Daley shows students the many roads to public service

After 22 years as Chicago’s mayor, Richard M. Daley says one of the lasting lessons he can share with students is the importance of a community’s civic and business leaders in shaping a city’s future.

So Daley brought to the Harris School of Public Policy Studies an array of figures from the public, private and non-profit sectors, and engaged them in conversations with students preparing to join the next generation of civic leaders. Those wide-ranging but intimate discussions became hallmarks of Daley’s first year as a distinguished senior fellow at Chicago Harris.

Daley made teaching at Chicago Harris his first commitment after retiring as mayor in 2011. Soon after arriving, he decided to focus on working closely with a small group of students who shared his passion for public service. Through a series of guest lectures—with CEOs of two leading corporations, a MacArthur “genius grant”-winning urban architect, an innovative inner-city educator, several big city mayors and others—he has worked to show how leaders of many types can put their best ideas into practice.

“The students have to hear a different perspective about the world than just government alone,” said Daley, who worked hard to keep the class a friendly, close setting. “I also wanted them to feel free to ask tough questions.”

value of diverse voices

The non-credit course kicked off last autumn with the newly elected mayor of Gary, Ind. Karen Freeman-Wilson, who discussed the challenges facing her city. With Freeman-Wilson, Daley also launched a pilot project this spring in which Chicago Harris students conducted policy research for different city departments. Through the project, students have gotten valuable hands-on experience while bringing fresh ideas to city agencies.

During the year, the class also heard from Bruce Liimatainen, chairman and CEO of A. Finkl & Sons, a global supplier of specialty steel. Liimatainen provided students with a tour of the company’s plant on Chicago’s South Side and spoke about the importance of manufacturing in the United States. In addition, the class  welcomed Greg Brown, chairman and CEO of Motorola Solutions; David Miller, former mayor of Toronto; David Ullrich, executive director of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative; Tim King, founder of the Urban Prep Academies; Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects; Michael Nutter, mayor of Philadelphia; and Bill Daley, former chief of staff to President Barack Obama.

“One of my key take-aways from Mayor Daley’s class is that public policy is formed by more than just government,” said Matt Gee, MPP’12. “He showed us how a city and a society are shaped by business leaders, thought leaders and government leaders. They all contribute to their individual spheres and the larger public space.”

Nutter, mayor of Philadelphia since 2008 and current president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, urged Chicago Harris students to consider careers in government, saying it offers more responsibilities sooner than in the private sector and gives greater opportunity to be an agent of change.

“There is something about the feeling that you are creating change, that you are making things better, that you are improving for your fellow Chicagoans or fellow Philadelphians or wherever you live,” Nutter said. “It is almost indescribable, but I’ve got to tell you, there is nothing else like it.”

Brown, of Motorola Solutions, talked to students about how major corporations work with local governments on key initiatives and how valuable it is to have private sector employees who understand public policy issues. When it comes to choosing a career, he said, “Whatever you do, do what lights your flame.”

Access to experience

Understanding that array of perspectives was invaluable for students like Kathleen Lefurgy, MPP’12.

“The lecture series showed me how important it is for all of these policy areas to be connected to each other, and how integral a government is in facilitating and financing all of these public policy issues, which is not always obvious from the outside,” Lefurgy said.

When Daley first arrived at Chicago Harris, he met with a handful of students at a time, wanting to get to know them and hear their ideas for the course. Many students and faculty remarked on his accessibility, his love of Chicago and how much they learned from his practical experience.

“In academia, we need more direct connections to the policy world,” said Christopher Berry, associate professor at Chicago Harris and director of its Urban Policy Initiative. “It has been fun to watch his growing relationship with the students. He intentionally chose to interpret his commitment to 10 annual events as a class so he could get to know the students. The class has exceeded my expectations, addressing topics and issues that don’t come up in other classes.”

Daley is planning for the second year of his five-year appointment, which he hopes will include international speakers, journalists, former governors, women in government, urban educators and those working to reduce re-incarceration.

The students working with the city of Gary spent the spring laying the foundation for longer-term projects that future students can pursue. They broke into teams focusing on areas such as budget and finance, sustainability, airport expansion, urban agriculture, and urban food systems, researching comparable cities and helping draft strategic plans.

During a class visit to Urban Prep Academy, a successful inner city Chicago charter school for boys, Daley summed up a lesson he stressed throughout the course — the importance of using creative approaches to help a city’s many neighborhoods.

“No part of a city should be forgotten,” he said.