Get to Know Incoming Dean Andrew Harris: History, Higher Ed and Chocolate Mousse Pie

Friday, May 20, 2016
Photo of Andrew Harris

When Andrew Harris joins the College of Liberal & Creative Arts in July, he’ll run one of the largest and most comprehensive academic programs devoted to the humanities, social sciences and creative arts in Northern California. The new dean says SF State is the ideal place for “students to realize the radical promise of public higher education.”

Harris comes from Keene State College in New Hampshire, where he has been dean of Arts and Humanities for four years. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Phoenix, Harris has written extensively on British history. Harris’ books include Policing the City: Crime and Legal Authority in London, 1780 – 1840, and Empire, State and Society: Britain Since 1830. As you might expect, he’s a fan of Downton Abbey.

He is already quite familiar with the entire Bay Area, after earning his Master’s and doctoral degrees from Stanford University.

Say hi to Dean Harris when you see him around campus. Maybe even chat him up about the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

Why did you decide to join SF State as dean of the College of Liberal & Creative Arts?

It was the low cost of living that did it.

That, and the opportunity to help inspiring faculty and staff create transformative learning experiences for a diverse student body. I know that sounds like it came out of a can but the motivation is very real. I felt that spirit every minute of my visit to campus.

I have been reading the various stories of student, faculty and alumni accomplishment on the website since I interviewed for the position, and I am already proud — which is silly really, since I haven’t yet had a thing to do with it.

What do you look forward to most about returning to the Bay Area?

I just sold our snow blower, and so the temptation is to say something about the weather, which I expect to be perfect.

Really, though, my wife and I used to love to walk around the city, taking long rambles through neighborhoods of different architectural styles, different immigrant communities, different ethnicities, different foodways, and I love that sense of the city as a vast humming hive of culturally diverse peoples.

I also look forward to the spectacular land- and seascapes — the view of the Marin Headlands from China Beach, the fog lifting over the hills off of 280, the path along the ocean that leads up to the Palace of the Legion of Honor. There are transcendently beautiful scenes everywhere.

What are your top goals in your first 100 days on the job?

I’d like to set the bar right and make it to the second hundred days. The most important thing is to learn the College — the people, the programs, the histories and the dreams that make up the [College of] Liberal & Creative Arts.

That means a lot of listening — to the chairs and directors, to the Dean’s Office staff, to faculty and staff I run into around campus. There will probably be decisions that need to be made quickly, too: searches to launch, friends of the College to meet. And so the first 100 days, like every other day, will be a process of creative prioritization.

What do you anticipate being your biggest learning curve as dean at SF State?

The different systems and processes that govern the University: financial planning, collective bargaining agreements, academic policies. Every institution has its own version of these, and each system has quirks, incentives and challenges.

To serve the College well I need to understand the logic of each of these, and that takes time, attention and effort. Or mistakes. Those can be exciting learning experiences, too.

Are you bringing any pets with you to California?

We have a 3-year-old yellow lab, Nellie, who fulfills all of the expectations we were led to have about labs. She is affectionate, mischievous, insistent and full of love and energy.

What’s the first item you will decorate your office with?

If the light is decent, something green and living, because some days you just want to look at leaves. Pictures of my family, because, well, they are my family. And books. Books are what academics substitute for a design sensibility.

What is your go-to scholarly text on your office bookshelf?

It depends on my need. When I was teaching Western civilization, there was a great old history survey by Palmer and Colton, and a great newer one by John Merriman.

When teaching modern British history, I really enjoyed some of the writers on the 18th century: Linda Colley’s Britons and John Beattie’s Crime and Courts in England.

I have an abiding fondness for Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen, about the extraordinary multiple transformations of everyday life in 19th- and early 20th-century France.

Now that I have less time for historical reading, which is one real regret of being an administrator, I turn my attention to books on higher education. For understanding interpersonal conflict, there is little simpler or better than Christina Gunsalus’ The College Administrator’s Survival Guide. And when I need to laugh at human folly I always return to Catch-22.

What is your favorite class to teach?

I haven’t taught for a decade, so this is looking back a ways.

I liked teaching Western civilization, since the class usually consisted of first-year students who generally did not think they liked history. The impossible span of the course content was more than compensated for by the students’ unexpected enthusiasm when they first discovered the intellectual pleasures of historical argument and the historical imagination. To be there with a student when the light bulb goes on is a gift.

What homemade dish are you most likely to bring to the office potluck?

Chocolate mousse pie or pumpkin cheesecake. I have a sweet tooth.

Coffee or tea? What kind?

Coffee, dark roast, roasted locally. Second choice is Peet’s.

What television show is your biggest guilty pleasure?

I have several, but I don’t feel guilty about any of them. We watch The Americans, Game of Thrones, Homeland and Downton Abbey. I feel a little guilty watching Game of Thrones, but not as guilty as I felt the summer I read all of the books.

What are your hobbies?

Walking, hiking, biking, a little kayaking if I can find the time. I like to cook.


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