By Jeremy Manier
Photo by Jason Smith

The University of Chicago is forming a new Institute of Politics aimed at helping students who wish to explore careers in public and social service, and providing non-curricular opportunities for them to pursue interests in politics and policymaking.

The new, non-partisan institute will offer students at the University of Chicago extracurricular opportunities to study and participate in civic life in Chicago and around the nation. Three programs will form the core of the initiative: A new program of visiting fellows and policy practitioners, an expanded set of policy and public interest internships based on UChicago’s innovative Jeff Metcalf Fellows Program, and a series of public lectures about policy and political life.

Programming through the institute officially will begin in early 2013. Its inaugural director will be College alumnus David Axelrod, AB’76, an accomplished political journalist, strategist, and policy adviser. Axelrod will begin leading the institute after the 2012 presidential campaign.

“A large number of students in the College want to explore careers in social and public service, so we believe there will be widespread student interest in this new institute,” says John Boyer, dean of the College. “The exchange of ideas and interaction with policy practitioners will become more routine, and our students will benefit greatly from these pragmatic opportunities.”

“The new institute’s programs are a great fit with the Chicago Harris mission of training outstanding professionals for careers in public life,” says Colm O’Muircheartaigh, dean of the Harris School of Public Policy Studies. “This is a wonderful augmentation of Irving Harris’ vision of connecting the School’s programs to a truly broad array of opportunities.”

Creating new paths to careers in public service

The institute will be publicly announced on Jan. 19 at a webcast event, which will include a panel of prominent political figures and commentators discussing the 2012 election.

The institute will encourage and support College and Chicago Harris students who wish to find careers in the public service and non-profit sectors. It also will benefit existing programs across the University, including those connected to policy, law, business, and related fields. In particular, the institute will work closely with the faculty of Chicago Harris. Organizers also expect to make use of the city of Chicago’s many policy opportunities and its distinctive political history.

For Axelrod, the new role as institute director will bring him back to his deep roots in the University community and Hyde Park neighborhood. Axelrod’s own passion for political journalism began when he was a College student in the 1970s, and he says he saw a need for programs and mentorship that could help more College students pursue such careers.

“My goal is to introduce more students to the spirit of public service,” Axelrod says. “To me it’s the most exciting, interesting, and vital way to spend one’s life, and it’s a tremendous way for students to have an impact on the issues they care about. I hope to help fire those passions. We need bright, motivated young people to go into careers in public service.”

“Many students at the University of Chicago are interested in exploring and understanding how the distinctive education they are experiencing can be connected to a professional life in public service,” says President Robert J. Zimmer. “With this new institute, we hope to significantly expand their experiences and opportunities, so they more fully appreciate and are prepared for any number of routes of public service.”

In the College, the institute will use existing non-curricular programs to create new paths to careers in politics and public policy. The Metcalf Fellows program provides College students with more than 450 internships each year, in locations across the nation and in countries worldwide, offering vital career preparation in a diverse array of professional fields such as business, law, medicine, the arts, education, journalism, and public service. The Chicago Careers in Public and Social Service program, one of eight career exploration programs sponsored by the University’s office of Career Advising and Planning Services and by the College, gives students resources, contacts, and advising to pursue careers in public and social service. These ongoing efforts will provide a foundation for the Institute of Politics to create new programs of internships and visiting fellows.

At Chicago Harris, the institute will help expand the graduate school’s thriving internship program. Along with the Chicago Harris Career Development Office, the Harris internship program provides public policy graduate students with vital training and career advancement. Chicago Harris also will interact with the institute through the school’s partnership in the undergraduate public policy program.

Axelrod has served as a key strategist and aide to President Barack Obama, including service in the White House as senior adviser. He left that role in early 2011 and is currently a strategist for President Obama’s re-election campaign. After that campaign ends in November, Axelrod says he will focus on helping inspire and train the next generation of political leaders.

Non-partisan institute will draw range of views

The Institute of Politics is a non-partisan initiative. Consistent with the University’s tradition of wide-ranging political debate, it will bring together leaders, fellows, and students from a broad spectrum of political beliefs and experiences.

Over the past few months, current students and faculty members expressed deep interest in a new Institute of Politics during informal discussions with Axelrod and University leaders. Stephen Sunderman, president of the University of Chicago College Republicans, was one of the students who spoke with Axelrod. He says the new institute will enrich the high level of intellectual discussion at the University with more political engagement.

“The institute that Mr. Axelrod will direct fills an appetite that many of us have had for political discourse that transcends the theoretical and concerns itself with pressing political issues,” says Sunderman, an economics major. “This is an exciting opportunity that will bring multiple political views front and center on campus through stimulating speakers and fruitful debate.”

The University of Chicago has a long tradition of diversity of political thought, embracing innovative thinkers with an array of political viewpoints. In addition to preeminent faculty members who have shaped ideas that changed the course of politics, the University has given rise to some of the most noted political leaders of the last century. The list of alumni and former faculty members includes Sen. Paul Douglas, Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, Sen. Charles Percy, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, U.S. Attorney General Edward Levi, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, and President Barack Obama.

Alumni of the University also have made prominent contributions to public service journalism, including Washington Post Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist David Broder, AB’47, AM’51; New York Times columnist David Brooks, AB’83; Pulitzer-winning investigative journalist Daniel Gilbert, AB’05; Washington Post Pulitzer-winning publisher and author Katharine Graham, AB’38; Pulitzer-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, AB’58; New York Times editorial board member Brent Staples, AM’76, PhD’82; and Pulitzer-winning Chicago writer Studs Terkel, PhB’32, JD’34.

The Institute of Politics will carry forward that legacy of public service, says Elisabeth Clemens, professor of sociology at UChicago and co-editor of the journal Studies in American Political Development.

“Mr. Axelrod’s new role represents an exceptional opportunity for students to engage with the world of political practice,” Clemens says. “The institute will provide a setting in which Chicago students can do what Chicago students do so well — reflect, compare, analyze — before they embark upon professional careers in public service and policymaking.”

The palpable enthusiasm among students and faculty members was a major reason why Axelrod wanted to help build the new program at the University of Chicago, he says.

“It was clear to me as I talked with students and faculty that there was a real hunger for an institute like this to channel their interest in public policy and politics,” Axelrod says. “There will be students who take part in this program and, as a result, will make the choice to go into politics as a noble, essential profession. Whatever side of political debates they may be on, we need to turn their intellectual power to the challenges facing our world.”