Long Backstory: Why the Irving Harris Foundation Loves the University of Chicago

Irving Harris saw his philanthropy in simple terms: "Having money is a matter of luck, and I didn’t have anything to do with it. I had more money than I needed. So I decided I could either sit and observe it, or I could try to make a difference in a lot of kids’ lives."

Harris used his wealth to help create the Ounce of Prevention Fund, and supported other efforts to help children in their earliest years, mainly focusing in the Chicago area. He died in 2004, but the Irving Harris Foundation is going strong. 

And it loves the University of Chicago. Or one part of it, anyway.

The connection between Harris (who went to Yale) and the university goes way back. In 1986, Harris and his wife Joan helped launch the Graduate School of Public Policy Studies at the university, later renamed the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy and now simply referred to as Chicago Harris.

Harris backed a policy school because he was confounded and discouraged by how many of the nation’s young, bright minds were forgoing careers in the public service arena in favor of higher incomes on Wall Street. "We can’t afford to have all of our brightest young people diverted from public service," Harris told the Chicago Tribune in a 2003 interview. "We need some of the best working in public policy"

Just a few years after the school opened its doors, Harris took his support a step further by creating the Mentor Program, which matches students with leading public policy professionals. The Mentor Program is a part of the Center for Policy Practice at the Harris School and remains the only program of its kind among leading public policy schools. A decade after establishing the Mentor Program, Harris endowed the Center for Human Potential and Public Policy. The Center focuses on improving health, welfare and development polices for children and families.

As for the Harris Foundation’s recent $10 million grant, the Harris School will use it to support student fellowships, junior faculty positions, fund visiting faculty, pay for general operations expenses and help expand its new building fund. The money will also be used toward funding general operations of the Cultural Policy Center, a joint research initiative of Chicago Harris and the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the university.

As we said earlier, the Irving Harris Foundation, which is based in Chicago, is going strong and awards and average of around $13 million in grants annually. The foundation awards grants toward the arts, child development, economic development, education, human services, and Jewish causes. (Read IPs profile on the Irving Harris Foundation)