Bennie L. Harris smiles at the camera

New Upstate chancellor wants nimble, future-focused approach

First-generation leader wants to prepare students for 'jobs that don’t exist today'

When Bennie Harris was interviewing to become chancellor of the University of South Carolina Upstate, he heard a familiar refrain from business and community leaders along with faculty, staff and students of the Spartanburg-based university.

“I kept hearing so many people say, ‘We believe in USC Upstate. We want USC Upstate to be the very best. USC Upstate is a driver for the economic engine up here,’” says Harris, who started as chancellor July 1 after serving as senior vice president for institutional advancement at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.

That enthusiasm for the university was good news to Harris, who says USC Upstate’s mission aligns with his personal goal: To lead an institution that inspires and develops young people to change the world. And he believes that he can best accomplish that at a regional comprehensive university.

We need to teach young people to be critical thinkers, teach them to write, to think and to communicate. Teach them to work collaboratively. And teach them to be leaders and not just doers.

Bennie L. Harris, USC Upstate Chancellor

Harris grew up in rural Mississippi, earning a chemical engineering degree from Mississippi State University.  He remembers his early days as an undergraduate, when he was one of two African-American students in a chemistry class of 300.

“It was one of the most intimidating experiences. The class was taught by graduate assistants; I may have met the professor one time,” he says. “For a first-generation college student coming from a small, rural community, that was not the experience that maximized my potential or poured dreams and vision into me. What did inspire me were the teachers and the staff who believed in helping young people to persevere, to aspire, to dream. And that’s really the environment you find in a regional comprehensive university.”

USC Upstate is home to about 6,000 students and graduates about 1,300 each year. Studies estimate it has a half-billion-dollar economic impact on the region.

As chancellor, Harris hopes the university can lead the way in increasing the number of residents in Spartanburg and Greenville counties who hold a four-year degree, while attracting more companies to a region that already is home to BMW and Michelin. As the largest regional comprehensive university in the South Carolina system, and the only one in the Upstate, he also believes there is an opportunity to partner with community, technical and two-year colleges in the region.

“We are part of the economic driver in this region. The business and community leaders say we need Upstate to invest in growing a workforce and training our workforce. Not just a technical or logistical or automotive workforce, but we need to train for careers in jobs that don’t exist today,” he says. “We should be nimble enough to respond to that. We can’t look at degrees as so rigid. We need to teach young people to be critical thinkers, teach them to write, to think and to communicate.  Teach them to work collaboratively. And teach them to be leaders and not just doers.”

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