Full Plate, Empty Cup

Dr. Bennie Harris lays out his vision for USC Upstate

By Elizabeth Anderson

Chancellor Bennie Harris meets with Spartanburg Community College President Michael Mikota.

When Chancellor Bennie Harris is introducing himself to new people, he likes to share some advice from his mother.

She told him to live life with an empty cup, since if his cup was full, others wouldn’t be able to contribute new ideas to it.

Given Harris’ busy schedule since starting his term as USC Upstate’s fifth chancellor on July 1, his cup would seem to be overflowing. He’s attended faculty meetings, sat in on department meetings, spoken to educators in both Greenville and Spartanburg school districts, met with business leaders and General Assembly members, and talked to city leaders, among other activities. Yet, he insists, he’s just getting started.

“What made USC Upstate so attractive to me is that it was an opportunity to take a comprehensive university that was in a region as diverse as any in this country, and help students realize their greatest aspirations through education,” he says.

The ability of education to transform lives has been a theme throughout Harris’ life. The sixth of eight children born to Henry and Charlie Mae Harris, Harris grew up on a farm in Deeson, Mississippi. His parents never made a big deal out of education, yet Harris says he and his siblings always understood it was “something we were going to do.” All of them, except for his oldest brother, Henry James, who died of cancer at 17, went to college.

Harris’ parents instilled a strong work ethic in their children. The family grew cotton, soybeans and wheat on 60 acres that once belonged to Harris’ grandfather, and every summer, starting at 5 in the morning, everyone pitched in to weed the cotton plants until 4 or 5 in the evening. Then there were chores to do at home. As young as 9, Harris would pick vegetables in the family’s truck garden and sell them at the market to earn money to buy school clothes.

Faith was another cornerstone of family life. “We went to church a lot,” Harris says. Twice a day on Sunday, then Wednesdays and Saturdays, the family attended the Church of Christ in Mount Bayou. The experience not only gave him a strong religious grounding, it taught him that “you can lead from whatever station you are in life.” In a small rural church, he explains, anyone may called on to preach, or sing, or any number of tasks, so you learn to do whatever may be required.

Harris says he was also fortunate to have outstanding teachers throughout his educational journey. There was Ms. Peacock, his third-grade teacher; Mr. Saddle, the first male teacher he ever had, in sixth grade; and Mr. Jones, his ninth-grade science teacher.

And then there was Mrs. Hemphill, his high school algebra teacher. Harris was one of 10 students on a college track, so during the periods she wasn’t teaching, Mrs. Hemphill would teach the group calculus and physics to prepare them for the ACT. She was also the adviser for the student council, of which Harris was president, and invited the students to her beach home, “just to show us that there was more than the two-lane highways and the dirt roads that we grew up on.”

When it came time to choose a college, Mrs. Hemphill encouraged Harris to attend Mississippi State University. While he had originally intended to pursue pre-med at another school, his teacher, who was white, reminded him of the sacrifices many African Americans had made to integrate all-white colleges so they would be accessible to all. “I think she wanted her students to participate in the fruits of that labor,” Harris says.

Inspired by her support, Harris became an engineering major. He was part of the university’s co-op program, in which students gained real-world work experience one semester, then focused full-time on their studies the next. Harris notes the jobs carried full responsibilities – in one, he was in charge of designing the machinery to produce seat belts and airbags for an automotive supplier, ensuring it met the manufacturer’s exact specifications.

But his experiences also gave Harris second thoughts about his chosen path. He sympathized with the workers he met, and their efforts to improve their conditions, goals that were often at odds with management. Harris knew if he rose through the ranks as a manager, he would be expected to focus more on company profits than worker rights.

"Where I see the university in five years is being very confident about who we are, and having that value be clear in the community and in the region that we serve," says Harris.

While he valued the skills and experience he gained through his internships, “it helped me to see that I really align with the values of empowered people, more so than just the financial benefit of a company,” he says.Harris had in fact starting thinking about becoming a math teacher like his mentor Mrs. Hemphill. But because switching to education that late in his college career would’ve meant additional time in school, he followed his father’s advice and stuck with engineering, figuring he could always come back to education later.

Education found Harris anyway. While an undergraduate, he had gotten to know the assistant vice president for cultural diversity at Mississippi State, Dr. Ernestine Madison, who became another mentor. When she got a job at Washington State University, she invited Harris to come work for her after he graduated. By that time, Harris had met his wife-to-be, Frankie, who was pursuing her master’s in public administration at Mississippi State. Harris moved to Washington first, then was joined by Frankie after the two were married in 1992.

Harris stayed at Washington State for seven years. He became director of the Center for Human Rights, which oversaw affirmative action, Title IX and Equal Employment Opportunity issues for the university, then was recruited to work in the advancement office, where he helped develop a pipeline program to create more diversity in the staff. He also got his MBA, and became a dad when his daughter, Bria, was born.

Harris continued to work in education, fundraising for the school of education at the University of Alabama in Birmingham as part of the advancement team there, and he earned his doctorate. “I thought I wanted to be an academic dean in the school of education,” Harris says. “But every time I get a pathway back to education, it goes in a different direction.”

Instead of becoming a professor, Harris went to DePaul University to head up a $250 million fundraising campaign there, then moved on to Lipscomb University in Nashville to become vice president for development. By this time the Harris family had grown to include two sons, Bennie II and Branden.

David England, who worked in advancement at Lipscomb with Harris, says his friend’s leadership skills and genuineness as a person were major assets to the university. England recalls a trip to New York he arranged for a group of donors. England asked Harris if he would lead the group, betting that “his natural leadership and enthusiasm would be just what that group needed.” His instincts not only proved correct, but when some problems arose on the trip, Harris’ “ability to adjust on the fly and make decisions actually added value to the experience instead of being a negative.”

From Lipscomb, Harris was recruited to become the senior vice president for advancement at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. The school was relatively young, Harris says, and the goal when he arrived was to launch a $100 million campaign. Instead, over a four and half year period, Harris and his team raised $233 million.

With every fundraising success, Harris felt his purpose strengthen. “My mission is to inspire and develop young people to change the word,” he says. “That started coming together at Lipscomb University, and became even more cemented at Morehouse School of Medicine, because I saw the power of education to transform lives, not just my life, but those around me.” As chancellor at USC Upstate, he saw an opportunity to do even more.

Christopher Taylor, who was tapped by Harris to be the vice chancellor for external affairs and chief of staff at USC Upstate, has known Harris for three decades, and says his friend has always been passionate about impacting the lives of young people.

“I think he has a unique ability to remain humble, yet be progressive and push people to give their best,” Taylor says. “All with the goal, within this higher education space, of making sure we’re creating the right opportunities for students to maximize their potential and to realize their dreams.”

The Harris family -- Bria, Chancellor Harris, Bennie II, first lady Frankie Harris, and Branden -- shows off their Upstate spirit.
One of Harris’ first actions after arriving at USC Upstate was to convene the university’s leadership team to develop a transformative value statement for the school. The result – education for all that inspires a thriving and just society – is the guiding principle behind Harris’ plan of action for the months ahead. And by “all,” Harris says, he doesn’t just mean young people, but also adult learners and those who want to go back to school to develop new skills.“Where I see the university in five years is being very confident about who we are, and having that value be clear in the community and in the region that we serve,” he says.

Like college all across the country, enrollment growth is the biggest challenge facing USC Upstate, Harris says. Recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows a nationwide 3.2% decline in undergraduate enrollment this fall, following a 3.4% decline the previous year. While the COVID-19 pandemic made the drop more dramatic, the downward trend had already begun in 2012.

“There are so many different paths that folks can choose besides four-year degree attainment that in the short term will provide them the gratification they're looking for, but in the long term, they're losing out,” Harris notes.

He describes a recent conversation in which a male student told him it was hard for some men to justify going to college when there are high-paying manufacturing jobs available right now that will provide a good living, no degree required. For first-generation students and students of color in particular, it’s easy to see why this alternative would be tempting, Harris says.

“Because we have not had access to prosperity, we immediately see the now opportunity, and we find it hard to look at the long term,” he says. “But I still think that degree attainment influences an individual's prosperity over his or her lifetime. So, part of what I like to talk to folks about is, if you give me four years and 40 hours a week, I guarantee you that you can enjoy the next 20 years benefiting from that investment.”

One way to reverse the downward enrollment trend is to rethink the traditional education model, Harris says. That begins by giving students a clear pathway from college to a desired career. Students not only have to see that Upstate can get them the job they want, but they need to be supported until they get there. Harris sees potential to partner with regional employers on a paid co-op or internship program like the one he went through, so students get career-relevant experience while pursuing their education.

Universities also have to start meeting students where they are, Harris says. Student bodies are increasingly diverse – many students have families or full-time jobs, and need flexibility in their class schedules. Online offerings and non-traditional class times will likely increase to meet those needs, Harris says.

The chancellor chats with Upstate students in the Health Education Complex.

“What we have to do is be able to have the foresight to say, how is the industry changing and how does higher education meet the industry where it is, how are customers changing,” he says.

Harris has spent much of his first 100-plus days listening to what business and community leaders have to say about where their needs are. He wants USC Upstate to not just meet current workplace demands, but to anticipate what they might be in the future. “I believe that we are preparing young people for careers that don't exist today,” he says.

Fresh off an all-campus enrollment summit to discuss ways to strengthen enrollment and retention at USC Upstate, Harris is already deep into another 100 days of activities. More follow-ups are planned from the summit, as well as an expanded Founders Day in February that will bring guests, faculty and staff together for a day of events on campus. Harris also will be meeting with more business and community leaders to hear new ideas on how USC Upstate can strengthen its partnerships and presence in the region.

His cup is ready to receive them all.