A Quiet, but Potent, San Francisco Power Couple

By Heather Wood Rudulph

Marcia Cohen and Jay Harris with their two daughters.

Can you change the world simply by doing your job? Jay Harris and Marcia Cohen are trying to accomplish just that.

When you think of Bay Area power couples, who comes to mind? Perhaps, Steph and Ayesha Curry? Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon? Marc and Lynne Benioff?

What about Jay Harris and Marcia Cohen? The names may ring a bell — Harris, the former publisher of Mother Jones magazine and president of its nonprofit parent company, and is a lifelong free-press crusader, serving on the boards of Free Speech TV, the First Amendment Coalition and Human Rights Watch. Cohen is a standout leader at Stanford University, credited with turning around the financial well-being of the School of Medicine as its senior associate dean of finance and administration, a role she has held since 2006.

Not only are their careers impressive, but their work has helped to quite literally change the world. Mother Jones practically embodies journalistic integrity — and is one of the few media outlets left that maintain it — while Stanford’s School of Medicine produces the kind of medical research that led to the first kidney and heart transplants and stem cell therapies that have the potential to wipe out chronic illness. So while Harris and Cohen don’t take up much space on the society pages of publications such as this magazine, or tend to draw a paparazzi’s bulb, their activist-centered work has made a tremendous impact on the Bay Area and beyond.

The couple spent a recent Sunday talking to the Gazette from their home in Sea Cliff (neighbors include the Benioffs, Metallica’s Kirk Hammett and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey) about the legacy they hope to leave behind.

It’s a rare occasion when both Harris and Cohen have the same day off — or even a few hours together. With Cohen’s daily commute to Palo Alto, and Harris’ frequent travels, they’re often more like passing ships in the night than partners who have shared a life together and called San Francisco home for the past 28 years. It’s a home that raised two daughters, now 26 and 29, and a setting that’s fed their love of hiking, a pastime they picked up while living in Hong Kong during Harris’ tenure with Newsweek International. Nearby, the Lands End Trail has become a training ground for the couple, who are planning a trip to Japan to hike the Kumano Kodo trail, a sacred pilgrimage route used for thousands of years that spans the width of the nation’s largest peninsula.

Harris and Cohen met while attending the Yale University School of Management, where both obtained MBAs. Harris went on to work as an executive for Newsweek International in New York and Hong Kong, and following his time at Mother Jones (1991–2009), he was publisher of the policy journal American Prospect and now works with the politically progressive speaker and author Jim Hightower, publishing The Hightower Lowdown, a monthly print and digital newsletter that focuses on how politics, policies and everyday Americana affect people in the South. Cohen joined Harris in Hong Kong with her own high-profile job as a management consultant with Touche Ross (now Deloitte). After their move to San Francisco, Cohen joined UCSF as director of finance in the Department of Medicine before joining Stanford in 2003.

As they talk, finishing each other’s sentences the way only long-term couples can, it’s hard not to feel inspired. “I think I’ve always had roles where I feel like my leadership is in service to the mission of the organization that I work for. Higher education, research, patient care,” Cohen says. “To me, service is putting your career, your leadership skills and your effort toward improving humanity.”

“My definition of service has evolved a bit,” Harris adds. “When I was pulled toward the business of journalism, it was altruistic; it was democracy functioning to help engage and inform people. And we can get nostalgic about some of the ways the media has been assaulted. I think I’m more interested now in trying to be of service in helping people hear each other.”

Do you see what I mean?

Harris and Cohen each cite the other as their primary business adviser and sounding board, promptly giving credit to a system of shared household responsibilities that made it possible to nurture two demanding careers while raising kids.

“It’s hard to have a family and to have very intense jobs,” Cohen admits. “Particularly when I moved to Stanford for my job, there was a lot of parenting that Jay picked up because he was the one who was still working in San Francisco. I think I’ve always been very purposeful about a career and it’s been important for me. And Jay has always been supportive of that.”

Recalls Harris, “When I first started at Mother Jones, there were some systems that were lacking. And Marcia stepped in immediately to help right that ship.”

The fields of media and scientific academia may seem a world apart, but working in both industries during a presidential administration that targets them both as enemies of the state (or at least enemies of the president’s personal interests) reveals their common ground — and fight. “Trump and furthermore the Republicans, the Mitch McConnell Senate and the crazy folks in the White House present an existential threat to our democracy. I feel like I gotta do what I can to defeat that,” says Harris.

He’s currently using his expertise in growing and sustaining nonprofit independent media to help promote stories of the struggles of everyday Americans and the ways the systems that are meant to support us often let us down. It’s content that has garnered The Hightower Lowdown both praise from progressives and a strong red-state following. He once wrote op-eds that called for civil disobedience, and now he’s trying to bridge ideologies at a time when political differences are literally ripping families apart. Yet his optimism is unwavering.

“I think there is a narrative out in the world that is escalating tit for tat. Trump knows how to exploit it, and it’s easy to spiral into that discussion,” he says. “But there area lot of people in the middle of the country who may not share a whole lot politically with me, but who are equally concerned about us pulling apart as Americans.”

Education, like the media, is also in crisis, and more important than ever. The White House not only calls for the dismantling of the media on a near-daily basis, and has made personal threats to countless members of the press, but has also proposed more than $7 billion in budget cuts to the Department of Education, a loss of nearly 21 percent. If passed, legislation like that could threaten the critical research that Stanford Medical School conducts every year that improves the health and lifespan of all humans. It’s Cohen’s job to make sure the school stays funded.

“Stanford faces many challenges, and the national issues are twofold: One, this anti-elitism that’s coming out of the right-wing and the conservative agenda against elite universities. Instead of being looked at as institutions that are there to help solve problems, they’re really being cast in a negative light,” Cohen says. “The other piece is that for medical schools in particular and science and STEM subjects, science is not valued — whether it’s climate change or vaccinations or embryonic stem cell research, there’s still this skepticism that science isn’t real. Those two things are working together to discredit large research universities.”

Balancing the books of Stanford’s Medical School is more than just an economic equation for Cohen. The consequence, she says, is that if education becomes more and more unattainable, and the sciences continue to be defunded, we all suffer. Some obstacles: “How are we going to continue to pay brilliant scientists to push the boundaries? How are we going to ensure that education for med students and grad students in science is affordable? Not to mention the local issues for the university, including being pulled into the admissions scandal, and how to address the [living] affordability challenge for staff. These are things I grapple with every day.”

Will the media resurrect its moral center before Harris retires? Will medical education get the funding and political support it needs to keep America competitive with the rest of the world? Maybe. Maybe not. But the battle must continue, the work must get done, and change, somehow, must come. And sometimes it takes a low-key power duo like Harris and Cohen to make it happen.

Looking Back

Harris goofs off with Rachel Maddow at a Mother Jones benefit event in 2009. “When I was pulled toward the business of journalism,” he recalls, “it was altruistic; it was democracy functioning to help engage and inform people. … I think I’m more interested now in trying to be of service in helping people hear each other.”

A group photo of the Mother Jones staff and board snapped in the fall of 2006. On the staff of the publication at the time was Tyrrell Hammer Mahoney, now president of Chronicle Books.

Harris’ favorite Mother Jones covers from his tenure: one from 1997, and the other from 2005. The latter’s cover story exposed Exxon’s massive funding of climate-denying groups.

Marcia Cohen shaking hands in 2012 with Dr. Brian Kobilka, Stanford Med School professor and winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Marcia Cohen in a rug shop in Fez, Morocco. Harris and Cohen love exotic travels and are planning a trip to Japan to hike the Kumano Kodo trail.

Cohen participates in the March for Science in April 2017. “To me, service is putting your career, your leadership skills and your effort toward improving humanity,” says Cohen, the senior associate dean of finance and administration at Stanford’s Medical School.

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