$100 Million Gift From Penny Pritzker Will Support New Building Harvard’s Economics Department

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Penny Pritzker's gift will create a new home for Harvard's Economics Department. Credit: Moshe Zusman Photography Studio

By Harvard Gazette

CAMBRIDGE, MA–Philanthropist, entrepreneur, civic leader, and former U.S. secretary of commerce Penny Pritzker ’81 has made a $100 million gift in support of the Department of Economics at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard announced today. Pritzker’s gift will help create a new home for the department and bolster its global impact by enabling faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates to pursue dynamic new approaches to teaching, research, and collaboration within the department and across the university.

Pritzker’s more than three decades of business and civic leadership has included significant focus on inclusion and opportunity, including efforts to improve economic prospects for low-income families in Chicago and across the nation. Among her many philanthropic efforts, she was recently named to the advisory council of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum and is a cofounder of Chicago’s P33, a nonprofit working to transform her home city into a tier-one technology hub with greater inclusive economic growth for more women and people of color.  She has long been active in service to the university in various volunteer leadership roles, including a six-year term as a Harvard Overseer and as a member of the Harvard Corporation since 2018.

“Penny Pritzker is everything we hope an alum will be — an accomplished and principled leader, a true and tireless public servant, and a loyal supporter of Harvard and of other institutions devoted to the pursuit of knowledge and the expansion of economic opportunity,” said President Larry Bacow. “Many organizations have benefited from the time and resources that she and her husband, Bryan, have generously shared, and we are incredibly grateful for this extraordinary gift. It will create tremendous opportunities for our students and our faculty, as well as all those who will benefit from their work.”

The new space supported by Pritzker’s gift is intended to spur innovation and opportunity, bringing cutting-edge applications of economics scholarship to reality on a global scale and deepening research aimed at solving some of society’s most pressing challenges such as persistent economic inequality, public health emergencies, criminal justice system inequities, and the climate crisis.

“Today’s faculty and students in the Harvard Economics Department want to create more ladders of opportunity in our society and inspire future generations of civic-oriented leadership,” said Pritzker. “Those goals motivated me to support their incredible, cutting-edge work to understand the drivers of a more inclusive economy for more people across our nation and the world. I hope this gift will enable and galvanize a new era for Harvard economics, with a spectacular building that will support and accelerate collaborative approaches to teaching and research not just within the department but across the university. I am confident that the resulting discoveries from this collaborative work can contribute to a broader understanding throughout our country and the world.”

Faculty said they hope to have more opportunities to learn from each other and to share in discovery in the new space, enhance their mentoring of new and junior colleagues, and take advantage of more vigorous student interaction. The new building will enable the department to consolidate research, enriching undergraduate engagement and graduate education, and allow for new collaborations and partnerships. It will also allow the department to better meet the needs of an evolving, increasingly diverse field. In these and other ways, the gift will allow economics to build on its strength of producing research and scholarship that shapes national and international debate and educates the future leaders of the country and the world.

“This inspirational gift is a once-in-a-generation opportunity — coming at a moment of significant possibility and promise for economics at Harvard,” said Claudine Gay, Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “Our economics faculty — some of the world’s most respected, acclaimed, and influential researchers and educators — are collaborating in new and enhanced ways within the department and across the university, as well as with peers and practitioners beyond Harvard. I share Penny’s excitement that the gift will help support an exceptional new generation of Harvard economics leaders, giving them the tools and spaces they need to advance bold new ideas including a focus on equity and opportunity —furthering the entire department’s capability to enable real difference in the world.”

Because of Pritzker’s “astounding generosity and extraordinary vision,” Gay added, “the department is poised to enter a new era of groundbreaking impact, fueled by even greater, far-reaching innovations in scholarship and teaching.”

Economics faculty have earned countless honors for leadership in the field and groundbreaking research, including 11 Nobel Prizes. Other recent award winners include Isaiah Andrews, who was awarded both the John Bates Clark Medal and a MacArthur Award; Stefanie Stantcheva, who won an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship; and Melissa Dell, another winner of the Clark Medal.

“Good buildings foster the kinds of interaction that create breakthroughs,” said department chair Ed Glaeser,  the Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics. “This gift will enable us to attract the best students, ensure early-career faculty come here, and, just as importantly, energize those who are here are to do their best work. We want the proximity that enables ideas to spring from one mind to another — that’s how we believe collaborative creativity happens.”

Raj Chetty, William A. Ackman Professor of Public Economics, said Pritzker’s vision aligned with the mission of his Harvard-based nonprofit, Opportunity Insights, where he serves as director. “Our work is precisely to focus on inclusion in various ways — how do we give people from all backgrounds better access to succeeding? I carry that mission into my teaching as well, and I can see this building playing a role in amplifying all of that,” he said.

The building also holds the promise of increased synergy between faculty and students, said Amanda Pallais, professor of economics who studies labor markets and the economics of education through a focus on young people, those without social connections, and ethnic minorities. “This gift will facilitate so many more interactions among faculty and students. It will not only provide more spaces for faculty and students to come together but will also allow the entire faculty to thrive in one building. Faculty will no longer have to choose between being around their colleagues and meeting with their research teams. The gift will also allow for the graduate students to be in the same building as professors, making it so much easier for a student to stop by for advice.”

Penny Pritzker ’81 thanks performers in the Harvard Opportunes at the opening of Harvard’s Pritzker Commons in 2017. The dynamic common space, made possible by Pritzker and named in honor of her parents, has become a hub for students and is used for convening, collaboration, programming, and social events.

Pritzker, who concentrated in economics as an undergraduate at Harvard, is chair and founder of the global investment firm PSP Partners and its affiliates, Pritzker Realty Group, PSP Capital, and PSP Growth. In addition to her work at PSP Partners, Pritzker has founded a number of other businesses in real estate, senior living, technology, and financial services. Pritzker served as U.S. secretary of commerce under President Barack Obama from 2013 to 2017, as well as on President Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness and his Economic Recovery Advisory Board. She also serves on the board of a number of companies including Microsoft and Icertis and is former executive chair of the board of TransUnion and a past board member of Hyatt Hotels Corp., Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co., Marmon Group, and LaSalle Bank Corp.

She has served in varied leadership roles as chair of the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; founder and advisory board chair of Skills for America’s Future and Skills for Chicagoland’s Future; a trustee of Stanford University; chair of the board of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and a member of the board of the Council on Foreign Relations. She is also a past member of the Chicago Board of Education and past chair of the Chicago Public Education Fund. Pritzker has been recognized with the Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service, as well as the Harry S. Truman Award from the American Association of Community Colleges.

Through her significant philanthropic work, Pritzker has a long history of supporting organizations and leaders focused on spurring progress in a range of fields throughout her hometown of Chicago and the United States. More specifically, Pritzker’s longtime efforts have focused on increasing access to economic and lifelong learning opportunities for families across the country. Last year, she also chaired the Illinois COVID-19 Response Fund.

Planning will begin to match academic needs with the physical features and design of the new building, set to be located on Harvard’s Cambridge campus near the location of the department’s current home.

(Reprinted with permission from the Harvard Gazette.)

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