A Look Back at the Committee on Public Policy Studies

On November 26, 1973, six University of Chicago faculty members sent President Edward Levi a memo titled “Proposal for the Establishment of a Committee on Public Policy.” The esteemed group included Robert McCormick Adams Jr., former director of the Oriental Institute and future secretary of the Smithsonian Institution; Harold Richman, founder of the Chapin Hall Center for Children and dean of the School of Social Service Administration; Sidney Davidson, dean of the Graduate School of Business; and Philip W. Jackson, a professor of education and psychology at the University and author of the seminal What Is Education? Phil Neal, dean of the Law School and former chairman of the White House Task Force on Antitrust Laws, also lent his name to the memo, along with Leon Jacobsen, the physician for the Manhattan Project. 

The writers envisioned an interdisciplinary master’s-level program that would emphasize the study of problem-solving techniques that require rigorous analysis. They were open to allowing graduate students in other areas to take a few classes as part of their degree programs, but they saw this as a professional degree program that would prepare talented students for careers in the public policy sector. The letter also emphasized that the committee should build on existing academic programs at the University but not duplicate them in any way. 

Levi took their recommendation, and by the fall of 1975 a committee to start the program had been formed. Richman chaired the newly christened Committee on Public Policy Studies. Alongside him were leaders from the Law School, the Divinity School, the Graduate School of Business, the Divisions and the Medical School. 

By the time the curriculum was developed, though, the program was no longer oriented around professional degrees. Now it was a steppingstone for students on the way to a doctorate. 

"A New Program for Public Policy Studies"

“Increasingly, all over the University, we were finding ourselves with doctoral students whose work had a public policy element or who were policy-oriented,” explained Norman Bradburn, a member of the Committee who later became dean of Chicago Harris and director of the National Opinion Research Center. “Things were changing, and we needed to give these students the skills they needed to pursue policy research. Creating a committee that could grant an AM as part of a doctoral program made sense. Students could then take those skills and bring them back to their program to finish their dissertations.”

In the spring of 1976, the Committee issued a paper called A New Program for Public Policy Studies. “The study of public policy, properly defined, should include an understanding of more than the skills and techniques useful to the career government official,” the authors wrote. In other words, students should learn research skills and critical thinking, just as they would in any other graduate program at the University.

“When we sat down to make a curriculum, we were essentially designing an anti–Kennedy School education,” Bradburn explained. “We wanted to do something more research-oriented, something more University of Chicago.”

The first students arrived in the fall of 1976. Those admitted to the one-year program had to be studying in one of the departments or concentrations of the graduate divisions or professional schools of the University and had to take nine courses offered by the Committee. Among the required classes were a seminar on research, an interdisciplinary policy seminar, a directed research project and a research seminar. Additionally, students were expected to attend a series of conferences, seminars and lectures.  

Classes were taught entirely by faculty members employed elsewhere at the University. Study space was made available in the University library, and students were encouraged to socialize and discuss ideas in the Committee’s “parlor” on the third floor of Wieboldt Hall.

Even as the program got under way, many of its leaders were concerned about its viability. Stanley Katz, at the time an associate dean at the Law School and a professor in the Department of History, outlined these reservations in a memo to his fellow Committee members in the spring of 1977. Katz noted that he and others were worried that the one-year program would never attract more than 10 or 15 students a year, which would lead to lower commitment from the administration and lack of energy around the program. Clearly, he concluded, the solution was to revisit the original plan for a professional degree. 

Creating a Two-Year Master's Program

Despite numerous misgivings, in 1977 work began on the creation of a two-year master’s program that could be pursued by students who were not studying in other areas of the University. The requirements of the one-year program were included in the new program as well, but the Committee members had a difficult time agreeing on what additional knowledge “all public policy students should have.” The school’s current reputation as a leader in quantitative policy analysis has its roots here, as the Committee finally determined that economics, statistics and quantitative analysis would be the essential classes in a Core Curriculum that would be largely fulfilled in the first year. 

Budgetary problems were immediately apparent. The proposed Core classes needed junior faculty, who would have to be supported entirely by the Committee. More senior faculty were needed for specialized classes, and parts of their salaries would have to be covered as well. Plus, funds had to be found to cover the marketing and advertising costs that would make the program attractive to prospective students. The budget was stretched so tight that several memos proposed ways to get Committee members to teach seminars for free. 

“At the time the Ford Foundation was endowing eight public policy schools across the nation, including those at Yale, Harvard, the University of Michigan and Duke,” noted Bob Michael, the first dean of the Harris School of Public Policy. “They were giving away millions and millions of dollars. Unfortunately, Chicago did not apply.”

Richman managed to get $100,000 over three years from the Ford Foundation, and he did an outstanding job of acquiring other grants from Exxon, the Field Foundation and Dow Chemical, among others. But if the Committee was to continue and thrive, it had to find a better way to support itself. 

Committee members pursued other solutions to the financial problems, with some success. They developed a Mid-Career Fellows program to attract students who were already employed by the federal government in Washington. They opened a BA/MA option for students in the College. They strengthened ties to the Graduate School of Business to make students more well-rounded and appealing to potential employers, and they expanded the Internship program for students and new graduates. And, of course, they launched discussions about forming a doctoral program. 

The Pros and Cons of a Doctoral Program

“In any university in any new field, you will have someone calling for an extension of the program,” explained Gerhard Casper, former dean of the Law School and a member of the Committee. “It’s a natural law. An MA program at Chicago or Stanford or any similar school is too limited and considered of secondary importance. If you want to prove that your new area is serious, and you want the funding, you need to have a doctoral program.”

As they debated whether to start a PhD program, Committee members sorted themselves into two camps. On the pro side, Committee member William Kruskal, dean of the Division of Social Sciences, pointed out that “no activity at the University of Chicago will be viable and successful unless it includes a substantial research component.” Further, he added, serious faculty members want serious research students. 

Those on the opposing side noted that public policy, unlike mathematics, economics, sociology and law, was not a defined discipline. As such, a doctoral program might open the door to lower standards because it would not have the protection of customary collegial oversight and review.

Nonetheless, as Casper had expected, a doctoral program was formed almost immediately. By 1978 the University had decided to allow holders of a master’s degree in public policy studies to “continue their research in a specific policy area where the analytic methods of two disciplines might be effectively employed in an effort to solve a major policy problem or to propose new means of analyzing a policy issue.” Five students were eligible for admission in the fall of 1979. 

As junior faculty members were hired and more students entered the program, discussions about the creation of a full-fledged public policy school kept coming up. Opinions proliferated on all sides, and debates grew increasingly heated. Although the Committee would eventually evolve into a school, the path forward was anything but smooth.

—Robin Mordfin