30 years ago this year, the University of Chicago renamed its public policy school after Irving B. Harris.
Irving Harris

Thirty years ago this month, the University of Chicago renamed its graduate public policy school in honor of Irving B. Harris, a man whose leadership, generosity, and unceasing efforts to further policy education in the UChicago tradition were vital to what became the Harris School of Public Policy.  Today, the institution proudly bears his name and its trailblazing work and mission honor his spirit.

A man who gave so much to so many, Irving Harris dedicated much of his life to social justice and helping the most vulnerable among us, with a particular focus on improving the lives of very young children.  Harris, who died in 2004 at the age of 94, was a successful businessman at the Toni Home Permanent Co. and Pittway Corp.  In addition to naming the Harris School of Public Policy, Harris was a founder of groundbreaking early childhood nonprofit organizations: Erikson Institute; Family Focus; and The Ounce of Prevention Fund.  And, his legacy lives on further through the work of the Irving Harris Foundation, which he served as chairman, and whosefunding commitments, field leadership, and special initiatives seek to build sustainable change to address root causes and primarily focus on improving conditions affecting infants, young children, and their families.

Along with Joan Harris, his wife of more than 30 years, he was a strong supporter of the arts, and Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance is named for the couple. During his lifetime, Harris modeled a distinctive kind of philanthropic leadership, motivated by the belief that everyone deserves an equal opportunity to succeed in life, which has inspired countless public servants, non-profit and business leaders, scholars, students, and others to persevere in their quest to find better solutions for the world’s most vexing problems. 

Irving Harris also understood and believed in the power of impartial, academic research.  His view that social problems could be addressed through more effective public policy is as relevant today as ever as the world grapples with the realities of a global pandemic, a severe economic downturn, and a burgeoning civil rights movement.

Harris’ example and values continue to motivate the school’s work to this day, and his investment has left an indelible mark on the fields of education and social policy though the school’s many academic research initiatives as well as through the impact of countless Harris alumni. This includes his fellowship recipients who have devoted their lives to advancing better policies to help the most vulnerable people in our society.  It is also reflected in the Center for Human Potential and Public Policy (CHPPP), which was established and endowed by Irving Harris. The research at CHPPP aims to help all children reach their full potential. This field of study flourishes today at the school through the innovative work of CHPPP’s research hub, the Behavioral Insights and Parenting Lab (BIP), which leverages scientific evidence on parental decision-making to reduce social and economic inequality; as well as the work of the Crime Lab, Education Lab, and Poverty Lab, which partner closely with non-profit and government organizations to find solutions to the range of interrelated issues facing youth in our cities. 

The program from the Sept. 13, 1990 naming celebration.

As Harris Public Policy welcomes a new class of leaders to the school that has borne his name now for three decades, we are celebrating Irving Harris’ contributions to policy research and education at the University of Chicago and a legacy of helping others that resonates powerfully today.  

In recognition of this 30-year milestone of the school’s naming, we have compiled a selection of our favorite quotes from Irving Harris and reflections by his wife, Joan, which help to illustrate his enduring impact and his legacy of hope that continue to inspire future policy leaders.   


Have a favorite Irving Harris quote or memory to share? 

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“One of the reasons I helped found the Harris School was that so many talented young people were going into lucrative jobs in law or on Wall Street. We can’t afford to have all of our brightest young people diverted from public service. We need some of the best working in public policy.”

Irving B. Harris in remarks in 1995

“My late husband, Irving Harris, was the force behind the establishment of the Harris School. … He had a very strong belief that young people, many young people, wanted to change the world but didn’t want to go to medical school or law school. There needed to be a safe, stimulating place for students to enter the world of public policy so that they in turn could go out and do what he thought was so important.”

Joan W. Harris at a Harris event in 2015 celebrating the University of Chicago’s 125th anniversary

“At the time the Harris School was established, I hoped we would attract many outstanding young students. We certainly have.”

Irving B. Harris in remarks in 1995

“Problems like poverty are not preordained. Poverty is a problem created by man. If we really want to, we can solve it. But the skills needed to solve our problems — welfare, homelessness, finding people jobs — don’t come without thought or practice.”

Irving B. Harris in remarks in 1995

"As businessmen, we have an influence on both how and where government funds are spent and where we place our corporate contributions to civic activities. Many of our programs ... respond to the symptoms, but they do not get to the roots of the problem."

Irving B. Harris writing in IndustryWeek in 1983 as reported by the Chicago Tribune

"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 and make a difference in a lot of kids' lives."

Irving B. Harris in a 2003 interview with the Chicago Tribune.

“We must use the tools at our disposal, including education and research in public policy, to begin to understand the causes of social failure and weed them out. Human motivation and social organization should not be insoluble mysteries, nor should it be beyond our talents to organize our society to eradicate the malignancy of permanent poverty and deprivation.”

— Irving B. Harris in remarks in 1995

“Family dysfunction is the name we can assign to a whole set of problems that produce the same set of symptoms over and over again, generation after generation. Add to family dysfunction the cycle of poverty that continues to grow in the United States, and we have a festering, expanding disaster in terms of the waste of human life.”

Irving B. Harris in his 1996 book “Children in Jeopardy: Can We Break the Cycle of Poverty?”

"If we want our nation’s children to reach their full potential, to be happy and productive members of society, we need high-quality early child-care programs. But these programs must have well-educated, dedicated people to staff them. Institutions like Erikson can help us meet this critical need, but they need our support."

Irving B. Harris in a 2002 comment in Philanthropy News Digest as he announced a $4 million grant for a scholarship program at Erikson Institute

“Our nation must solve the problem of poverty if we are to continue to progress. Without a solution, we will slide into the status of a second-class nation, no longer a world leader.”

Irving B. Harris in his 1996 book “Children in Jeopardy: Can We Break the Cycle of Poverty?”

“My late husband, Irving, was very much involved in trying to right the world and make it a better place. He was always concentrating on the poor, the minorities, the disadvantaged kids. I said to him, ‘If you just chase pathology, you’re not going to catch it all. You need to look at what’s healthy and beautiful and strong that also needs support.’”

Joan W. Harris in a 2018 interview with Chicago magazine

“The best advice I ever got was from my husband: ‘In times of stress, take a deep breath and count to 10.’”

Joan W. Harris in a 2018 interview with Chicago magazine

"Kindergarten is much too late to worry if a child is ready to learn. We must begin in the first days and weeks and months of life to get children ready to learn."

­­Irving B. Harris in his 1996 book  "Children in Jeopardy: Can We Break the Cycle of Poverty?" as reported by The Associated Press and appearing in The New York Times in 2004

"Irving believed that the University of Chicago is the perfect place for attracting intelligent and committed students who care about making a contribution outside of the traditional areas of law, medicine and business."

Joan W. Harris in comments to Harris Public Policy 

“The Harris School has proved itself. It is a great institution in a great university. It has distinguished itself in the research produced by its scholars, in the superlative quality of the faculty, and in the high quality and number of students it has attracted from around the country. The school has already surpassed my early expectations.”

Irving B. Harris in remarks in 1995