A university’s president is like the captain of the ship, responsible for steering it in the right direction. And when the crew finds themselves in
uncharted waters like the COVID-19 pandemic, the captain (or university president in this case), plays a crucial role in charting a route to safety. For the University of San Diego (USD), this responsibility is shouldered by President James T. Harris III, D.Ed. Over the last five years, Dr. Harris has focused his efforts on shaping a vision for the university as it approaches its 75th anniversary. Dr. Harris was a first-generation college student who has long held a passion for higher education. In fact, he credits his teachers as some of the most influential people in his life, viewing them as “selfless servant-leaders who wanted to help young people reach their full potential.” Believing that there could be no higher calling, Dr. Harris dedicated his life to education. One specific individual he credits as an inspiration is theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman who used to tell his students to not ask the question, “what does the world need” but rather “what makes you come alive” – emphasizing the importance of passion behind one’s work. This passion is clear in Dr. Harris’ leadership.
As COVID-19 continues to evolve the education landscape, Dr. Harris has been faced with a variety of new challenges. Despite these challenges, Dr. Harris and USD leadership have stayed the course, made tough calls, and are continuously seeking to serve students’ best interests. Dr. Harris has emphasized that the focus has been to help keep students engaged and positive, and to continue to foster a vibrant student environment. He also acknowledged that it has been a collective effort, expressing his gratitude for his colleagues who have met these difficult times with “a spirit of resilience, selflessness and a commitment.” From faculty taking remote-teaching courses to provide high-quality, engaging education, to the student affairs staff efficiently shifting to a low-density residential model and establishing support for students who may need to go into self-isolation, it has been all hands on deck. These efforts extend past school staff, as donors have come forward to help. For example, a recent gift from Board Chair Emeritus, Darlene Shiley, provided additional financial support and helped fund a food pantry for students who are food insecure.
To continue to overcome the hurdles, Dr. Harris believes the key will be strategic planning and flexibility, and that goes beyond COVID-19. He also acknowledges that this is not the only issue facing students in 2020, investing efforts into anti-racism to create a more inclusive campus, as well as extending resources to the community, like the on-campus COVID-19 clinic. So far, the feedback from students has been very positive. In fact, despite all the changes across the USD campus, one thing Dr. Harris highlighted is the spirit of “we are in this together” that has been embraced by staff and students alike, to enhance USD culture and the future of the school.