the School of Social Work -- where Harris would make her mark -- from 825 in 1979 to 515 in 1982, faculty employment was down, and federal grant money was down from $1.2 million in 1979 to $895,000. It would fall to $625,000 in 1984.

Into this situation stepped Harris, who emerged from the teaching ranks to serve as associate dean of the department in 1978 and then dean in 1982. During this period, she was instrumental in increasing enrollment to 651 by 1986, and, by 1987, grant money increased to $900,000. In 1980, Harris was selected for a fellowship in academic administration by the American Council on Education. She completed an internship at VCU, working with the institution's president and vice president for academic affairs.

She was promoted to vice provost for continuing studies and public service in 1990 and to provost in 1993. But Harris doesn't count her success in terms of simply moving into positions where she is the "first" Black job-holder. She has made her reputation by moving people, communities and institutions into action.

Talk of the Town

As provost, she has taken the lead in planning the future of VCU by spearheading the implementation of the university's overall strategic plan, and, in addition, she is a key player in the development of VCU's new school of engineering -- a development that has local businesses, politicians and, for that matter, the entire town, talking about the economic ramifications of it all.

Her curriculum vita runs a solid 12 pages and summarizes 30 years of community involvement. She has chaired the board of directors of the local United Way and is on the boards of the Christian Children's Fund, the University of Richmond and Richfood Inc., among other organizations.

VCU's current president, Dr. Trani, said no one would be more capable of filling the responsibilities of acting president than Grace Harris. "Dr. Harris has been a student, faculty member and administrator here, and she is [now in] our top academic office ... She is widely respected by her colleagues within and outside the university. …

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