A conversation with President Anne Harris

July 15, 2020 — Anne F. Harris was appointed the 14th president of Grinnell College on Tuesday after serving as dean of the College and vice president for academic affairs during the 2019-20 school year. She graciously took some time from a whirlwind first day on the job to answer questions for The Grinnellian.

The Grinnellian (TG): What’s today been like for you? Has it truly hit you that it’s your first day as Grinnell’s president?

Anne Harris (AH): Today has been deeply meaningful to me. My family was with me during the announcement, and we were able to watch it together. I really feel the full support of the incredible people in the Grinnell community and all its fullness and richness today. Though it was virtual, it was still ceremonious. It gave me a chance to pause and look at the big picture. My father passed away in 2012, and I’m thinking fondly of him. He would have been 100 this year. His and my mother’s love of education make it an even more meaningful day today.

Anne Harris and Trustee Michael Kahn ’74, right, chat with young alums during a campaign event in San Francisco.
Anne Harris and Trustee Michael Kahn ’74, right, chat with young alums during a campaign event in San Francisco.

TG: At what point did you throw your hat in the ring, so to speak, to be considered as a candidate for president? Was there a particular reason you wanted to be president or was it many reasons?

AH: I had come to feel such passion for the institution after the March dispersal of our community. I look back at that moment in Herrick Chapel when I was looking out at our faculty, staff, and so many students, and I felt a powerful love for Grinnell, what it stands for, and what it is to people. I felt that call for stewardship and to be accountable for the work that had to be done. When I was nominated to be a candidate for the presidency, I did a lot of soul searching. I made my peace with whatever the outcome would be. My great privilege was I’d be at Grinnell doing good work no matter what. The questions of the search committee were so fantastic about Grinnell, higher education, and society. I even got a question about my concept of time. The search process itself was a great opportunity to think about the purposefulness of the work.

TG: Obviously the pandemic has produced an extraordinary amount of challenges. What have you learned from this experience about Grinnell’s faculty and staff; alumni; and Grinnell as an institution?

AH: I’ve learned and been humbled by our faculty and staff’s dedication to each other and to our students. The faculty engaged in this seismic shift of moving their courses online yet have remained dedicated to their students every step of the way. The staff has been looking out for every student, whether it was related to their classes, housing, or travel. I learned a great deal about students and their passion for the College. Alumni have provided generosity and support through encouragement, and the SOS Fund that helped get students home in March. The alumni connection is very strong. Because of our low density model approach and the pandemic keeping us scattered, what we are being forced to think about is what it means to be a part of Grinnell even if you are not on campus. It’s an important question that we are in the process of answering, programming, and scheduling.

Anne Harris and Angela Frimpong ’20 share a laugh last year at a Campaign for Grinnell kickoff event in Des Moines.
Anne Harris and Angela Frimpong ’20 share a laugh last year at a Campaign for Grinnell kickoff event in Des Moines.

TG: You’ve have quite a few conversations with alumni at campaign events and other meetings. How have those discussions helped shaped your thought process as dean and how will they continue to do so as president?

AH:  I’m eager to learn more from and about alumni. The campaign events were absolutely terrific to find out what people are doing and how their Grinnell education has launched them to what they are doing. I’ve enjoyed talking with alumni about issues important to them. That will continue. We can strive to create shared understandings even if we are not in agreement on some of those issues. My door is open, and I’m eager to find out what people care about. Alumni passion is energy for the College.

TG: It’s well-documented the financial pressures colleges are facing due to the pandemic, and even with a sizable endowment, Grinnell isn’t immune to those problems. Why does support for education remain critical in this unparalleled time?

AH: Education is needed as a place where society can look to for collaborative problem solving. There’s been no more important time in living memory than right now to be a student at a place that is intentional and conscious about how knowledge comes into existence and how knowledge is communicated and used in society. Grinnell’s great strength is that students come here and discover and make meaning in community and in partnership. Yes, we could approach this year like we’re on hold or just trying to get through it. But we’re actually looking at it as an incredible year of learning for us. We are going to learn what it means to be a Grinnellian even if you are not on campus. We will learn how knowledge impacts society. In short, this coming year is one in which we learn about who we are and what we believe in.

— by Jeremy Shapiro

For your information:

For more information about the presidential announcement, read the web story and watch the announcement video. To find out more about Anne Harris’ background and the office of the presidency, visit the College’s president web pages.

To read more alumni news, check out our news archive.