HURI was formally founded in 1973 by Omeljan Pritsak and other leading scholars in Ukrainian studies. It functions as a focal point for undergraduate and graduate students, fellows, and professors and provides assistance with their research. Prior to the establishment of HURI, its founders organized weekly seminars in Ukrainian studies. These seminars have continued to the present day (since 2001 under the auspices of the Harvard Ukraine Study Group).
HURI maintains one of the largest collections of Ukrainian books and other media available in the West, both in its own collection and in those stored in Harvard's many libraries. HURI also manages the Harvard Ukrainian Summer Institute which offers summer courses in various topics relating to Ukraine. It also publishes the Harvard Ukrainian Studies journal (founded in 1977) and a series of book publications, including the Harvard Series in Ukrainian Studies, the Harvard Library of Early Ukrainian Literature, and Harvard Papers in Ukrainian Studies. HURI also produces Perspectives on Contemporary Ukraine, a bulletin covering current events and developments.