Making a difference

Thomas Harris: A driving force for social justice

Thomas Harris, ’01, assistant director in the UWL Office of Multicultural Student Services, received the 2021 Academic Staff Excellence Award.

Posted 11:58 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2000

When Thomas Harris was graduating with a bachelor’s degree, three of his UW-Stevens Point mentors told him he had what it takes to make a difference among college students. 

Harris drove to La Crosse in August 1988 to discover how to do that through UWL’s college student personnel master’s program. He started classes that fall — beginning a 30-year UWL career of mentoring thousands and impacting a community.

“I stayed because the longer I remained connected with the off-campus community, the more opportunities, options, and assistance I was able to engage, offer, and provide for UWL students, faculty, staff, and individuals and organizations across the region,” explains Harris. 

The recipient of the 2021 Academic Staff Excellence Award, which recognizes excellence in performance and service, credits supervisors in Residence Life and Multicultural Student Services — the two office areas he worked on campus — for his UWL longevity and career growth. 

Harris says working with community and regional events and initiatives linked to equity, access, inclusion and social justice compelled him to stay. 

“In more recent years, my community activism role has been to build genuine relationships across racial and power structural lines, especially with open-minded white folks willing to recognize that they have the power, privilege, and capability to act to create positive equity improvements when it comes to interactions and partnerships with people of color and Indigenous people,” he explains. 

Harris specifically points to those who came with an open mind and used their privilege to make change benefiting everyone, not only the white majority. 

“This critical shortcoming in the La Crosse area has provided me an opportunity, as a Black man, to play a unique role to welcome white individuals at every level to learn, reimagine and participate intentionally cross culturally,” he says.   

With more than 20 local organizations now promoting equity, access, inclusion and social justice, Harris shares pride in achieving success. But, he knows efforts must continue. 

Thomas Harris’s 30 years on campus includes a stint as hall director in Wentz Hall.

The Thomas Harris file

  • Assistant director in the UWL Office of Multicultural Student Services 2003- 2021; assistant coordinator in the Housing Office, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, 2002-03; various positions in OMSS, Admissions, and Residence Life offices, UWL, 1988-2001.
  • La Crosse Area Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award, 2009; CouleeCap People Helping People Award for La Crosse County, 2010; UWL Rada Distinguished Alumni Award, 2012; UWL Parker Distinguished Multicultural Alumni Award, 2018. 
  • UWL residence hall students establish the Thomas Harris Student Involvement Award Scholarship to annually recognize outstanding student dedication and commitment to Residence Life excellence, 2001.
  • WURHA Advisor of the Year Award renamed by UW System student leaders the “Thomas Harris Advisor of the Year Award,” 2000.
  • Bachelor’s in political science/public administration and policy analysis, UW-Stevens Point, 1988; master’s in college student personnel, UWL, 2001.

Short interview clip with Thomas Harris