Cornell University

April 16 2010

"Like Opening the Door"

U.S. Deputy Secretary of Labor Harris receiving Groat Award

Clete Daniel was one of the first professors Seth Harris met when he arrived at ILR.

"He was irreverent and so unassuming and so smart. I knew I was entering a completely different life," Harris said.

"It was like opening the door. Come in here, this is where the grown-ups are."

Ever since, Harris '83 has been on an upward trajectory.

Now, he is U.S. Deputy Secretary of Labor Seth Harris, making decisions that impact millions of Americans.

"The big goal is to help working people get good jobs, help everyone get a good job," said Harris, who receives the Groat Award at ILR's Celebration 2010 on Tuesday in New York City.

At the event, Laurie Berke-Weiss '71 also receives the Groat Award and Seth "Yossi" Siegel '74, '78 will be honored with the Alpern Award.

A year ago, Harris was Professor Harris at New York Law School.

His scholarship on the economics of labor and employment law was particularly focused on employment provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"To me, disability is the outer boundary of our society's struggle with prejudice," he said.

Harris said his late uncle and close friends with disabilities “helped educate me about the societal struggles they encounter.”

Harris's other professional roles include labor policy-advising positions in the Clinton Administration.

"Every new job I take is harder than the last," said Harris, who grew up the son of union members and the grandson of union activists.

His mother was a high school librarian and his father was a high school social studies teacher who also wrote 10 books for young adults.

At age 10, Harris developed a passion for politics and began working on campaigns.

In high school, his interest in the social sciences led to ILR. "It struck me as a near-perfect fit."

At ILR, "I figured out who I was and what I wanted to be."

"Collective bargaining, economics – I use that stuff today," he said. "The ILR School is still an important presence in my life. I think of the people in ILR as extended family."

"I have so many great memories. I worked pretty hard, but I played pretty hard, too … I was not a bookworm," said Harris, who played drums in the university pep band.

He made a mistake at ILR, though.

Advanced Placement course credits from high school and summer college credits allowed him to pack four years of college into three.

"I regret that decision to this day. I would love to have had a fourth year."

Lesson learned: "Not to rush through life."

Other lessons learned along the way: "I am always going to be more successful in doing work that I believe in. The people I met in my 20s are the people who have helped me succeed in my 30s and 40s. The path to success is paved with perseverance."

"Ending up in the job I'm in today really calls on all of those lessons," he said.  

At the end of the day, Harris is content.

"I have a wife who loves me and two children I adore and the opportunity to try to make the world a better place."