Harrison Keller is Texas’ recently appointed Higher Education Commissioner. In the interview below, he shares what inspires him, what he hopes to accomplish, his advocacy for first-generation college students, and what it means to be a good Texan.
Harrison Keller began his appointment as Texas’ sixth Higher Education Commissioner on October 1, 2019. Previously, he was a Clinical Professor at the University of Texas at Austin in the Department for Educational Leadership and Policy and in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and also served as Deputy to the President for Strategy and Policy.
Dr. Keller’s work has centered around improving outcomes for first-generation college students and students from low-income families through programs and policies to improve college readiness and student success.
He was recently on the Harvard Graduate School of Education campus for the 50th anniversary of the Institute for Educational Management (IEM). An IEM attendee in 2018, Dr. Keller was one of the many IEM past participants in attendance of this celebratory event, along with other leaders in higher education. During his time here, the Harvard Institutes for Higher Education team took the opportunity to speak with Dr. Keller, and the interview offered a glimpse into the inspiration behind the man and how his own circumstances as a learner influenced his devotion to improving the higher education experience for all Texas students.
Q&A with Harrison Keller
What sparked your policy work to improve college readiness and strengthen outcomes for first-generation college students?
I am a sixth-generation Texan. I grew up in the Texas Panhandle in a town called Plainview – between Lubbock and Amarillo. It's a farming community, and the school district is fairly property poor. Both of my parents were school teachers, and I grew up in their classrooms. Like a lot of teachers’ kids, I became a good student, but I didn't really have any idea about how the opportunities that were available to me in school were limited by the resources that the district had. We didn't have AP. We didn't have dual credit. I ran out of math to take my junior year in high school. When I got to the honors program at [the University of] Notre Dame, then all of a sudden I was sitting next to kids from some of the best schools in America who had already taken two years of calculus. I was seeing grades I had never seen before in my life, and it took me about three semesters to recalibrate. Fortunately, I had a lot of support from friends, from my family, from faculty… but I've never forgotten what that experience was like – to have to navigate that misalignment of the expectations in high school versus higher education.
I've seen that with my own students at UT Austin when I taught freshmen. Many first-generation students were navigating [college] without the resources I had to fall back on and trying to figure it out themselves. Fortunately, at the University of Texas, while I was there, we got a lot better at being able to support and engage [students], especially first-generation students.
So growing up, and then understanding those challenges, did you know that you wanted to work in higher education?
Like a lot of Panhandle boys, I was drawn to moral philosophy. I was interested in higher education and thought I might want to be either a lawyer or a faculty member. Or, maybe something with music. But philosophy was one of the reasons I went to Notre Dame.
I was interested in philosophy because I was interested in politics and policymaking. I was interested in how opportunities ought to be distributed. When we work on higher education policy, we actually get to work on that. That's a unique privilege we have in educational policy.
You attended the Institute in Educational Management (IEM) in 2018. How did the program’s focus on leadership, innovation, and organizational change help prepare you for your new role?
For me, IEM came at an ideal time in my career. I'm deeply grateful for the opportunity to connect with these inspiring leaders across the country and beyond who I might otherwise never have met. And still, my IEM colleagues and my IEM faculty have been very generous with encouragement, with their wise counsel, with introductions. I like to say that IEM is a “movable feast” because I feel like I carry it with me and continue to benefit from it.
What are your priorities as you embark on your first 100 days as Texas’ new Higher education Commissioner?
These first three months are intense. We only have 15 months until the legislature is back in session, so we don't have much time. I'm drawing liberally on former Harvard Business School Professor Michael Watkins’ The First 90 Days. So, this first month is all about accelerating learning. It's all about intelligence gathering, trying to identify where there are some opportunities where we can make some quick adjustments. Over the next couple of months, we'll be rolling out our transition plan.
“There are so many more talented poor students in this country than we've been good at identifying and enrolling in our great universities – and when they do enroll we need to make sure all those students can take full advantage of the unique opportunities these institutions provide.”
What do you want Texas high school and college students to know about you and your commitment to them?
I am fully committed to working on their behalf with our governor, our legislators, higher ed leaders, public school leaders, and employers across the state. The future competitiveness of Texas is going to depend largely on how well we can unlock the potential of Texas students, and whether we can engage more students in higher education than we've ever successfully engaged before. If we're going to unlock student potential and strengthen our higher ed infrastructure, we're going to have to pick up the pace of educational innovation. That's going to be a major priority.
If you didn’t work in higher education, what would you do instead?
I might be a high school band director. When I was coming out of Notre Dame, it came down to graduate school for philosophy or conducting and, you know, it's just hard to pass up the money in philosophy, so that's the path that I chose. But, band directors have some of the most challenging and, I think, some of the most rewarding jobs.
What musical instrument do you play?
Percussion! And I have a son, a middle schooler, who is a percussionist. I'm excited I have someone to give all of those boxes of percussion equipment to. There's a lot of music in my house. My daughter is a trumpet player... just starting with the trumpet. My youngest daughter is in choir and also interested in percussion. So, we have a loud house.
What was the last good book you read?
Actually, one of the last good books I've read was The Privileged Poor by Anthony Jack. I'm excited to meet him here at the IEM 50th because I'm passionate about these issues. There are so many more talented poor students in this country than we've been good at identifying and enrolling in our great universities – and when they do enroll we need to make sure all those students can take full advantage of the unique opportunities these institutions provide.
What is the best thing about being a sixth-generation Texan?
Let me tell you about Texas. Texas has a distinctive culture, cuisine, mythology, swagger. We have more than 30 million Texans right now. If Texas were its own country, it would be the 10th-largest economy in the world. We have more students in public schools than 29 states have people.
Being Higher Ed Commissioner is a unique once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to serve the state I love and to give back to a place that has done so much for me and my family for generations.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.