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Grace Harris, a transformative figure in VCU’s history, dies at 84

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Grace E. Harris, Ph.D.
Photos by Allen Jones, University Marketing

Grace E. Harris, Ph.D., whose leadership helped shape Virginia Commonwealth University during a pioneering 48-year career at the university, died on Monday at the age of 84.

Harris joined the social work faculty at Richmond Professional Institute in 1967, a year before the school merged with the Medical College of Virginia to form VCU, and she would prove to be an integral part of the university’s foundation and growth in the ensuing decades. Over the course of her career, Harris would rise to the position of provost and vice president for academic affairs at VCU, becoming the first African-American woman to serve as the chief academic officer at a four-year public university in Virginia.

 She was a giant in legacy and in character.

“Throughout our 180-year history, a handful of people have been so vital to the story of Virginia Commonwealth University that their names are forever linked with ours,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “One of those people was Grace Harris. She was a giant in legacy and in character, a woman whose contributions to VCU and to the countless lives we touch are truly immeasurable. She helped us become one of the nation’s premier urban public research universities and, maybe more than anyone, personified our commitment to serve the public good.

“Dr. Harris lived as her name implied, with the utmost grace, even in the face of personal and professional indignities. May we all dedicate ourselves to living, working, and caring in the same profoundly meaningful ways that Grace did: with compassion, character, and — always — with grace."

When Harris was first hired at RPI, she was one of the three African-American faculty members hired that year – the first black faculty members in the school’s history. Harris was named dean of the School of Social Work in 1982 and was later promoted to vice provost for continuing studies and public service. She served as provost and vice president for academic affairs from 1993 to 1999, while also assuming the role of acting president in 1995 and 1998.

Grace E. Harris with Gov. L. Douglas Wilder.
Click to view slideshow. Grace E. Harris with Gov. L. Douglas Wilder.

Following her retirement as provost, Harris served as a distinguished professor in the Center for Public Policy and led the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute, both in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. The institute was established in her name to honor her longstanding leadership, service and contributions to the university. She retired from her professor position in 2015.

At the 2007 rededication of Grace E. Harris Hall, the former School of Business building that was renamed in her honor, Harris said, “I cannot say with enough words what a growth experience my time at VCU has been for me.”

Harris was recognized throughout her career for her rare leadership qualities. As provost, she was the chief architect of the university’s first strategic plan that set the tone for a contemporary VCU.

“Dr. Grace Harris was one of the smartest and most talented individuals I have had the privilege of working with and calling a dear friend,” said Eugene Trani, Ph.D., former VCU president who worked alongside Harris for years. “As a dean, a vice provost, a provost and vice president for academic affairs, and as acting president, Grace left an indelible mark on the modern VCU. She loved VCU, and in dedicating her entire professional career to VCU, our city and our university are far better for Grace having been such a strong and committed academic and community leader.”

Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, longtime friend and colleague to Harris, described her as “an iconic leader whose extreme competence, racial identity 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.”

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, who formerly served as the mayor of Richmond and the governor of Virginia, released  a statement about Harris' life and influence.

“Dr. Harris used her lifetime of groundbreaking service to help cultivate and elevate emerging leaders,” Kaine said. “When I was governor, Dr. Harris provided keen insight into university administration and offered invaluable guidance as I made appointments to Virginia public college boards. Her contributions have benefited VCU and Richmond, as well as schools and communities throughout the commonwealth. I am very sad to hear of her passing, and I offer her family my condolences.”

Harris received her undergraduate degree in sociology from Hampton Institute, graduating with honors. However, when she applied for graduate school in 1954 at the Richmond Professional Institute, which was part of William and Mary University at the time, she was denied admission because of her race. The state of Virginia paid for her to attend Boston University instead. She studied at Boston for two years, alongside classmate Martin Luther King Jr., before successfully transferring to RPI. She received a master’s degree in social work from RPI in 1960 and later earned master’s and Ph.D. degrees in sociology from the University of Virginia.

“My story is proof that times change and people change,” Harris said in 2010 at a reception honoring her service. “We’ve come a long way in the South, in Virginia and at Virginia Commonwealth University.”

John Accordino, Ph.D., dean of the Wilder School, called Harris “a towering figure who serves as a role model to all of us.”

“She treated each new milestone in her career as a new opportunity to serve others and to advance the cause of social equity,” Accordino said. “In the Wilder School, we strive to follow the example she set and we are proud to carry her legacy forward through the work of the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute.”

Grace E. Harris, Ph.D.
Grace E. Harris, Ph.D.

Nakeina E. Douglas-Glenn, Ph.D., director of the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute, said Harris “meant so much to those who knew her.”

“We are proud to have worked alongside her and honored to continue her legacy through the work of the institute,” Douglas-Glenn said. “Her commitment to recognizing the intrinsic dignity and worth of every person with whom she came into contact makes her leadership an aspirational goal for us all in our daily practices.”

Susan Gooden, Ph.D., professor in the Wilder School and former director of the leadership institute, said Harris’ influence at the VCU is apparent.

“It is the rarest of individuals who shapes an institution like Dr. Harris shaped VCU,” Gooden said. “She guided the university to fulfill its mission. All of us at VCU — administrators, faculty, staff and students alike — owe a debt to Dr. Harris.”

Harris received many awards and honors for her professional and community contributions, including VCU’s Presidential Medallion Award, which is awarded in recognition of outstanding contributions by a member of the university community. Harris also received honorary degrees from the University of Richmond, Virginia Union University and William & Mary.

A native of Halifax County, Harris is survived by her husband, James W. “Dick” Harris; her two adult children, Gayle and James; and her grandson, Jullian, who earned a master's degree in sociology from VCU in 2016.

In Harris' memory, her family has requested contributions be made to the VCU School of Social Work Dr. Grace E. Harris Scholarship. For information about the scholarship, the communities it supports or how to give, please contact the School of Social Work at give2vcussw@vcu.edu.