Joan Harris

This past February, Joan Harris helped kick off Chicago Harris’s capital campaign with a gift – and a challenge. The trustees of the Irving Harris Foundation, where she serves as president, granted the school $10 million with the expectation that it be used to bolster donor participation and secure $30 million from other supporters.

“One of the things I learned from Irving was assessing risk and trusting my own judgment,” says Harris, referring to her late husband, who provided the core endowment for the school. “Our support reflects a confidence in the ambitions of Dean Diermeier and Chicago Harris to expand the reach of the school, and to place its graduates in programs and situations where they will utilize what they’ve learned.”

Harris says her commitment strengthens Irving’s original vision for the school, helping to mobilize the University’s intellectual capital to effect positive change. Just as her gift kickstarted the campaign, Irving’s generosity and dedication to public service enabled Chicago Harris to become a viable graduate school in the first place. “As he always did, Irving put his chips in first,” says Harris. “He was moved by the potential he saw, and he was willing to take the chance and represent it.”

Over the years Harris has honored this rich legacy while cultivating her extraordinary passion for the arts. She has served as commissioner of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and held leadership positions at cultural organizations and agencies nationwide, including the Julliard School and the National Endowment for the Arts. Closer to home, she chaired the Harris Theater, the renowned performance space in Chicago she and Irving founded in 2003, and has funded Chicago Harris’s Cultural Policy Center for many years. One of only two programs of its kind in the United States, the Cultural Policy Center (run jointly with NORC) provides leading interdisciplinary research on arts and cultural issues.

It was a fitting honor in July when Harris received a National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama. She recalls telling Obama at the ceremony that Irving, a longtime champion of social programs for disadvantaged youth, would be proud of the administration’s emphasis on early childhood education. “He looked back at me, smiling,” she says, “and then he said, ‘Irving told me I had to do it.’”

The Irving Harris Foundation has given the school nearly $35 million over the last 25 years. The latest gift has already helped build significant momentum. In November, Irving’s nephew King Harris announced a $12.5 million gift to Chicago Harris, and Dennis Keller pledged a $20 million donation.

Harris’s gift will provide funding for key priorities, including $2 million for the new building, $2.375 million for general operating support and endowed faculty positions, $4 million for student scholarships and $1.675 million for the Cultural Policy Center. 

Ronald Litke


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