The wonder years
Published on 5 August 2022
Keith Harris took an unorthodox path through university, which led to a decades-long career in the music business, as the manager of Stevie Wonder among other artists. Now he is back at Dundee after being elected Rector.
The city and the campus have changed considerably in the years since Keith Harris was a Dundee student, but there is enough still recognisable to spark a strong sense of nostalgia.
"The University of Dundee completely changed my life. As well as setting me up for the career I went on to have in the music industry, I also met my wife while I was here, on the steps of DUSA in 1974," said Keith, after returning to the city following his election as Rector.
"It really is wonderful to be back here. It is a huge privilege to return to Dundee and be the Rector. I look forward to working with students, as well as staff, alumni and others, over the next three years."
Keith is a music industry consultant and artist manager, who is the former chair of UK Music’s Diversity & Equality Taskforce. Since leaving Dundee, Keith has worked in the music industry in the UK and the USA for more than four decades as a promotions manager, including for major companies such as Motown, EMI and Transatlantic Records.
He is one of the most high-profile black executives in the business. Among the notable artists he has represented is Stevie Wonder, with whom he has worked since the 1970s.
He has served in non-executive director and board positions across multiple music charities and companies, while regularly giving talks, seminars and workshops aiming to change perceptions and help to give young people the tools to enter the industry. He also teaches music business fundamentals for aspiring young professionals entering the industry.
The music business was not in his sights for a career as a young man starting university life.
"I was at Dundee from 1970 to 1974," said Keith. "My father was a surgeon and my parents were keen that someone follow him into that profession. From the age of 14 I was heading down that science route but when I got to around 16 or 17 I realised I didn’t want to be a doctor. That’s how I ended up applying to Dundee to come and study zoology. I was aware of Dundee and its good reputation and my brother was also here.
"Unfortunately my first year didn’t go too well academically. I failed two of the three subjects at the end of first year and, despite passing my resits, the Chemistry department wouldn’t have me back!
"I had to go and see James Drever, who was the Principal then, and he asked me what I was going to do. He was genuinely caring about my situation and clearly didn’t want to see me leave the University. He suggested I could take a new course which was a Certificate in Social Administration, so I started on that.
"While academically things were not going to plan I had another life at university which I was really enjoying. I was entertainments convener at DUSA in my first year. I was then elected Senior Vice-President, and subsequently became President of DUSA, so I spent two years in those sabbatical roles, having a wonderful time. Among many other things, I led the Queen Mother around the new DUSA when it was opened.
"While I was doing all of that with DUSA, the Certificate became a degree programme, which I could have done but it would have required me going back to first year. That didn’t seem a good option, so shortly before the end of my presidency, I left. There was a very good cartoon in Annasach, the student newspaper of the time, of me as a rat leaving a sinking ship! Clearly, though, the ship didn’t sink."
Keith’s work at DUSA provided the opportunity to develop many of the contacts and skills which would prove invaluable in his subsequent career.
"I can honestly say that James Drever changed my life. Simply by being open and caring, and ensuring I could stay at university. My life would have been completely different if it were not for that, and I am hugely thankful. I never graduated, so my status as an alumnus of the University is a little messy. But I have always been proud of my association with the University, and I am delighted to have this opportunity now to work with our students.
"I am a great believer that university, and education in general, should give you options and should be opening up the world for you. In the university context that can happen in so many ways. There are many different paths that can become available to you. My studies weren’t what led to my career, but my experience with the students’ association certainly did.
"I am keen to see how we can ensure our students now are given the options to progress and find their own path, not just academically but through the wider student experience. These are challenging times as we emerge from the pandemic, which has had a huge impact on students and university life, in addition to all the other pressures of being a student and life in general.
Keith Harris, Rector and alumni
Read the rest of The Bridge and more of our stories