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Remembering Grace E. Harris

Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018


Dear VCU and VCU Health communities,

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.

One of those people was Grace E. Harris, who we lost Monday at the age of 84.

Grace 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 joined our faculty in 1967 and 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.

She was a pillar of VCU’s history. And, more than that, a designer of our future.

Dr. Harris lived as her name implied, with the utmost grace, even in the face of personal and professional indignities. A native of Halifax County, Va., she attended segregated public schools, and in 1954 was denied admission to Richmond Professional Institute, a predecessor to VCU that was then part of the College of William & Mary, on the basis of race. She enrolled at Boston University, where Martin Luther King Jr. was her classmate. RPI admitted Grace as a graduate student in 1959, and she earned a master’s degree in social work. She later earned master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Virginia.

A trailblazer throughout her life, she was one of the first African American faculty members at VCU and rose to become dean of VCU’s School of Social Work for eight years. She was the first African American and first woman to serve as VCU’s provost and on two occasions was also acting president. 

I am personally and intensely grateful for her leadership and mentorship throughout my years at VCU. She was one of the wisest, kindest, and most generous people I have ever met.

Grace officially retired from VCU in January 2016 after 48 years of service. But her legacy runs far deeper than that. VCU launched the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute in 1999 to mentor and develop “servant leaders” across the institution. Dr. Harris was awarded the Presidential Medallion in 1999. In 2007, Grace E. Harris Hall opened on the Monroe Park Campus and serves as one of our university’s principal academic spaces. 

Her legacy also runs deep in our Commonwealth. A longtime social worker, nonprofit director, and civil rights warrior, Grace served on countless boards, taskforces, and commissions focused on education and health care all across Virginia. She was a member of then-Gov. Mark Warner’s Virginia Commission on Higher Education and served as vice chair of his gubernatorial transition team.

In her memory, Grace’s 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

Grace once said, “I love VCU. There is something about it that just resonated with who I am, and I with it.”

All of us at VCU loved her, too. We mourn her passing and stand in awe at her enduring legacy. 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.


Michael Rao, Ph.D.