Generous gift from Ray Iwanowski, MBA’97, will support democracy-focused initiatives at Harris School of Public Policy and collaborations across campus.
Ray Iwanowski, MBA’97

Democratic government, in the United States and around the world, faces a host of profound and unprecedented challenges. New approaches seem essential more than ever. These pressing concerns inspired a generous gift to the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy aimed at finding rigorous answers to questions that strike at the heart of democracy–polarization, ineffective governing institutions, an ugly shift in civil discourse, and a culture of intolerance for difference of opinion.

The new gift is provided by Ray Iwanowski, MBA’97, a distinguished investment industry leader and co-founder of SECOR Asset Management. Prior to launching SECOR, Iwanowski held senior positions with Goldman Sachs Asset Management, Salomon Brothers, and First Boston. He was a longstanding member of the board of Good Shepherd Services, a New York-based social services agency and is a generous philanthropic supporter of the University of Chicago. Iwanowski’s transformative gift to Harris will support the launch of the Democracy Innovation Fund, a campus partnership supporting democracy-strengthening research and engagement at and across the Harris School, the Institute of Politics (IOP), and the Forum for Free Inquiry and Expression, and other schools and initiatives across the University.

“The University of Chicago has long been focused on better understanding and trying to find solutions to the threats that undermine democracy,” said Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, dean and Sydney Stein Professor at Harris. “The Democracy Innovation Fund will advance vital initiatives and collaboration across campus and move the needle toward a healthier body politic and more effective government. We are extraordinarily grateful to Ray for this important contribution and the new work that it supports.”

Some of the efforts that the Fund will bolster include: a Democracy Reform Primer Series from the Center for Effective Government (CEG), which is housed at Harris; the Forum for Free Inquiry’s focus on civil discourse and free expression across partisan difference; and IOP’s efforts to combat polarization.

"The challenges to US democracy become clearer every day, and yet the path toward actually making progress to address them seems less so,” said Iwanowski. “With its hallmark dedication to rigorous analysis and real-world engagement–as well as the distinctive combination of campus entities interested in these issues–UChicago is well-positioned to deliver real progress on these urgent national concerns.”

CEG’s Democracy Reform Primer Series aims to serve as the authoritative guide for political leaders, journalists, activists, and the public to what is known about the effects of reforming political institutions. Each primer focuses on a particular reform, clarifies its intended purpose, and critically evaluates what the best available research has to say about it.

“Without partisan judgment or ideological pretense, and grounded in objective scholarship, these primers set the record straight by clarifying what can be said about democracy reforms with confidence and what requires further study,” said Harris Professor Anthony Fowler, who serves as the series’ editor.

The primers, which are also supported by the Democracy Fund, a non-partisan foundation working to strengthen US democracy, will be rolled out throughout the course of the year. Initial primers cover rank choice voting, term limits, filibuster reform, and the timing of local elections. Each is written by a nationally recognized, leading scholar, appears on CEG’s website, and will be featured in CEG’s ongoing media partnerships (including the Democracy Solutions Project, an 18-month media partnership between CEG and Chicago Public Media, and in the Associated Press’ Localize It Guides and Campus Insights). 

In addition to the CEG’s Primer Series, Iwanowski’s gift to establish the Democracy Innovation Fund will help fund the University’s Institute of Politics (IOP) work addressing political polarization throughout US society, initially focusing on the urban-rural divide. Led by former US Senator Heidi Heitkamp and founded by David Axelrod, now a distinguished senior fellow at Harris, IOP is committed to fostering in UChicago students a passion for public service and active engagement in US democracy. Much of the Institute’s programming is dedicated to overcoming persistent challenges surrounding polarization. 

The Democracy Innovation Fund will also develop new Harris efforts in conjunction with the University of Chicago Forum for Free Inquiry and Expression, the campus undertaking whose mission is to promote the understanding, practice, and advancement of free and open discourse. The Forum is led by Professor Tom Ginsburg who brings deep expertise in comparative and international law to his role. Harris and the Forum will partner on both curricular and programming innovations that aim to help public policy students to confidently hold productive, respectful conversations with those of differing views and bridge divides on campus and beyond. 

“These collaborations among Harris, IOP, and the Forum undertaken as part of the Democracy Innovation Fund represent important efforts that will help students and others to develop the ability to more confidently express themselves and break down barriers,” said Bueno de Mesquita. “A strong democracy respects different ideas and viewpoints, but it also asks citizens to not shy away from expressing themselves.  Ray’s gift will be instrumental in jumpstarting new work to bridge divides that is essential for both a vibrant campus and a healthy, more democratic, less polarized society.”