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President Harris Honored for Civic Engagement in Chester

Penn State University honored Widener University President James T. Harris III on June 1 with the Distinguished Alumni Award for his support of higher education and his role in bridging Widener with the city of Chester.
President Harris
The Distinguished Alumni Award, the university's highest award for an individual, salutes the achievements of outstanding Penn State alumni whose personal lives, professional achievements and community service exemplify the university's objectives. Recipients are selected by the Penn State Board of Trustees.

Harris, who earned his doctoral degree in higher education from Penn State in 1988, has been president of Widener since 2002 and has transformed the university into one of the nation's leading civic engagement institutions.

During his tenure as president, Widener has been ranked among the top service-oriented universities in the nation by Newsweek and Washington Monthly, and was among the first U.S. universities classified as a "community engagement institution" by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Widener has also been named to the President's Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll every year since 2006, and was a Presidential Award finalist this year.

"I'm very honored to receive this award from Penn State University," Harris said. "Widener has been able to accomplish great things because of the strong leadership of the Board of Trustees, a university community that shares our mission and goals, and wonderful people in the Chester community with whom we have built strong partnerships to make the city a better place."

At Widener, Harris has created robust partnerships to engage Widener with the community. Harris brought together the presidents of five local colleges and universities to form the Chester Higher Education Council and establish the College Access Center of Delaware County, which helps youths and adults gain access to higher education.

Harris also partnered to create the Widener Partnership Charter School, the state's first university-based charter school. The school partners interdisciplinary teams of Widener faculty members and graduate students to work with school children and their families to promote social, emotional, and intellectual development.

The Widener Small Business Development Center, which opened in 2007, incubates more than two dozen businesses each year, and was recently honored by the Small Business Administration with the 2013 SBDC Excellence and Innovation Award for Eastern Pennsylvania and the entire Mid-Atlantic region.

Harris has also championed the economic development of Chester, leasing university property for $1 per year to private developers to create University Crossing, a commercial and residential initiative that has attracted the first hotel, full-service bank, and convenience store to Chester in recent memory. The initiative has created numerous jobs and boosted tax revenue in the city.

Now, Harris is helping expand to other U.S. cities the concept of universities as anchor institutions. Chester is one of six pilot cities for the White House's Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is using Widener as a case study on the positive impact colleges and universities can have in stabilizing and improving the nation's struggling communities.

Harris earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Toledo, a master's degree from Edinboro University, and his doctoral degree in higher education from Penn State.

Following post-doctoral studies at Harvard University, Harris became president in 1994 of Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. During his tenure, he established a service-learning program that drew national attention. In 1999, the John Templeton Foundation named him one of the country's top 50 character-building university presidents.

This year, Harris co-authored Academic Leadership and Governance of Higher Education: A Guide for Trustees, Leaders, and Aspiring Leaders of Two- and Four-Year Institutions.

Widener University is a private, metropolitan university that connects curricula to social issues through civic engagement. Dynamic teaching, active scholarship, personal attention, leadership development and experiential learning are key components of the Widener experience. A comprehensive doctorate-granting university, Widener is comprised of eight schools and colleges that offer liberal arts and sciences, professional and pre-professional curricula leading to associate's, baccalaureate, master's and doctoral degrees. The university's campuses in Chester, Exton, and Harrisburg, Pa., and Wilmington, Del., serve some 6,500 students. Visit the university website,