IMAGE:  February 2003 GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
APRIL 2003
Volume 95, Issue 4
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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 inequality.

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 policy.

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.

For example, 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 those.

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 school?

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.




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