Grace E. Harris, Ph.D. (M.S.W.’60/SW), whose leadership helped shape Virginia Commonwealth University during a pioneering 48-year career at the university, died on Monday at the age of 84.
Harris joined the social work faculty at Richmond Professional Institute in 1967, a year before the school merged with the Medical College of Virginia to form VCU, and she would prove to be an integral part of the university’s foundation and growth in the ensuing decades. Over the course of her career, Harris would rise to the position of provost and vice president for academic affairs at VCU, becoming the first African-American woman to serve as the chief academic officer at a four-year public university in Virginia.
“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,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “One of those people was Grace Harris. She 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 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.
“Dr. Harris lived as her name implied, with the utmost grace, even in the face of personal and professional indignities. 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.”
When Harris was first hired at RPI, she was one of the three African-American faculty members hired that year – the first black faculty members in the school’s history. Harris was named dean of the School of Social Work in 1982 and was later promoted to vice provost for continuing studies and public service. She served as provost and vice president for academic affairs from 1993 to 1999, while also assuming the role of acting president in 1995 and 1998.