James F. Harris, a noted University of Maryland scholar of 19th century German history who also had been the longtime dean of the university’s College of Arts and Humanities, died of heart disease Feb. 22 at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. The Chevy Chase resident was 81.
“Before I succeeded Jim, I was a faculty member and the dean I reported to, and as we say, he had been very encouraging and supportive of my career advancement,” said Bonnie Thornton Dill, who since 2011 has been dean of the University of Maryland’s College of Arts and Humanities.
“He also really took the leadership in developing initiatives that we have continued to build on over time, such as working in digitization with the university libraries and establishing the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, which has a national reputation,” Dean Dill said.
“Other contributions would be in the area of the performing arts with the establishment of a state-of-the-art performance center which was unparalleled in the nation at the time,” she said. “It was not for bringing Broadway shows to College Park, but for the students who could learn in a state-of-the-art facility.”
She added: “He was a very tall and stately looking guy with a good sense of humor, who was both affable and friendly, and he had opinions about a lot of things.”
Marsha L. Rozenblit is the Harvey M. Meyerhoff Professor of Jewish History at the University of Maryland and a longtime colleague and friend.
“He was a really lovely person and as we say in Yiddish, a real mensch,” Dr. Rozenblit said. ”He was a very charming man, a wonderful teacher, and a very thoughtful man, and even though he was very tall, he never let that intimidate people.”
She added: “He had been a dedicated department chair and dean, and we worked very closely together and he always did what he said he would. He was honest and straightforward.”
James Fremont Harris, son of Ronald Fremont Harris, a Wolfe Manufacturing Co. manager, and his wife, Eileen Harris, a homemaker, was born and raised in Cleveland.
After graduating from Cathedral Latin High School in Cleveland, Dean Harris earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 1962 from Loyola University Chicago. He earned a master’s degree in 1964 and a Ph.D. in 1968, both in European history, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
With the exception of one year at Wisconsin, Professor Harris spent his entire career teaching and in administration at the University of Maryland, College Park, when he joined the history department faculty in 1967.
“He wrote on German liberalism, the Revolution of 1848 and antisemitism, among other topics,” in a statement announcing his death. “He is best known in the field for his book, ‘The People Speak!: Anti-Semitism and Emancipation in Nineteenth-Century Bavaria,’ in which he entered into a debate about ‘when modern antisemitism began.’
“Through a nuanced examination of newspapers of the time and anti-emancipation petitions, he refuted suggestions by other historians that antisemitism was not a major issue in the era, and pushed the origins of antisemitism back from the 1870s to as early as the 1840s in Bavaria, Germany — the second-largest German state in terms of population.”
Said Professor Rozenblit: “Even though he wasn’t a Jew, he immersed himself in the history of antisemitism that came before the Nazis and he taught it.”
“Jim came across a treasure trove of complaints sent by towns in Bavaria to the government during the Revolution of 1848, which represented their grievances at that time,” Professor Rozenblit, who teaches Jewish history, explained in the University of Maryland statement announcing Professor Harris’ death.
“Many towns complained bitterly about the Jews. Scholars had long known about antisemitism during the Revolution. But Jim discovered that people used racial arguments against the Jews, arguments which scholars thought were invented only later in the 19th century. This early racial antisemitism that Jim discovered was startling.”
Dean Harris’ book was a blend of cultural, intellectual, social and political history that considered antisemitism from various approaches.
He was associate history department chair from 1991 to 1994, and was chair from 1994 to 1997 when he was appointed dean of the College of Arts and Humanities.
Dean Harris’ tenure coincided with tremendous growth on the university’s College Park campus, and in addition to The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, he presided over the construction and growth of the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the Africa Diaspora.
“Jim was responsible for getting the David C. Driskell Center off the ground,” Dean Dill said.
Other accomplishments during his deanship included the development of an integrative approach to Middle East studies that resulted in the founding of the Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies and the Roshan Institute for Persian Studies, which were the first centers of their kind in the country.
He also oversaw a decadelong increase in student enrollments and external research funding, exceeding a $40 million fundraising goal of the school’s “Great Expectations” campaign, which raised more than $50 million.
“Donors liked him,” Dean Dill said.
“Jim always recognized that the college comprised wonderfully engaging teachers, remarkable scholars and innovative artists,” said Michelle Eastman, assistant president and chief of staff to Darryll J. Pines, who is president of the University of Maryland, in the statement. “He saw the strengths across the varied units and constantly thought of ways to move the college forward.”
“Perhaps the most import thing about Jim, was that he was an integrated person whose interests fed all parts of his life,” Professor Rozenblit said in a telephone interview.
In 2006, he played a leading role in strategic planning and coordination of the university’s 150th anniversary celebration, and he also was instrumental in bringing National History Day to Maryland, serving on its board for two decades, and its president in 2011.
“Jim was an incredible campus leader. He often offered insightful discussions about complex issues that caused leadership to think about how to best implement their plans,” President Pines said in the statement. “He was also a strong voice for the humanities, never missing an opportunity to articulate the value and importance of a comprehensive education.”
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“He cared deeply about scholarship, teaching and the University of Maryland,” Professor Rozenblit said. “He wanted to make sure that it was an exceptionally good place for the students and faculty.”
Professor Harris stepped down as dean in 2011 and retired from the university the next year.
A world traveler, he also took up creative writing, including short stories, in recent years, said his daughter Jeanne Marie Harris of Burlington, Vermont.
Dean Harris was was an accomplished gourmet cook who enjoyed both “preparing and eating good food,” his daughter said. An avid golfer, he was a familiar presence on the University of Maryland Golf Course.
His wife of 55 years, the former Catherine Ann Silvagni, a Long & Foster real estate agent, died in 2018.
Plans for a memorial service to be held this spring are incomplete.
In addition to his daughter, Dean Harris is survived by a son, Mark Fremont Harris of Princeton, New Jersey, and three grandchildren.