New Keller Center reflects Harris Public Policy’s growing ambitions

Facility designed for policy engagement opens for Winter Quarter classes

The University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy has a new home to match its growing ambitions.

The Keller Center, which opened on Jan. 7, is the transformation of a mid-20th century building designed by Edward Durell Stone into a structure that cultivates the active exchange of ideas and fosters deeper engagement in Chicago and around the world. The center includes a community forum, named in honor of King Harris, made from reclaimed wood milled at a South Side facility established by artist Theaster Gates, a member of the University faculty.

“The Keller Center provides an intellectual hub for the leading scholarship and distinct education of the Harris School of Public Policy, growing and advancing its rigorous, evidence-based approach to confront pressing challenges at home and around the world. As the center opens, we recognize Dennis and Connie Keller and King Harris for their generous philanthropic support of the research, education and impact of Harris,” said Robert J. Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago.

The opening of the Keller Center comes as Harris Public Policy experiences rapid growth. This year, the school welcomed its largest incoming class—more than doubling its student population over the past five years. Sixteen new faculty members have joined Harris since 2015, reflecting an increased focus on fields such as global conflict and international development, energy and environment, and data science.

The center is the most striking of recent milestones in the evolution of Harris Public Policy. The school last year welcomed the first cohort of Obama Foundation Scholars, a joint program with the Obama Foundation for rising leaders from around the world. As the school has grown, it has emerged as a hub for wider array of policy-relevant initiatives across campus. This year, Harris became the academic home for the University of Chicago’s Urban Labs, which work to address challenges across key dimensions of urban life including crime, education, energy and environment, health and poverty; and the home of the University of Chicago’s Civic Leadership Academy, a program for emerging government and non-profit leaders in the Chicago area. Harris has launched new part-time degree options, including an evening master’s degree program and a double executive master’s in health policy offered jointly with the London School of Economics designed for working professionals. Finally, the school is also now home to the undergraduate public policy studies major, one of the fastest growing in the College.

These developments come as Harris is attracting a generation of students with a commitment to social engagement and a desire to address pressing policy challenges. Rising applications reflect the value placed on the Harris approach with its focus on finding evidence-based policy solutions, rather than relying on partisanship or ideology.

“The Keller Center will serve as a leading destination for innovative policy thinking, where students, scholars, civic leaders and policymakers can come together to formulate and test new policy ideas and catalyze them into action,” said Katherine Baicker, dean and the Emmett Dedmon Professor at Harris Public Policy. “Our new home enhances our ability to deliver both transformative educational experiences to our students and projects that change our city and the world for the better.”

From dream to reality

For most of its existence since becoming a professional school in 1988, Harris has been housed at 1155 E. 60th St.—a former office space of the American Bar Association. Although improvements and additions were made over the years, the building was characterized by long hallways and few spaces for informal gatherings.

As the school and its ambitions grew, Harris leaders began planning a new home to accommodate the school’s future needs. The idea of the Keller Center site grew from a tour of a former graduate student residence hall by University Trustee King Harris, whose late uncle Irving B. Harris provided the original endowment for the school. King Harris worked with school officials to develop ideas for the site, and he and his family agreed to donate $10 million toward the new center and an additional 2.5 million toward the school’s 2x20 fund campaign designed to enable future growth.

Critical to making the project a reality was Dennis Keller, co-founder and retired chairman and CEO, co-founder of Adtalem Global Education. A University of Chicago trustee and Chicago Booth alumnus, Keller saw the Harris School as an “underburnished jewel.” He and his wife Connie gave $20 million to support the building project, which was formally announced in late 2014. The building is named the Keller Center in recognition of their generosity.

The result is the transformation of Stone’s tour-de-force design into the Keller Center. The original three-story building had a monumental feel, along with signature features of the New Formalism style. It includes slender columns, a perforated canopy and decorative tracings on its limestone façade.

Doug Farr’s Chicago-based architecture and urban planning practice, Farr Associates, retained those elements but remade the structure in a way that draws attention upward and brings sunlight in. A central feature of the reconstructed building is a four-story wood atrium, named the Harris Family Foundation King Harris Forum. Ascending terraces act as collaborative workspaces and double as platforms for amphitheater seating.

The base of the atrium has a sun-splashed café, and the space is lit in large part by a skylight. The Keller Center has two other major skylights as well as a fourth-floor “sky suite” with spectacular views of the iconic Chicago skyline.

Gabriel Wilcox, the lead architect from Farr Associates on the project, said a major design goal was to preserve the stately aspects of Stone’s building while removing its “compressed” feeling: raising the ceilings and opening up the building. The Harris Family Foundation King Harris Forum is where all those elements come together, complemented by flooring, walls and decorative ceiling elements made of reclaimed ash tree lumber.

“This is the soul of the building,” Wilcox said. “What was important was to create a space of warmth and gathering.”

‘The building enables the future’

Harris leaders worked with Wilcox and his Farr Associates colleagues to create a structure that minimizes the environmental footprint of this 125,000-square-foot building. The University is pursuing LEED Platinum certification for the Keller Center. It is among the first higher education facilities to seek the Living Building Challenge Petal certification, the world’s most rigorous performance standard for buildings.

Among the Keller Center’s eco-friendly features is a rainwater-capture system that diverts more than 500,000 gallons of water annually. The building has a green roof and solar panels that generate 150 kWh annually—enough energy to power 15 average homes a year.

The wood making up much of the atrium is reclaimed from ash trees that city officials cut down amid the Emerald Ash Borer beetle infestation several years ago. Those trees were transformed into lumber at the mill set up by Gates, who collaborated on the forum space.

One of the planned uses of the Harris Family Foundation King Harris Forum will be events and meetings that include residents from the local community. When you combine the policy knowledge and resources of Harris with the passion of neighborhood leaders, Gates said, “you have the potential for an even more vibrant community.”

Prof. Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, who also serves as a deputy dean at Harris, spent several years on the steering committee for the Keller Center. To him, all the patience, planning and generous donations have already begun to pay dividends—a facility that reflects the way Harris is emerging as a leading institution for tackling the world’s toughest problems.

“You walk into the new space, and it’s going to be commensurate with the school’s ambitions for itself and its students,” said Bueno de Mesquita, an authority on cybersecurity, terrorism and rebellion. “That visitors have arrived somewhere where greatness is expected.”

To Baicker, the new building further deepens the school’s vital role at the University of Chicago. “The work we are doing at Harris is a key part of so many of the University’s goals, in terms of external engagement, connection to the city and moving from academic abstraction to real-world impact.”

“The building enables the future,” she added. “Going into the Keller Center, it reflects the fact that you’re entering a place where people are doing important things.”