Annual tradition exposes incoming students to Harris' evidence-based philosophy
Professor Ryan Kellogg delivering the Aims of Public Policy address.

Ryan Kellogg, professor and Deputy Dean for Academic Programs at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, opened his Aims of Public Policy Address on September 23 with a safe assumption: while it is worthwhile to consider a shared objective of public policy – especially in 2019 – it was likely each of the 516 incoming graduate students embarking on their two-year career at Harris Public Policy were doing so with their own specific “aim” of public policy in mind. 

Ryan Kellogg
Harris Public Policy Professor and Deputy Dean for Academic Programs Ryan Kellogg

“Some are really interested in education, some are healthcare people, some are interested in energy and climate, others may be interested in inequality or crime,” Kellogg said in the midst of preparations for his address. “So we have this very diverse set of interests among them. Even within policy topics: some people might share a topic, but have very different aims or preferred policies. So aims of public policy are very heterogeneous, and different people want very different things.” 

Drawing from his own early career experience working as a chemical engineer turned economic analyst in the oil and natural gas industry twenty years ago, Kellogg acknowledged the dynamic inherent in most modern day public policy creation: that most expect for there to be someone who “wins” – and someone else who “loses.”

After conducting economic analysis for a George W. Bush-era energy bill that prioritized clear federal regulations and tax breaks to aid in building the Alaska Natural Gas Pipeline Project, Kellogg realized he wanted to do something different. He left the industry to go to graduate school.

Quantitative reasoning
The quantitative lessons of the Core enable Harris students to effectively engage with policy.

“I found myself doing a lot of economic analysis work to support our team in DC that was lobbying for enabling legislation to help make the pipeline happen,” Kellogg said. “We had very clear aims of public policy.  We wanted regulatory certainty, we wanted a couple of tax breaks."

“Other people probably didn't like those aims very much,” Kellogg admitted. “So you have controversy, and this underscores the fact that most policies have winners and losers. And they're going to have very different aims of what they want policy to do.”

The Aims of Public Policy Address in one form or another has been a Harris tradition since the school was first opened. As described by Jeremy Edwards, Senior Associate Dean for Academic and Student Affairs at Harris, the objective of the address is to expose incoming students to the “unique pedagogical philosophy and approach” that Harris takes to the study of public policy.

Jeremy Edwards
Jeremy Edwards speaks during Day One festivities, before the Aims of Public Policy Address.

Students spend the first year of their two-year program focusing on the Core, a rigorous curriculum of economics, statistics, and analytical politics.

For the senior faculty member who delivers the “Aims” address each year, it is an opportunity to inspire and challenge students before they start the Core. 

“Our core is designed intentionally to really transform our students off the bat from day one, not because the math is hard or the calculus is hard – certainly that is true! – but transforming how we think about those things, and the way we interpret those tools in the policymaking process is very different than what many students anticipate coming into the Core,” Edwards said.

“The understanding of externalities, and how to mitigate further marginalizing people through what you perceive to be good policy... all of those sorts of instances are very, very difficult to grasp at first, and I think our Aims address is largely driven to discuss those sorts of things.”

The faculty member who delivers the Aims address each year is invited to do so by senior Harris faculty. Just days after four million people around the world participated in the September 20 youth-led Global Climate Strike, Kellogg’s presentation seemed particularly timely. 

Katherine Baicker, dean and Emmett Dedmon Professor at Harris Public Policy, delivers the Day One address and introduces Ryan Kellogg.

“There's no question that climate and the environment is a policy area every one of our students has an opinion on or something to say about,” Edwards said. “You can see this in some of the static data we capture on the students and what their policy interests are. Energy and environment are in the top five, easy. And it's not isolated to just the environmental sciences either; it's broadened into everything. From a content perspective, there's appetite for Ryan's lecture, no doubt.”

In addition to his work at Harris, Kellogg is also a research associate at the National Bureau for Economic Research (NBER), where he focuses his research efforts on energy economics, environmental policy and the economics of resource extraction, among other things. 

“Part of why I think energy is interesting is that it has this amazing tension between the fact that access to affordable and reliable energy has incredible economic value, particularly if you look at countries like China and India where incomes are rapidly increasing,” Kellogg said in the days leading up to his speech. “The problem is that the way we've historically produced energy using fossil fuels has all of these negative environmental consequences. So the question becomes, what's the right way? How do we think about striking a balance between these two things?” 

The option of continuing to burn fossil fuels “willy-nilly” seems “clearly, strongly negative,” Kellogg said. But the approach of stepping away from fossil fuels all at once feels ill-advised to Kellogg, as well. 

“There are huge adjustment costs to immediately turning away from burning fossil fuels, particularly if you're in a place that's trying to develop economically,” Kellogg said. “The problem is then about applying the tools and methods of public policy—the statistics, economics, and politics components of the core that we teach at Harris—to understand the tradeoffs imposed by different policies that address the global energy and climate challenge.”

The Aims of Public Policy Address is modeled after the University of Chicago-wide Aims of Education address, a tradition of more than fifty years. 

Today, the Aims of Public Policy address has implications far beyond the walls of the Keller Center, the Harris state-of-the-art new home.

“We can argue it’s the most important ‘Aims’ on campus today,” Edwards said, referring to other addresses modeled on the Aims of Education address across the UChicago campus. “You can go into any one of these schools and someone's got an opinion on policy. I don't know if it would be true if you went into any one of these [other] schools and somebody would have an opinion on financial accounting or physics. Everybody's got an opinion on what good policy looks like, and what bad policy looks like.” 

“Our students come here because they know that the prerequisite to great things in any context means you must think harder than everybody else – but it doesn't end there,” said Edwards. “You also have to do harder than everybody else, and I think the Aims just puts a nice intellectual, academic lens to that argument.”

The Keller Center uses state-of-the-art sustainable technology.
This year's Aims of Public Policy address was the first one delivered on the grounds of Harris' state-of-the-art new home, the Keller Center.

Like Kellogg, Shannon Bradford, MPP Class of 2021, went to a large engineering school in Texas for her undergraduate education. She said she’s already encountered several people with backgrounds similar to Kellogg’s in her previous work at a Dallas-based non-profit. 

“I really appreciated the perspective that he brought, as somebody who had worked in the natural gas industry,” she said following the address. “I think that viewpoint is unique and I’ve worked with a lot of people who are in that industry and are just so staunchly opposed to any environmental reforms or seeing the impact that it’s causing, and I appreciate him talking candidly about the issue and being responsible for the next generation and not just being complacent.” 

Previous Aims of Public Policy Addresses