James T. Harris III Transformed Widener into a National Leader in Civic Engagement
Chester, Pa.—Widener University President James T. Harris III, who transformed Widener into one of the nation’s leading universities for civic engagement in his 13 years as president, announced to the Board of Trustees on Thursday that he is resigning his post at the end of July to become president of the University of San Diego effective August 1.
Harris, who became the ninth president of Widener in July 2002, took a respected regional university and transformed it into a national leader, recognized by the Carnegie Foundation, Washington Monthly, Newsweek/The Daily Beast, and the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll for helping to strengthen the communities it serves through community service, economic development, service learning, and unique education partnerships.
“It has been my honor and privilege to work with Dr. Harris for the past 13 years as a member of the Widener Board of Trustees and as a proud alumnus of this institution,” said John Tilelli, chair of the Widener Board of Trustees, who communicated Harris’s resignation to the university community earlier today. “During that time, I have witnessed the transformation of Widener in terms of its academic profile, reputation, student leadership, physical campus, and relationship to the community. Dr. Harris’ leadership has also attracted a whole tier of exceptionally dedicated faculty and administrators who want to be part of the inclusive transformation he has ignited at Widener.”
During his tenure as president, Dr. Harris put the university on firm financial footing despite the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. He tripled the endowment to $90 million and launched the largest fundraising campaign in university history, Taking the Lead ~ The Campaign for Widener, which has raised $62 million to date. This solid financial foundation allowed the university to invest more than $222 million in capital improvements on its four campuses, and more than doubled financial aid to students, helping to attract the largest and most diverse undergraduate population ever at Widener.
Under Dr. Harris’ leadership, the academic profile of incoming students rose to record highs. Widener also introduced new doctoral programs in social work, human sexuality, and nursing, and expanded offerings of graduate and undergraduate programs in cutting-edge majors, such as biomedical engineering and informatics. Widener opened a campus in Exton, Pa. to house the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and created a greater global presence through partnerships with Chongqing Technology and Business University in China and Dongseo University in South Korea.
With leadership development as a goal of the strategic plan, Dr. Harris established the Oskin Leadership Institute with a $5 million gift, the largest in Widener’s history, from David (PMC ’64) and JoEllen Oskin and their late son, David Jr. The institute aims to inspire students to be strategic leaders and responsible citizens who possess the character, courage, and competencies to affect positive change throughout the world. The university also launched the High School Leadership Awards, recognizing burgeoning leaders from high schools in Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Inspired by Dr. Harris’ vision, the university community embraced civic engagement as a cornerstone of its mission, vision, and strategic plan. Dr. Harris was the driving force behind the establishment of the Widener Partnership Charter School, the state’s first university-based charter school. Today, the K–8 charter school has an enrollment waiting list and a strong, holistic curriculum that includes arts, music, foreign language, and a consistent message that the children know by heart: “I can change the world.”
In order to coordinate service work and maximize the impact of their presence in Chester, Dr. Harris convened the presidents of Swarthmore, Neumann, Cheyney, Penn State Brandywine, and Delaware County Community College to form the Chester Higher Education Council. This group established the College Access Center of Delaware County in a Widener-owned building to help increase the numbers of college-bound students in southeastern Delaware County.
President Harris collaborated with hospital and investment-fund partners to create University Crossings, a $50 million retail and housing development on Providence Avenue in Chester that houses a bank, police substation, convenience store, loft apartments and Chester’s only new hotel in the past 35 years. The Widener University Small Business Development Center, founded under Dr. Harris’ presidency, has helped grow a number of small businesses, including Phatso’s Bakery and Cheryl’s Southern Style Cooking.
Under Dr. Harris’ tenure, the university has also created or became involved in nationally recognized and award-winning community outreach programs such as the Chester Community Physical Therapy Clinic, which has served as a model for similar clinics at other universities throughout the nation; and the Wills for Heroes initiative, a national program which provides free wills and estate planning for first responders, which won the Delaware Governor’s Award.
National recognition for Widener’s civic engagement efforts includes being ranked by Washington Monthly and Newsweek/Daily Beast on their lists of the most service-oriented schools in the U.S., named by preLaw magazine among the Best Law Schools for Public Interest, and being named to the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll six consecutive years including being named a President’s Award finalist in 2013.
“This decision to leave Widener has not been easy,” Harris said. “I love Widener, and I have been honored to work side by side with such capable and dedicated colleagues on the faculty and staff. Their passion for education, their dedication to students, and commitment to the mission and vision of Widener has been an inspiration to me and to the thousands of Widener students who have passed through our doors. I have particularly enjoyed my annual alternative spring break trips with students to developing nations and the opportunity to see them develop their global citizenship skills. Widener is facing a strong, stable future with its own core of accomplished, capable leaders, who will see that the university stays on course and continues to make progress,” Harris continued.
The Board of Trustees will launch a nationwide search for a new president to implement Widener’s newly minted strategic plan, Vision 2021, and lead university into its third century. “We will seek the input of faculty and staff as part of this process to help ensure that we find the best fit for Widener, to maintain the university’s forward trajectory and strengthen the mission and vision that has elevated it to national prominence,” Tilelli said.