by Ryan MacDonald
photography by Manuel Hernandez
Many times these days, Benjamin Harris is alone on stage. His supporting characters and other leading roles enter and exit, but, when the production is over, it is Harris who emerges as the one people remember from the cast of hundreds. For the most part, Harris is comfortable with being the star.
His resume is extensive, and if it were printed for publication, it would read like an entire cast of characters for a current play on Broadway: the comedian, the businessman, the father, the grandfather, the husband, the friend and the current Board of Trustees President. It may seem as if the embodiment of these roles would be tremendously difficult, but, at one time or another, Harris chooses to cast himself into the roles.
Nonetheless, at the age of 67, Harris is used to being the chameleon. Like any true actor, he embodies the qualities of each character by absorbing the feelings and emotions involved. In other words, Harris knows how to entertain the toughest crowds. Like a brave performer, he waits for the perfect moment to crack his shameless jokes about himself, or the issues surrounding him.
Every once in a while even, Harris likes to joke about himself. “The normal guy my age will look in the mirror and think, ‘Well I’m not a bad looking guy. My hair’s getting a little gray; I’m losing a little on top.’ But he never gets to see the overall thing,” he says about living life as an identical twin. “But that’s the advantage of being a twin. You have someone to compare yourself to. The disadvantage is that you look over and think, ‘Boy, he is really looking old.’ When I finally see my brother, I look at him and say, ‘Boy, it’s really getting sad. I’m really getting old.'”
When his personality sneaks out at times like these, a mischievous smile from the side of his face shows his carefree attitude. He laughs at his own jokes and he appreciates his own sense of humor. By analyzing his list of involvements, one can assume those around him also appreciate having Harris in their lives – like the 33 members of the Board of Trustees for the University of La Verne, who voted Harris to steer the futures for the hundreds of La Verne undergraduates. Or his identical twin brother, who has been Harris’ business partner for 40 years, or his six grandchildren who always laugh at his jokes.
So many people, so many commitments, so many interactions, and still Harris’ attitude toward life, and all of its various dealings, are treasured. Upon meeting him, one embraces a person who carries a tremendous amount of experience and knowledge. “He’s solid as a rock,” says Dr. Steve Morgan, University of La Verne President and friend. “He’s the kind of person you can rely on in good times and in bad.” His face personifies his generous personality: full and round, a little rosy and bubbly. It represents his jovial attitude. One can tell just by glancing at Harris that his ideas can be trusted.
Lately, his role as the chairman of the Board of Trustees for ULV consumes most of his free time. He is a natural performer, and even with the many concerns of the La Verne community, Harris’ confident posture is never shaken. When the curtain is pulled back and it is time for him to step onto the stage and stand under the spotlight, Harris always knows what role to choose.
Nearly 25 years ago, Harris auditioned for his role at ULV, but his responsibility with the school did not begin by attending the traditional four-year undergraduate program. Actually, the current chairman of the Board of Trustees is not even an alumnus of the University. “My real involvement started when I used to go to Camp La Verne,” Harris explains. Originally a member of the Church of the Brethren in Long Beach, Calif., Harris, along with his identical twin brother Bill, traveled to Camp La Verne, starting at age 16. “We’d jump on those old yellow buses and take the trip up to the mountain.”
Harris frequently visited the campus to watch football games and hang around the downtown area. He still visits today, so his opinion will always be considered important. Harris knows what La Verne was like then and now. “The campus is looking good. In terms of enrollment, to diversity of the student body, to academic standards,” says Harris. “If you have friends who are going to Cal State schools, there is no comparison.”
“I got a touch of La Verne by seeing the campus and the people,” he explains. “At that time, they had a relatively small enrollment here back in 1951.” Even with their involvement with ULV, the Harris brothers attended Whittier College to major in business administration. They were recruited to run track for the school and ventured to the rival college together. But Harris says he knew his interest in the future of ULV would not waver, and he planned to come back to ULV to get involved.
After graduating from Whittier, Harris became officially involved with the Board of Trustees at ULV. While he served on the Board of Trustees as an alumni representative at his alma matter, his uncle Clarence served on the ULV Board of Trustees. Benjamin was asked to assume his uncle’s position upon his retirement, and he quickly stepped up to the vacant post. “Clarence used to tell me about these two nephews he had, Ben and Bill, and he said he certainly hoped they would get involved at ULV,” recalls Dr. Morgan.
Harris fulfilled his uncle’s request throughout the years by becoming actively involved with the La Verne community. He provided the campus with some of its first student housing and did the contracting for the Landis Academic Center, the Wilson Library and the Harris Gallery. Since his uncle’s departure in 1978, Harris has established himself as an individual deeply concerned with the future of ULV. Harris wants to see the school succeed, and he maintains an optimistic perspective about where the University is going and how it can accomplish all that a private institution should.
In recent years, Harris has seen the standards for acceptance to the University bring the overall academic performance to an all-time high. In the fall of 2001, the University’s newspaper, Campus Times, reported that more than half of the 2001 freshmen class scored above 1000 on the SAT. In 1998, only 30 percent of the freshmen class achieved that standard. Additionally, based on statistics from the 2000 academic year, the University moved up from fourth tier to the third tier, according to the U.S News and World Report’s “Best National Universities: Doctoral” compilation. The list includes 288 national universities, and ULV ranked in the third tier, which starts with No. 131 and ends with 188.
As an undertaking, the faculty and staff are working with administrators to continue the school’s national performance because, Harris says, “It is direction we want to go in.” “If the University continues to admit students who perform better academically, it will lose out on key students who would normally flourish at ULV,” says Harris. Because of this trend, many faculty and coaches are concerned about the sacrifice that comes with the admittance of better students. But Harris, who supports many on-campus athletic teams, understands these concerns. “We used to have a lot of people come through La Verne who had not done so well in high school who blossomed when they came to La Verne, and I’d hate to lose out on those students.”
“It is a complete turn around to see some guy who came in with a low GPA, and by the time graduation comes around he is getting all A’s and B’s. So, you lose one thing,” he says. “I think we are going to continue to lose a little of that. But something happens as you grow, I guess.”
Growing is certainly something the University has been fond of in recent years. One year ago, the University of La Verne Law School moved onto its new location in the city of Ontario. This move not only brought numerous growth options but also brought a plethora of doubts about the financial stability of the project. Since the move, alumni, students and professors have remained concerned that the law school is costing more money than it is worth and, in turn, losing the University large financial dividends.
“I’m really concerned about the dollars we do spend because it takes so much effort to bring in dollars from everyone else, like the community bringing in dollars,” explains Harris. According to the same study by U.S. News and World Report, only 15 percent of alumni donate back to the University, and in Harris’ opinion, this number needs to grow in the next few years for the University to prosper. “We are always in a battle, trying to figure out a way to get more money to the professors, keeping the tuition where it should be, so we can keep it where people can afford it. Money is so important to the University,” Harris says.
Additional physical demands are being placed on the community and the school because of the recent expansions, but because the school is located on 31-acre piece of property (and because of strict city limitations) it remains limited and restricted in growth. “Students will always receive their undergraduate degree from the main campus location in La Verne,” Harris notes. “Fortunately or unfortunately, we are pretty much stuck here with 31 acres of land, and we really don’t want to go beyond 1,500 to 1,600 students,” he says. “That is what we can accommodate, and that is what we are trying to improve.”
If the population threatens to outgrow the facilities, internal improvements will be made, Harris says, and issues concerning the size of the campus are not something ULV dwells upon because “that isn’t what we’re really about.”
With Harris as the chairman, the Board of Trustees has made considerable efforts in the past few years at building the size of the endowment to fund specific projects, such as internal improvements of facilities and classroom expansion. “We’re always looking for donors. We’ve built our endowment up considerably, but we rely on about 90 percent tuition,” explains Harris. “We’d obviously like to get that down to the 70 percent level and have the endowment take care of more. That’s why we are constantly trying to build the endowment.”
The accomplished leadership ability exhibited by Harris throughout the years is a treasure to be appreciated. During the time of his inauguration, financial matters at the school were not profitable. University President Armen Sarafian (1975-1985) worked 16-hour days to keep matters afloat, and the payroll was completed on a month-by-month basis. No one was certain whether the University would be able to afford the finances for the following months. “It was a really tough time,” explains Harris. “We would ask Mary La Fetra [board chair] for 40 to 50 grand in order to get us through the summer time.”
However, in 1985 an upward movement began when President Morgan came aboard as the new ULV leader. He brought a business atmosphere to the college and surrounded himself with other professional businessmen, says Harris. “He has great relationships with his vice presidents, and they did a terrific job in turning everything around,” he says. “It was an upward trend to improve the campus and the scholastic standings as far as the students were concerned.”
With Harris at the helm of the 33-member Board of Trustees, those trends continue today, and as he continues to guide the school toward national excellence, Harris remains focused on supporting the efforts elicited by everyone. “I’m confident that Ben’s leadership will put the pieces in the right place to be one of the exemplary institutions,” says Dr. Morgan. “He’s a man of vision, and he’s never satisfied.”