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Wolfson Professor of Jewish Studies Jay M. Harris says he doesn’t sleep much, and it’s no wonder—the father of three already juggles responsibilities as a writer, a teacher of two Core courses, and a key leader in the College’s ongoing curricular review.
And by the looks of things, he won’t be getting much more shut-eye anytime soon.
Harris, along with his wife Cheryl, will take over as co-masters of Cabot House next year from James H. and Janice Ware, who stepped down this year after a seven-year tenure.
The Harrises met as undergraduates in the seventies, while he was attending Columbia and she was at Barnard.
They both went on to graduate work at Columbia, and Jay Harris taught there until 1989, when he came to Harvard.
Cheryl Harris has spent more than 10 years as a school psychologist in a local high school and says that her experience will help her take some of the challenges of the House master position “in stride.”
“When we first started hearing about the position, they said ‘you’ll be really surprised by some of the issues that college kids confront today, things like eating disorders, academic stress...’ and Jay turned to me and said, ‘maybe I’ll be surprised, but she won’t,’” she says.
Assistant Professor in Classics and History of Art and Architecture Betsey A. Robinson ’89-’90, who is a tutor in Cabot House and was a member of the master search committee, says she thinks both bring unique skills to the table when they take over in the fall.
“It really felt like each of them would be an equal co-master in terms of their involvement and what they could offer,” Robinson says.
Harris says the master position will tie directly into his role as co-chair of the Overall Academic Experience committee of the curricular review, which will address broad issues such as the role of the Houses in academics.
“I think it’s natural to mix these roles,” Harris says, “We also have Judith Palfrey, Adams co-master, and former co-master of Currier [and Associate Dean of the College] Georgene B. Herschbach.”
For the past several years, Harris has alternated between teaching Moral Reasoning 54: “‘If There is No God, All is Permitted’: Theism and Moral Reasoning,” and Foreign Cultures 56: “Jewish Life in Eastern Europe.”
According to Robinson, his role as a prominent Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) professor may be beneficial to students.
“I was...surprised to see that our pool didn’t include many people from FAS, and I don’t know why that is,” Robinson says. “In the end, I don’t think it matters, but when I was an undergrad I was tickled when [Professor of Comparative Literature emeritus] Jurij Striedter became master.”
Harris says he may have to make some sacrifices because of his new duties as co-master.
“I edit a journal, which I will stop doing next year,” Harris says, “I have a couple of book projects under contract which will take a little longer, [but] neither of the Cores are projected to be particularly large and I’ve done them both a number of times. I don’t worry about that.”
One issue of major significance to some students is that Jay and Cheryl Harris are Jewish.
In a letter to the editor published in The Crimson in April, Hillel’s Vice President for Community Relations Julia Appel ’04 wrote that “[a]s the first Orthodox Jewish House Master, Professor Jay Harris is breaking a very significant barrier, in addition to being among the very first Jewish House Masters appointed.”
Harris, however, says he does not see his appointment as breaking barriers.
“I would think at this point all the remnants of the discriminatory aspects of Harvard have largely disappeared,” he says. “Obviously there are political issues that come up from time to time that are not always justified...[but] I don’t think it’s a really big deal any more.”
Cheryl Harris says she agrees, adding that while their religion is important to them they do not see it as a point of controversy.
“It’s an opportunity for people to get more acquainted with the traditional Jewish lifestyle [but] I think [some] think it is more of an issue than it is. For us it’s a non-issue,” she says.
Two of the couple’s three children will be moving into the Cabot House masters’ residence with their parents.
Becky Harris is a high-school sophomore, and David Harris is finishing the seventh grade. Their oldest child, Elana, is currently a sophomore at Oberlin University.
Cheryl Harris said that David and Becky were excited about the move, but that Elana was slightly annoyed that her parents had waited to do something “this cool” until after she had left the nest.
Harris said that her younger children would continue at their current schools.
Susan Livingston, assistant to the Cabot House masters, says she is looking forward to working with the couple.
“He’s a really adept listener and wants to hear all sides of an issue,” Livingston says. “You come away having met with him feeling validated even though he may not have agreed with you, which is what I liked so much about [Former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68].”
—Staff writer Michael A. Mohammed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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