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Public policy comes of age at Chicago

By far the newest of Chicago's array of professional schools, the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies is one of about two dozen public-policy programs in the nation. Established in 1988, the school grew out of the 12-year-old Committee on Public Policy Studies and now has nearly 1,000 alumni. Program offerings include a two-year master of public-policy degree and a Ph.D. in public-policy studies, as well as combined degree programs with other professional schools, the College, and the graduate divisions. This past fall, the school received a $5 million gift from U of C life trustee Irving Harris to establish the Center for Human Potential and Public Policy.

Economist Robert T. Michael, the Eliakim Hastings Moore distinguished service professor and the Harris School's first dean, returned to the deanship in spring 1998. The Magazine asked him to talk about where the school has been, as well as where it's going.

How has the school grown since its inception?

The school has found its niche. We're not all we hope to be—we're not as large or influential or as successful as we intend—but we have confidence about where we are and where we're headed. We started with ten people on the faculty and four full-time equivalents. We now have 22 faculty and 15 full-time equivalents, and we have a lot of joint appointments with other parts of the University. We had 30 master's students coming in every year; we now have about 80. We currently have 25 students in the Ph.D. program, and we have 22 Ph.D. alumni.

What goes into a public-policy studies curriculum?

I like thinking we've played a leadership role in defining the content of such a curriculum. Our contribution has been to elevate the technical sophistication of the training. We've had a relatively more rigorous economic-theory component, and other schools have adopted that emphasis. We have more—and more demanding—statistics courses, and again, others have joined us in thinking that is what the profession ought to have.

We now have to do an increasingly aggressive job in teaching public management and policy implementation, so that students not only know the theory underlying how to assess a policy, but also how to organize the policy, to interact with others on a team, and to put regulations into play.

We are training men and women to implement policy, not to be academics. We've added a capstone course for every master's student, where you take the theory, you take the principles and tools, and you practice putting together policy implementation plans. We also have a mentor program, a summer intern program, and community programs, so students can get hands-on experience.

Why get a degree in public-policy studies?

Students come to policy school because they want to make a difference. They don't want to hear war stories; they don't want to hear arcane theories. They want concepts and theories that will improve their ability to make a wise judgment and to influence others with the salience and the power of their arguments.

Our aspiration is to continue to improve the curriculum so that the reputation of our graduates will be enhanced, and the influence they have in government, private industry, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) will be increased. If you have wise men and women doing good analyses of the policy, issues, and topics—and politicians acting on that advice—that's going to enhance the well-being of us all.

The problems that our graduates are going to help solve are big, messy, difficult problems. The mix of what you need to do to solve them is most challenging. That's what makes the energy at a policy school so rewarding.

What positions do your alumni hold?

Between a third and a half go into government work, including the nonprofit sector and NGOs. The traditional route is to go into government itself—the Congressional Budget Office or the Government Accounting Office, for example. I'm also tickled at the number of students who have come through the last few years saying they want to get into politics and to run for office.

A quarter to a third of our graduates go into the private sector. Increasingly, large international firms need policy analysts in the same way they need someone to help analyze whether to float a bond or do a stock issue. Consulting firms need policy analysts to help them help the government. I don't think it's affected what we teach or what the student wants to know. Rather, it is a growing recognition of the value of the degree.

The other sixth go on to earn other degrees, usually either a Ph.D. or law degree.

What opportunities for interdisciplinary work does the school offer students and faculty?

Part of the concept of the Harris School is to focus on the policy dimensions of things that other parts of the University are focusing on in other ways. The core of our program comes out of the social sciences, and our closest link on campus is with that division. We aspire to always be closely integrated with the Law School, SSA, the medical school. We have a number of students who are joint with the Divinity School. With the physical sciences, we've started a program in environmental studies. Working with the humanities division, we had an exciting program at the end of January on arts policy.

Our new Center for Human Potential and Public Policy will be the organizing force for a lot that's on campus pertaining to children. We'll work with the psychology department, the folks in education. Since human potential is not limited to early infancy, there will also be some work on human capital, acquisition of skills, and readiness for the workforce.

What research—and policy—is coming out of the school?

With 22 faculty, there are 22 research agendas. Some is very policy oriented, some is much more basic science. We've organized a poverty center with Northwestern that is an official adviser to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. We also have research in international security and research centers in two or three other areas.

We aren't afraid to take a political stand, but we don't do that as an institution, we do that as individuals. We testify, we are expert witnesses, we provide expertise.

Policy briefings—both in Washington and in the Loop—are one way we do that, by helping folks interested in policy to digest, absorb, understand, and use information that comes out through the government. We sit on advisory boards to the Pentagon, Health and Human Services, or the Department of Education, and then bring the information and experience back to the students.

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