Growth, vitality, and service to the community are key attributes of Walter Harrison's first 10 years as president of the University of Hartford. Since his appointment as the University of Hartford's fifth president in 1998, the University has experienced a period of energy and momentum unmatched in its history. President Harrison has overseen dramatic improvements in academic quality, finances, and fundraising.
More than 7,300 students (5,600 undergraduates and 1,700 graduate students) study at the seven schools and colleges of the University of Hartford, which is classified as a doctoral research–intensive university by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The institution has seen a 15 percent increase in undergraduate enrollment, and a 23 percent increase in degrees awarded, over the past decade. A highly visible figure on campus, President Harrison is known for his enthusiasm for student life and University activities, and is fondly referred to as Walt by many students.
During President Harrison's tenure, the University has undertaken a vigorous and comprehensive building campaign. Many of the University's residence halls have been renovated, and Hawk Hall, the University's new five-story, 208-bed residence for first-year students, was completed during the summer of 2007. The oval-shaped Alumni Plaza, constructed out of concrete of various colors and finishes, now provides students with a large gathering spot on the residential side of campus.
At the heart of this construction campaign are three major new additions to the University's signature academic programs: The Renée Samuels Center of the Hartford Art School (opened in January 2007), the Integrated Science, Engineering, and Technology Complex (opened in 2005), and the Mort and Irma Handel Performing Arts Center (opened in September 2008), which houses the Dance and Theatre divisions of The Hartt School. The Handel Center, located in the Upper Albany and Blue Hills neighborhoods of Hartford, one mile east of the University's campus, also contains space for community activities.
Two buildings have been renovated to house two of the University's leading liberal arts programs: Psychology (East Hall) and Communication/Cinema Studies (Abrahms Hall). In 2006, the University opened new state-of-the-art athletic fields for soccer, lacrosse, softball, and baseball.
The University's vibrant relationship with the Greater Hartford community is a hallmark of President Harrison's tenure. The University has become a recognized leader in helping to improve public schools. It is the only private university in the country with two public magnet schools on campus—the University of Hartford Magnet School and the University High School of Science and Engineering.
President Harrison's community involvement is extensive. He serves on the boards of directors of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges and the Hartford Consortium of Higher Education. He serves as trustee or director of a number of other Hartford-area organizations, including the Greater Hartford Arts Council, the Hartford Stage Company, Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center, the Connecticut Science Center, and Suffield Academy. He is also a director of WorldBusiness Capital, an international finance firm based in Hartford.
Reflecting his longtime interest in intercollegiate athletics, President Harrison chairs the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Committee on Academic Performance, the group charged with implementing academic reforms among the nation's leading intercollegiate athletic programs, and serves on a number of other NCAA committees. He is the immediate past chair of the NCAA Executive Committee. He also serves on the Presidential Advisory Committee of the Association of Governing Boards.
All this is a long way from President Harrison's beginnings as a scholar of American literature and culture. A native of Pittsburgh, he graduated from Trinity College in Hartford in 1968, then earned a master's degree from the University of Michigan in 1969. After an interim of three years to serve as a captain in the United States Air Force, President Harrison earned a doctorate from the University of California–Davis. His doctoral dissertation, "Out of Play: Baseball Fiction from Pulp to Art," was one of the earliest scholarly treatments of baseball and its place in American life.
In 1982 President Harrison left full-time teaching to take an administrative position at Colorado College. He joined Gehrung Associates University Relations Counselors in 1985, becoming president of the firm shortly thereafter. In 1989 President Harrison moved to the University of Michigan, where he became vice president of university relations and secretary of the university.
President Harrison and his wife, Dianne, a scholar of 19th-century Victorian literature and mystery literature, make their home in Russell House, the president's residence at the University of Hartford.