The Recovery Campus Interview with KITTY HARRIS
‘Like Kitty Harris Says’
A visionary leader at Texas Tech passes the torch—and takes up another.
Talk with anyone in the collegiate recovery movement, and eventually you will hear these words: “It’s like Kitty Harris says . . .” When Recovery Campus caught up with Kitty, she had recently stepped down from the directorship of Texas Tech’s Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery (CSAR), passing the torch to longtime friend and colleague Tom Kimball, PhD, so that she could accept a new role as Director of Recovery Science Research.
Kitty’s accomplishments are many, and they include not just what she herself has done for recovery but what she inspires the rest of us to do. She makes everybody around her reach a little higher, dream a little bigger, feel more deeply and compassionately for others. Listen in as we visit with her about the past, present, and future of collegiate recovery—and about the incredible life and career she daily embraces with both amazement and gratitude.
Q When we Googled you, the first thing that popped up was a Russian spy named Kitty Harris. We promise not to blow your cover.
A [Laughter] Let me tell you, that created a real mess for me with the airlines! I was on a no-fly list until my husband got hold of someone he knew in Homeland Security.
Q Most people probably associate you more with Texas than Russia, right?
A I was born in Texas. My parents met at SMU (Southern Methodist University), but then my father took a job that required us to move all over the U.S. I was in some of the best school districts in the country. I love Texas, and it has been a great place to spend the last 34 years, but I had such a great opportunity, growing up the way that I did. As hard as it was at times, it gave me a tremendous education and an amazing skill set where people and relationships are concerned. I learned to make my own way.
Q Was it hard to step down from the CSAR after 12 years?
A No, because I’m really a builder at heart. I love to start from scratch and allow something to grow and develop and become what it’s supposed to be. When I was named director of the CSAR, I set some goals that I wanted to accomplish, and by the end of last year we had accomplished them. I wanted to get the center endowed and make it a national model. I wanted to secure an NIH (National Institutes of Health) grant and establish a research initiative. We’ve done all of those things. We had 20 students and about 750 square feet of space when I started, and now we have 100 students and our own 17,000-square-foot building.
Q It’s hard to believe you initially resisted taking on the CSAR.
A I know! But at the time, I had a thriving private practice. So when Tech first approached me, I really resisted the idea, and I kept resisting for a whole semester. But then I got a call from someone who said, “You know, you see one person every hour in your private practice—what if you had the chance to impact a lot of people?” And then I was having my quiet time on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in 2001, and I had one of those spiritual experiences we talk about in recovery groups. It was a little tap on the shoulder, something just a tad less audible than an actual voice that said, “This is where you need to go next, and this is what you’re supposed to do.” I took the job in January 2002. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, what I expected to do. But I’ve found in my life that those are the best opportunities—the ones we don’t want, don’t seek, and don’t sell our soul for.
Q We’re big fans of your successor.
A So am I. Tom Kimball was associate managing director with me for about eight years, and it’s really wonderful when you can pass the torch to somebody who’s going to keep the vision and expand it. He’s a dear friend, and I have tremendous respect for him.
Q Your collegiate recovery curriculum started a replication trend that has only accelerated. Did you ever imagine, in the beginning, how far this would go?
A Right now, collegiate recovery programs are hot. They’re everywhere. But 12 years ago, when we first approached SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), they looked at us like we were crazy. When I first became director of the CSAR, I envisioned my impact as being just for the Tech community and the students at the center, but now I stand back and realize it was so much bigger than what I understood it to be. Everywhere along the way, there was a door open, and this is an important thing for me to say because of the way I feel about the synergy of the universe. None of this happened because of anything special that I did. It happened because, at every critical juncture, there was an open door. I just had to be willing to walk through it. I feel I was given an opportunity, I was given the right set of skills for that opportunity, and I used the gifts that I was given to give back. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Q What aspect of that program are you most proud of?
A I would say two things. First, we used the recovery model of “attraction rather than promotion.” I didn’t pick up the phone and call UT (University of Texas) to see if they would like to replicate. No. What we did was respond to people who heard about us and wanted us to do this for them. The other blessing is that, because the programs were consistently funded by grants, everything we did for all these schools we were able to do for free, and I love that. We’ve occasionally heard, from some quarters, “Do you realize how much money you could be making?” And I’d always respond, “Do you realize how many lives we’re saving?”
Q Rumor has it you’re back in the curriculum development business.
A For my sabbatical project this fall, I’m developing a PhD curriculum in addictive disorders and recovery studies, with an emphasis on the recovery component. There’s not one in the entire country. In fact, in all of our research, we didn’t find a single PhD program like this in the world. I’ll have it written by the first of January, and then it will go to the graduate school and the state coordinating board. Once it’s approved, it will be such a contribution to our field and, I hope, to the whole country, to have people trained at the PhD level in addiction and recovery.
Q Can you tell us about the new research institute you’ll be creating?
A Texas Tech had identified recovery science as an area that was under-researched and underdeveloped, and our college had targeted it as a primary research area. For two years, we had been looking for someone to head that up, without success. So one day, Dean Linda Hoover in our College of Human Sciences called me and said, “If I were to ask you to take that position, what would you do with it?” I thought for a minute and told her that first, I’d get the PhD program finished and set up. Then I would set up a research institute to study collegiate recovery sciences, one with a heavy emphasis on neurosciences but which also looks at family and other key issues. It would be multi-institutional, engaging researchers from around the country so that we would all have a chance to learn what’s really working, what we need to do differently, and how we need to improve.
I would establish our own academic research journal in collegiate recovery science, which doesn’t currently exist. When I finished rattling off that list, I said, “That’s what I’d probably start with.” [Laughter] And she said, “The job’s yours.” In January, I should be able to finish the necessary paperwork to establish the research institute, and we’ll start working together to figure out how we can help more kids get better faster.
Q What do you say to new program directors who hold up Tech as the gold standard but are struggling for funding, space, and university support?
A We love for people to visit us at the center, but it’s a double-edged sword. Sometimes it depresses them to come into this building, with three floors dedicated to recovery, when they’re lucky to get a small meeting room on campus. What I say to them is, “You’re looking at 26 years of growth—we didn’t start with this.” I want them to look at us and feel hopeful, not discouraged, because there were times when we fought hard just to keep our program alive. Now we are one of the top five programs that Tech representatives talk about when they go out and promote our university. We’ve had our successes; we’ve had our failures. So what I tell new directors is that if you help one kid be the person that God intended them to be, then it doesn’t really matter what else you do. It’s not about what our building looks like. It’s about the number of kids who have lives today because we were there.
- Director, Recovery Science Research, Texas Tech University
- Professor and faculty member, Addictive Disorders and Recovery Studies, College of Human Sciences, Texas Tech
- Executive Director, The Ranch at Dove Tree, an adult chemical dependency treatment center in Lubbock, Texas
- Former Director, Texas Tech Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery (2002-2013); raised over $10 million in federal grants and private endowments;led CSAR in gaining attention of national media, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, CNN, and NBC’s Today
- Sought-after speaker; author of Women and Recovery: Finding Hope (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.); co-editor of Substance Abuse Recovery in College (Springer)
- Vice–president, J.T. and Margaret Talkington Charitable Foundation; founding member, Association of Recovery in Higher Education; other board memberships include Covenant Health System and the Foundation for the Education of Young Women
- Fellow, U.S. Department of Education’s Higher Education Center for Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Violence Prevention
- Received Bob Knowlton Service Award for significant contributions to adolescent recovery throughout Texas