President Anne Harris: Building a Sense of Belonging
Anne Harris joined the Grinnell community in 2019 as vice president for academic affairs and dean of the College. She became interim president of Grinnell upon President Raynard Kington's departure and was named the 14th president of the College on July 14, 2020.
In her first few months in this position, Harris has demonstrated her collaborative approach to leadership as the College has been forced to navigate a global pandemic, face a long-overdue national reckoning with racial injustice, and recover from a derecho that caused much physical damage to campus.
In the pages that follow, Harris shares what guides her as a leader and an individual, and what the Grinnell community might expect from her in the coming years.
What drew you to higher education?
My parents put education above everything else. My father went to college through the GI Bill after serving in World War II and believed in the transformative power of education. My mentor,
Donna Sadler, art history professor emeritus at Agnes Scott College, showed me, through the example of her teaching and her life, the enduring connections between people and within communities that art and learning could make. Teaching, learning, and research — and how these three practices connect people and produce knowledge — are all connected to the drive of inquiry, which I think will always keep me going.
At some point, in graduate school at the University of Chicago, as we really became aware of how knowledge was produced, I came to see higher education as one of the fundamental institutions of democracy. The whole idea of critique, of deliberation and debate, of collaboration, and of arriving at shared understanding are the fundamental practices of a democracy — and I’m drawn to how our colleges and universities foster that practice.
What are the principles and values that guide you as a leader?
There are three primary ideas that drive me:
- Collaboration, especially as it builds shared understanding, and enables engaging in worthwhile endeavors.
- Curiosity, in what drives an individual and in what makes a community function (or not).
- Stewardship, the knowledge that there are resources to tend to so as to foster the talents and ambitions of individuals, a community, and an institution.
All of those principles and values guide my actions and I would want to work to have them be important in how we all relate to each other as well. As Professor Kesho Scott so beautifully put it in an interview about her being a 2020 Women of Influence honoree, “Leadership is a relationship.” In all that we do at the College, I think of partnerships and projects and how to foster and support both.
“The shared endeavor of being Grinnell College within adverse circumstances has created many new partnerships between faculty and staff, students and faculty and staff, and alums and all.”
Who are some of the people you admire or who have influenced your life?
The people who have most influenced my life are students — for 17 years, those with whom I was in the classroom and, since joining administrative work, those for whom I advocate. Faculty and staff colleagues, for the same reasons, also continue to influence and shape my life.
In terms of individuals: certainly John Dewey, who wrote in 1916, “Democracy must be born again with each generation and education is its midwife.” And Dolores Huerta, who said in 2016, “Education is the new civil rights movement.” Both of those quotes are vibrant inspirations for me, and I return to them again and again. The author Iris Murdoch is a favorite of mine; I read her book The Sea, the Sea at a time of great sadness in my life, and her meticulous descriptions of everyday life in the midst of grief stayed with me as a treasured way of understanding how the mundane can actually sustain us through the monumental.
The medieval mystic Julian of Norwich is another. She wrote several works, but the phrase that stays with me is “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” It’s not just a repetition of wishful thinking; it’s an insistence upon a possible future, even in hard times, and that approach to life resonates powerfully with me.
I am also very influenced by Toni Morrison’s resistance to one monolithic language, which she delineates in her 1993 Nobel lecture: “Whose heaven [the protagonist of her story asks]? And what kind?” Toni Morrison’s call to “take the time to understand other languages, other views, other narratives period” as the dynamic of the Tower of Babel is a lasting inspiration.
“There are tremendous opportunities to learn from ourselves as a community. I learned early on … just how much students value being together on our campus, just how much faculty sustain the highest standards in connection through teaching and research, just how much staff foster belonging and empower problem-solving, and just how much alums want to be involved.”
What have you learned about Grinnell since coming here last year?
I knew, and learned more fully, that Grinnell was a welcoming community, filled with vibrant and brilliant people. What the pandemic and the derecho taught me is just how simultaneously vulnerable and undeterred we could all be — living out these disruptions in our full humanity and talking through the experiences everyone was enduring, and at the same time, designing and producing and implementing an educational experience that will connect students meaningfully to knowledge and to each other.
The standards of excellence that have been set by faculty and staff have sustained us as well as driven us — I learned a great deal about how the love and excellence of what we do have made it possible for us to do it in the most adverse circumstances.
I also learned that we are a community that is ready to engage in anti-racist work, with the full realization of the commitment and change that this crucial work will take.
How have you adapted to deal with the unprecedented circumstances we currently find ourselves in?
I now operate within a dynamic in which compassion and resolve are in much closer connection. Where, before our society was overtaken by a pandemic, resolve might have been reserved for some projects (initiatives, for example) and compassion for others (e.g., relationships and community), the two come together for the tremendous number of decisions and logistics in which we are consistently engaged.
Has it changed the way in which you lead?
I do think that what we’re enduring as a society, as a community, and as individuals has made me even more aware of everyone’s labor, of how present everyone at Grinnell (truly, everyone) is to the work at hand. When there are difficult decisions to be made or complex logistics to work out, I now approach them knowing that there is both fatigue and creativity in the room; and I do my best to hold space for the former and foster the latter.
“… we build the sense of belonging so that more students feel that powerful connection to the College all the way through to graduation, and so that all faculty and staff and alumni have it as well, both for the College and for each other.”
How might the challenges we are facing now also pose opportunities for growth and development?
The shared endeavor of being Grinnell College within adverse circumstances has created many new partnerships between faculty and staff, students and faculty and staff, and alums and all. I’ve heard variations of the statements “When we return, I don’t want to give up this new relationship” or “It turns out, there was another way of doing things” many times.
The growth and development of new relationships, new appreciations of each other’s expertise and talents, and finding out what matters to people outside your immediate work has been noted; and now we need to understand how we have been irrevocably changed by the past six months.
What new opportunities might arise for Grinnell from the current situation?
There are tremendous opportunities to learn from ourselves as a community. I learned early on — during those very first town halls in March — just how much students value being together on our campus, just how much faculty sustain the highest standards in connection through teaching and research, just how much staff foster belonging and empower problem-solving, and just how much alums want to be involved.
In all of those lessons, I see our learning and living community under a new light that reveals the interconnectedness of our experiences. It makes me think about our identities and the spaces in which they are nurtured and sustained.
What are your immediate goals for the College?
Rebuilding from the derecho and enduring the pandemic while championing and living our mission are the most immediate goals I have. Then: that we build the sense of belonging so that more students feel that powerful connection to the College all the way through to graduation, and so that all faculty and staff and alumni have it as well, both for the College and for each other.
Some of that work will entail how we think about how spaces and identities are connected to belonging. For that, how we are thinking and moving forward with student housing will be crucial, especially the projected renovations on campus and the downtown student residence hall.
In the next year or two, I also look forward to the glad return to in-person collaboration and travel that energize teaching and research after the major disruption of the pandemic. We’ll be thinking about community both locally and globally again. Locally, we have so many great connectors between the College and the community through our centers (Prairie Studies, Humanities, Wilson, Rosenfield), which is another area of expansion I’m eager to explore. Globally, the Institute for Global Engagement has positioned us for connections all over the world, and we will be ready to form relationships with institutions and partners globally.
What would you like to see happening at Grinnell 10 years from now?
I hope that our sense of how we come to be a community of inquiry would be visible and accessible to all, so as to create a sense of belonging that sustained all of the constituents of Grinnell College.
We would have blurred the boundary between the campus and the community, starting with the downtown residence hall and the multiple points of contact and shared action that our centers provide; our definition of civic trust — of what we hold in trust for each other as a community — would have grown; our teaching and research would continue to reach wide audiences; and our practice of sharing the knowledge that faculty, staff, and students have created would benefit communities.
Within this framework of public trust, in which we are conscious of how knowledge leads to action that improves people’s lives, voices and narratives and experiences would be amplified through the shared endeavors of community projects — the inscription of names in the Alumni Recitation Hall, the expansion of student media and digital storytelling, the gathering of national conferences at the College, and an engagement with the history of the town and College, in all their complexity.
“I also look forward to the glad return to in-person collaboration and travel that energize teaching and research after the major disruption of the pandemic. We’ll be thinking about community both locally and globally again.”
One of the issues that comes up repeatedly in community conversations as well as on campus is mental health; in the Grinnell of 10 years from now, I would want to see more resources and support for mental health and well-being.
Through all this, Grinnell’s leadership will have become even more palpable within academic disciplines and within communities that seek to engage racial justice, socioeconomic realities, the activism of art and music and theatre and dance, the empowerment of civic actions like voting and voter education, and much more.