Public policy, Chicago style
On July 1 Susan E. Mayer became
dean of the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy
Studies, the youngest of Chicago’s professional schools.
What began in
the mid-1970s as the Committee on Public Policy Studies
became a school in 1988 and was named Harris in 1990. The
school has grown over time, last year admitting about 130
master’s candidates. Mayer, who received her
Ph.D. in sociology from Northwestern University in 1986,
joined the Harris faculty in 1989. An associate professor
in the Harris School and the College and a past director
of the Northwestern/University of Chicago Joint Center for
Poverty Research, she has written two books on poverty-policy
issues and currently studies the consequences of economic
How do you describe
the Harris School to someone who knows nothing about it?
Policy schools are fairly new in academia. This means that
many people don’t know what a policy school is or
what you do with an M.P.P. degree. Not enough employers
know what skills M.P.P. students have. So we have a greater
task to educate prospective students and the public than,
say, the Law School.
Besides being new, policy schools have
grown out of different traditions. Many grew out of a public-administration
tradition. Others grew out of a political or activist tradition.
The Harris School grew out of a committee in the University
of Chicago with faculty who emphasized the intellectual
and research role of a policy school. We constantly fine-tune
our own Chicago model of training and research in public
Our pedagogical mission is to train public-policy
professionals, people who want to work in the intersection
between the public and private sectors to make the world
a better place. Our intellectual mission is to do policy-relevant
research. And as a professional school we have an extra
responsibility: to make our research accessible to policy-makers,
legislators, advocates, people who think about policy—that
is, the kind of people who our students become as alums.
What is a typical Harris alum like—or,
for that matter, a typical Harris student?
We’re interested in people
who want to make a difference but who want to learn the
best way to do so and who don’t come with preconceptions
about what the right way is. We want students who want to
spend their lives continuing to ask, What’s the right
way? Sometimes getting things right means abandoning preconceptions.
say you want to improve the well-being of children, something
that many of our faculty members study. It’s not always
obvious whether current and proposed policies—even
the tug-at-your-heart kind—will be the right
policies in the long run. For us the first question is,
Do we need public policies? Is working through government
policy or regulation the right way to solve this problem?
And if the answer is yes, then we have to ask what’s
the optimal set of policies? For almost any social problem,
there are trade-offs, and we teach people to think through
The former dean, Bob Michael, has said
that public policy is the “optimistic discipline”
because you do not choose this profession if you do not
think you can make a difference. I think of that often.
We have a responsibility to maintain that optimism in our
students even while teaching the challenges and complexity
of the problems that need to be solved.
Our alums are in the public, private,
and nonprofit sectors. They work in consulting firms, the
foreign service, think tanks, and community organizations.
The common bond is that they approach their work with an
analytical perspective and have the tools to address complex
issues and the will to make a difference.
You’ve described a very Chicago way
of looking at the world. How does Harris fit in with the
rest of the University?
In some ways there’s a certain
inevitable conflict between the Chicago intellectual style
and professional schools in general. We grapple with this
in the same way that the Law School or GSB or SSA does,
continuously asking, What’s the relationship between
the academic or intellectual contribution and its application
in the professional life? And how do we differ from the
social sciences? After all, most of our faculty come out
of economics, political science, sociology, psychology.
What extra roles do we have to take on as a professional
Clearly our pedagogical mission is different
from the social sciences in that we train our M.P.P. students
for a particular set of career choices. On the research
side most Harris faculty members work on the fundamental
empirical questions that undergird policy decisions. Our
research tries to answer big questions about how governments
and institutions work and what causes and cures the social
problems that diminish well-being.
Harris mostly confers
master’s degrees. What role does the Ph.D. program
play at the school?
Our Ph.D. program emphasizes research skills, and our Ph.D.
students mostly go on to research careers in academia or
elsewhere. We think the Harris School has the right model
for teaching public-policy professionals, and hopefully
our Ph.D. students who take academic jobs spread our model.
A Ph.D. program is where you form the discipline that will
be public policy in 30 years.