A native of Pittsburgh, he graduated from Trinity College in Hartford in 1968, then earned a master's degree from the University of Michigan in 1969. After an interim of three years to serve as a captain in the United States Air Force, President Harrison earned a doctorate from the University of California–Davis. His doctoral dissertation, "Out of Play: Baseball Fiction from Pulp to Art," was one of the earliest scholarly treatments of baseball and its place in American life.
In 1982 President Harrison left full-time teaching to take an administrative position at Colorado College. He joined Gehrung Associates University Relations Counselors in 1985, becoming president of the firm shortly thereafter. In 1989 President Harrison moved to the University of Michigan, where he became vice president of university relations and secretary of the university.
President Harrison's community involvement is extensive. He serves on the boards of directors of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges and the Hartford Consortium of Higher Education. He serves as trustee or director of a number of other Hartford-area organizations, including the Greater Hartford Arts Council, the Hartford Stage Company, Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center, the Connecticut Science Center, and Suffield Academy. He is also a director of WorldBusiness Capital, an international finance firm based in Hartford.
Reflecting his longtime interest in intercollegiate athletics, President Harrison chairs the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Committee on Academic Performance, the group charged with implementing academic reforms among the nation's leading intercollegiate athletic programs, and serves on a number of other NCAA committees. He is the immediate past chair of the NCAA Executive Committee. He also serves on the Presidential Advisory Committee of the Association of Governing Boards.
President Harrison and his wife, Dianne, a scholar of 19th-century Victorian literature and mystery literature, make their home in Russell House, the president's residence at the University of Hartford.