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Greenville Business Magazine

USC Upstate Chancellor Bennie Harris, Ph.D. Has Bold Plans For Institution

Jul 28, 2022 01:52PM ● By Donna Isbell Walker

Bennie Harris, Ph.D. chancellor of USC Upstate, grew up on a Mississippi farm where his parents raised cotton, soybeans, and wheat.

Every morning, he’d get up at 4:30 a.m. to slop the pigs before catching the bus and riding 18 miles to school. In the summer, he picked squash and butter beans to earn a little spending money and buy school clothes.

His parents, Henry Lee and Charlie Mae, worked hard on the farm, and his dad also was a general contractor and worked at a factory that made vinyl products for General Motors cars. Neither parent graduated from high school, although Henry Lee Harris later earned his GED.

Growing up as a young Black man in 1970s Mississippi, Harris might also have been destined for a life as a farmer.

But Harris’ mom and dad – whose wedding portrait hangs in his office at USC Upstate – pushed their eight children to seek higher education so that their lives wouldn’t depend on sun and rain and the whims of weevils.

To Harris, education meant he had a choice about what to do with his life.

“I think when you grow up in the segregated South and you look for those opportunities to better your life and your family’s lives, education is one of those pathways for better economic success, better success by advocating for oneself,” Harris said in a recent interview.

Harris, who started at USC Upstate in July 2021 and was officially installed at an investiture ceremony in April, came to Spartanburg from Morehouse School of Medicine, where he was senior vice president for institutional advancement.

At 55, Harris is the same age as the institution he now leads.

He has big plans for USC Upstate, which has 6,000 students and about 50 degree programs.

Harris arrived at the university last year at the height of the pandemic, and “we put together a theme called Reimagine USC Upstate, and I think that theme can carry (over) to Reimagine Education, period. Had I come here four years ago, my immediate goal would have been to double the size of the institution,” he said.

But the changes of the past year have led Harris to revise his vision.

Paradigm shift in education

The value of a four-year degree is no longer viewed the way it was 10 or 20 or 50 years ago, so “the whole paradigm of higher education is going to be reimagined,” he said.

Higher education is as important as ever, Harris says, but Americans need to change their way of looking at it. Rather than an either-or proposition – a four-year degree or technical college, for example – it should be viewed as an “and proposition,” a way to prepare for future opportunities.

“I believe that in higher education we have to become much more nimble in our delivery method and how we create accessibility to what we offer, our products and services, and we have to make sure we’re creating degrees that allow for higher-order thinking and working with corporations to do that,” he said.

Universities and accreditation bodies must be “prepared to pivot” in order to meet the continuous challenges and changes of the digital age, said Harris, who earned his undergraduate degree in engineering from Mississippi State University.

After graduating from college, Harris worked as director of the Center for Human Rights at Washington State University, where he also earned his MBA. After that, he went to University of Alabama at Birmingham, working as senior director of development and external affairs. While there, he earned his Ph.D. in strategic educational marketing.

He followed that with stints at DePaul University and Lipscomb University, before going to work at Morehouse in 2014.

Partnering with corporations

One way Harris wants to bring his ideas for USC Upstate into reality is through closer partnerships with corporations. For example, there’s a strong nursing program at USC Upstate, so Harris hopes to work more closely with health systems in Greenville and Spartanburg counties to provide nurses.

State support of the university has decreased in recent years, so students are responsible for more of the costs. That can be a problem for students who are working their way through school or those who are wary of taking on student loans, he said.

Nearly half of the students at USC Upstate are either classified as nonwhite or do not declare their race. Approximately one-third are first-generation college students, over 40 percent come from a household that earns less than $40,000 per year, and 75 percent work 30 hours or more per week while going to school, he said.

“So corporations have to step in and help educate and fund their workforce so they can have more loyalty and be able to stay there. Our traditional paradigm is loan repayment. When you’re talking about the number of first-generation college students we have and the number of people who live in poverty, folks don’t have $5,000 to pay to wait to get reimbursed for, so we have to put some money up front to get them that education, and it’s good for all of us,” he said.

University of South Carolina has eight campuses, including the flagship in Columbia. The university system will soon be led by president-elect Michael Amiridis, who was named USC’s 30th president earlier this year. He begins his term July 1, replacing Harris Pastides, who has served as interim president since May 2021.

Institutions like USC Upstate are “the heartbeat of America,” Harris said, and he connects with the students because he understands their experiences.

“It is who I am,” Harris said. “As I’ve spoken in so many instances, there were mentors and educators who really poured into me and saw my abilities, and saw in me pathways for success, and they really nourished those pathways.”

He knows firsthand the value of internships, so he hopes to boost the university’s internship programs. Internships benefit students by giving them practical experience in their chosen field while reducing the number of jobs they have to work in order to support themselves while in school.

In addition, the company benefits by training a future employee.

He also wants to expand online and evening classes and add the option of weekend classes. In addition, he aims to increase the number of degree programs offered, including a doctoral program in nursing.

His plans are bold, but Chris Taylor, vice chancellor for external affairs at USC Upstate and Harris’ chief of staff, has no doubts that Harris will realize them.

The two met when Taylor was a student at University of Idaho and Harris worked at Washington State University.

Thirty years ago, Harris helped Taylor find and realize a vision for his own life, one that moved Taylor beyond the football field.

Harris became Taylor’s adviser in a program where he worked with University of Idaho students, and his friendship and mentorship helped change the trajectory of Taylor’s life.

“He helped us dream about what was possible,” Taylor says now. “He helped instill leadership in a lot of young men.”

The two weren’t far apart in age—Taylor was in his late teens, Harris in his mid-20s—and for Taylor, Harris was like a big brother or an uncle.

Taylor had a passion for sports—All I thought about was catching a football”—but he didn’t have big dreams for what he would do after his college football career was over.

Taylor says he saw himself returning home to Kentucky and getting a job with Ford Motor Company.

“I didn’t know I wanted more,” he said.

Taylor admires Harris as a leader, a man of faith, and a person who cherishes his family, which includes wife Frankie, whom he met as a student at Mississippi State University, and three children, Bria, Bennie II, and Branden.

“What people see is a manifestation of God’s plan for him,” Taylor said. “I believe this is his calling.”

Faith is an important part of Harris’ life. His childhood pastor, Dr. Harvey M. Jackson, gave the invocation at Harris’ investiture, and Harris once wrote a devotional book that began as a series of emails to his siblings.

Work as relaxation

To accomplish as much as he has in 55 years, Harris isn’t big on down time. Ask what he does for fun, and the answer might be a little surprising.

“What I do for fun is what I do every day,” Harris said. “It takes my wife a lot of work, and it frustrates her sometimes, to get me to do what she calls ‘relax.’ I am relaxed right now. Some people relax with a book on the beach. That bores me. … I am relaxed when I see people happy, and I see people healthy, so those are things that really give me joy.”

He does love to read, just not as beach relaxation. At the time of this interview, Harris was reading David Brooks’ “The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.”

His perspective on life was largely shaped by his Mississippi childhood.

Living on a farm so far from town could be boring, but “looking back, I think it was the best choice for raising eight children because it kind of protected us from the town and getting into trouble because we were stuck on that farm,” Harris said.

As a ninth-grader, Harris drove the tractor on his family’s farm, and he can remember riding that tractor and imagining himself becoming the governor of Mississippi.

“It could have been the heat waves from the heat, but I was driving this tractor in the fields, and I saw myself at the Mississippi State Capitol that I’d never seen before – I just knew there was a Capitol because I read it in all the books – and I saw myself giving an inauguration speech. Now, I don’t have any aspiration for politics, but I saw myself doing that.”

Later in high school, he considered a career in medicine, but decided to major in engineering. Eventually, he realized that he wanted to one day lead a higher education institution.

“It took me a minute to figure out the type of university that aligned with my purpose and my passion,” Harris said.

Much of his experience was in Research One universities, which are heavily focused on research, with a large contingent of graduate students pursuing doctorate degrees.

But Harris also enjoyed the service focus of the Catholic-affiliated DePaul University in Chicago and the Church of Christ-affiliated Lipscomb University in Nashville, as well as Morehouse School of Medicine’s focus on health equity for marginalized communities.

He soon discovered that USC Upstate was the right fit for his vision and his experience.

“All of those things really came together for me as it aligned with who I am – my life, my heritage, my purpose.”