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Harrison’s love of learning shapes university president tenure

BY David Medina
Special to the Hartford Business Journal

9/16/2016
PHOTO | Steve Laschever
PHOTO | Steve Laschever
Walter Harrison
In an era when the average college president lasts about seven years on the job, Walter Harrison is an exception. Harrison plans to retire in 2017 after 19 years as president of the University of Hartford, a third of the time that the university has existed.

To say Harrison has succeeded is an understatement. He renovated and restored many campus buildings, including an empty car dealership that he transformed into the Handel Center for the Performing Arts. He helped stabilize UHart's finances, quadruple its endowment to $150 million and oversaw an enrollment increase of 20 percent. He also elevated the university's visibility in Greater Hartford. Among other things, he partnered with government to build two magnet high schools and an elementary school on the UHart campus, creating a pathway to college for the magnet students and hands-on teaching experiences for his university students.

Not bad for someone whose original ambition growing up was to play shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

It wasn't until he became an undergraduate at Trinity College and fell in love with American literature that Harrison decided to become an English professor. So, after earning his bachelor's degree there, he got a master's at the University of Michigan, served a three-year tour in the Air Force and then attended the University of California, Davis, for his Ph.D. He began teaching at Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany and later moved to Iowa State University and Colorado College in Colorado Springs.

But in 1982, a funny thing happened to him on the way to class one morning.

Harrison and a group of colleagues, including a Colorado College vice president, were in a coffee shop having a "breakfast kvetching session" on the issues of the day, when the conversation got around to how the college's basketball coach made national headlines by taking his team home, midway through a game that they were losing by about 40 points. Embarrassed school officials appointed a committee to decide how to discipline the coach and the committee waited a week before announcing its decision at a press conference.

"I made the mistake of saying, 'You did this all wrong. You should have acted quickly and held the press conference in the gymnasium,' " Harrison recalled. "The next day, the vice president and the president of the college showed up at my office and said, 'If you know so much about how these things are handled, why don't you take over that responsibility.' "

Harrison said he didn't really want the job, but agreed to do it for a year and under the title of deputy director of college relations. He left Colorado College three years later to join Gehrung Associates, a consulting firm that performed college relations for the most prestigious universities in the country. Soon afterward, Harrison became Gehrung's president and in 1989, the University of Michigan persuaded him to leave the company and become its vice president of university relations, where he remained until his appointment at UHart.

"I didn't really set out to do any of this," he said. "But I discovered I liked it and I stayed with it."

Born in Pittsburgh, Harrison grew up in the small town of Natrona Heights. His father, Lester, and his grandfather, Samuel, ran Harrison's Men's and Boy's Clothing Store in the neighboring town of Tarentum. Always personable, Harrison said two memories of his upbringing stand out over all the others. The first is that his college-educated parents instilled in him a love of learning that remains to this day. The second is that they once left him and his younger sister, Sally, under the care of an African-American couple for two years and moved to New York City, so that his father, who suffered from Parkinson's Disease, could undergo experimental brain treatments.

"The couple's names were Elizabeth and James Cameron," Harrison said. "They hadn't attained the same level of education as my parents, yet, they shared many of the same values and were a really important part of how I understand the world."

That love of learning — a healthy appreciation for what makes the world tick — is precisely what many cite as the secret to Harrison's success.

"He's warm, gracious and insatiably curious about people and their ideas, beliefs and aspirations," says Lucille Nickerson, chair of the university's board of regents. "If you walk across the campus with Walt, people stop to greet him and share a story."

Harrison says that what makes him proudest about having been president for so long is the effect that a University of Hartford education has had on people who were students during his tenure.

"The thing I enjoy most is when somebody who graduated 15 or 10 or five years ago comes to see me or sends me an email or a card saying 'I can't tell you how happy I am about . . . ,' and then tells me whatever professional accomplishment they achieved because of what we did to help make their lives better."

The Basics

Title: President

Name of organization: University of Hartford

Size of organization: 7,000 students, $250 million annual budget

Education: Trinity College, Bachelor's Degree; University of Michigan, Master's Degree; University of California, Davis, Ph.D.

Previous job(s): Captain, U.S. Air Force; Johannes Gutenberg University; Iowa State University; Colorado College; University of Michigan.

On the job

Proudest accomplishment: Generally, transforming the University of Hartford in many, many ways over the past 18-plus years.

Goal yet to be achieved: Completing that work, most notably an addition to and renovation of the University libraries and Gengras Student Union, both to be completed in 2017.

Favorite part of the job: Making my imprint on a wonderful university and living with students and watching them develop into thoughtful and caring adults

Judgment calls:

Best business decision: Transforming the empty Thomas Cadillac dealership on Westbourne Parkway and Albany Avenue into the Mort and Irma Handel Performing Arts Center.

Biggest missed opportunity: Not seizing the occasion around 2005 to form a College of Allied Health Sciences.

Next big move: When I retire in June 2017, to return to writing on the place of sports in American culture and the history of baseball.

Personal side:

City of residence: Hartford/West Hartford line

Hobbies: Baseball, theatre, reading history and literature, film

Last vacation: In June, to Berlin, Germany

Favorite movie: "A League of Their Own," "Bull Durham," "Bang the Drum Slowly," "High Noon," and "Raging Bull"

The car you drive: For business: 2015 Lexus ES 350; for pleasure: 2001 Toyota Solara convertible

Currently reading: "1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever," by Bill Madden

Second career choice: Becoming commissioner of Major League Baseball, or being a professor of English again