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U. of C.'s public policy school gets new building, new direction

University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer, left, and Harris School Dean Daniel Diermeier talk Wednesday about plans for a new home for the public policy school, made possible by a large monetary gift from Dennis Keller. The new building, shown in drawing, will be called the Keller Center.
University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer, left, and Harris School Dean Daniel Diermeier talk Wednesday about plans for a new home for the public policy school, made possible by a large monetary gift from Dennis Keller. The new building, shown in drawing, will be called the Keller Center. (Chris Sweda, Chicago Tribune)

The University of Chicago announced Wednesday afternoon that its public policy school — the institution's youngest and one of its less prominent professional schools — will be moving to a larger location, part of an effort to expand its mission.

Two major donations, totaling $32.5 million, will go toward the Harris School of Public Policy's move to the new space. A $20-million gift, the largest in school history, is from Dennis Keller, a university trustee and co-founder of the DeVry Education Group. The school's new building, a renovation of what was once a residence hall at 1307 E. 60th St., will be named the Keller Center.

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"This facility has been talked about for some time. We have all wanted it for some time, but with these gifts it is going to happen," U. of C. President Robert Zimmer said at a surprise announcement Wednesday afternoon to faculty and staff at the Harris School.

The announcements are part of what school officials hope is the beginning of an enhanced direction for the 25-year-old school. A new dean, Daniel Diermeier, took over in September.

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The Harris School is known for its quantitative, evidence-based approach to public policy issues. Diermeier plans to expand the school's scope to graduate not only people who can analyze policy behind the scenes but also develop future policy leaders.

Diermeier compared the school to an incomplete car — one that has a strong engine but needs additional parts. The school already is prominent among public policy schools — it ranks No. 4 in the U.S. News & World Report's rankings — but it does not have the cache of a place like the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

"We have a great engine, but we need to build a full car," Diermeier said. "That is the way I am thinking about it.

"We want to take a step from the policy analysis side to policy leadership," he said. "We are boxed in and focused on educating policy analysts. Our goal is to develop policy leaders who have a seat at the table and become heads of agencies or start a new nonprofit. That is where we want to go toward."

The school has been moving in that direction, reflected in its recent five-year appointment of former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley as a senior fellow. Former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and veteran political adviser David Axelrod also have positions at the school.

The Harris School, one of U. of C.'s seven professional schools, was launched in 1988 by the late Irving B. Harris and his wife, Joan. It was called the Graduate School of Public Policy Studies until it was renamed in Harris' honor in 1990. Students take courses in political science, economics, statistics, organizational behavior and other subjects.

The school enrolls about 370 master's degree students in seven programs and 40 Ph.D. students. There are 37 full-time and 49 part-time faculty members.

Diermeier said the Harris School is looking to become more relevant on the global stage, graduating students who are knowledgeable about international challenges and ways to approach them. Another area of growth is in the area of big data, and the school recently created a degree program that combines computational analysis and public policy.

"Our ambition is that we want to develop a unique point of view on public policy that is rigorous, that is rooted in the best science of the day and advances policy agendas across the globe," Diermeier said.

Keller called the Harris School an "underburnished jewel" of U. of C.

"The world needs what this place does," Keller said. "We need statesmen and stateswomen, and not only ones who can truly analyze facts and make good recommendations for policy, but ones who can implement the policy. We need real leaders. The need is enormous, and here is a source to fill that need."

Diermeier, previously a professor at Northwestern University, has an academic background in political science but is known for pushing the boundaries in academia by bringing together seemingly unconnected academic fields. He says he specializes in "academic entrepreneurship" and also is an expert in crisis management.

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"He does more than just connect people and let things play out," said Northwestern University political science professor James Druckman. "He recognizes the intellectual benefits of people talking to each other and makes that clear so they know why they are interacting. He brings a remarkable energy that gets people excited."

In addition to the gift from Keller, the university on Wednesday announced that trustee King Harris, chairman of Harris Holdings Inc., and his family are giving $12.5 million to the school. King Harris is a nephew of the school's namesake.

Part of Harris' gift is a $2.5 million commitment toward the 2x20 Fund, which aims to increase student enrollment, boost faculty research and start more leadership development programs in the areas of urban science, energy, the environment and data analytics.

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