Building the Future

Chicago Harris students, faculty and staff gathered in the school’s cafe on the afternoon of November 5 without knowing why they’d been called together. There was a good sign, though: champagne. One student grabbed a flute from the server’s tray, saying, “If we have to toast to something, I want to be ready.”

The drinks weren’t the only promising sign. The entire cafe had been converted into a formal reception area, with elegant tablecloths, Harris-branded banners and a heavy black backdrop behind a makeshift stage. Off to the side, caterers quietly stocked a row of trays with light fare. There were cameras everywhere, with many pointing toward a mysteriously covered easel that stood to the left of the stage. By the time a phalanx of University of Chicago leaders arrived, the room was buzzing with anticipation. The group paraded down the hallway and past a wall where a flyer posted on a corkboard asked, “What’s your legacy?”

It was an appropriate question for the announcement that followed. Students craned their necks for a look as the easel was uncovered, revealing a foam core board with an architect’s rendering of a modernist building. The students recognized it, sort of – it looked a lot like the undergraduate dorm located a few blocks east on 60th Street. But the building shown here was no mere dorm. Restored and reimagined with a sprawling, south-facing lawn, it both honored and gave new life to the South Side masterpiece by Edward Durell Stone, the architect who created landmarks like the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Radio City Music Hall in New York City and the Aon Center in Chicago. Underneath the rendering, centered between the University of Chicago and Chicago Harris logos, a bold-font caption read: “The Keller Center.”

“It’s wonderful to see you all here today on what I believe is a very exciting moment for the Harris School,” remarked University President Robert J. Zimmer. The room hushed into silence as Zimmer announced two extraordinary gifts that will enable the school to reach its full potential in a new, greatly expanded facility. A donation of $12.5 million came from the family of King Harris, a longtime supporter and University trustee whose late uncle, Irving B.Harris, provided the original endowment for the school. Another $20 million came from Dennis Keller, MBA’68, and his wife, Connie. Although Dennis Keller is a University trustee and a member of the Chicago Harris Visiting Committee, he has maintained a relatively low profile at the school. When his gift was announced, the students glanced around the room, unsure which of the men in suits was their new benefactor.

Keller didn’t seem to mind. He stood quietly in a corner of the room, handing champagne flutes to a couple of students as a succession of speakers took their turns at the microphone. “Extraordinary,” said President Zimmer of Harris and Keller’s gifts. “Transformative,” said Provost Eric Isaacs. “Historic,” agreed Dean Daniel Diermeier.

When Keller finally ascended the podium, his remarks were characteristically understated. “This is a good day,” he began with a smile, before explaining in his down-to-earth manner how he arrived at his decision. The $20 million donation is a gift, of course, but as Keller spoke it quickly became clear that he approaches philanthropy with an entrepreneur’s instinct.

Calling Chicago Harris “an underburnished jewel,” Keller described his hopes for a world-class school that would not only train students for top careers in public policy, but also help elevate the nation’s public discourse and improve the process through which our policies are formed. Keller explained that he saw Harris as a premier institution on the cusp of even greater things.

“The world needs what this place does,” Keller explained. “We need statesmen and stateswomen, not only ones who can truly analyze facts and create good recommendations for policy, but also ones who can implement that policy. We need real leaders, and the need is enormous – and here is a source to fill that need. A robust and larger Harris School is going to help enormously in many ways, so let’s look forward to that.”

Keller’s contribution to Chicago Harris isn’t his first major donation to a university. He has long supported his undergraduate alma mater, Princeton, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1963, as well as the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, from which he received his MBA in 1968. Yet his decision to fund a new home for Harris is different – driven not by a personal connection but by a sense of opportunity.

Perhaps most important, Keller has a remarkable track record as a higher-education innovator and trend spotter. After four decades devoted to pushing academic institutions to new heights, he knows how to make educational jewels sparkle, and he’s judicious in selecting the ones with the potential to shine the brightest. By giving Chicago Harris such a powerful vote of confidence, linking his philanthropic legacy to the school’s future, Keller has gone a long way toward ensuring its continued success.

Keller, 73, launched his professional career in the communications division at Motorola. He left to pursue his MBA full-time, and a few months before graduation he got an offer he couldn’t refuse from Bell & Howell, a Chicago-based pioneer in motion picture projection and audio-visual equipment. One of Bell & Howell’s education divisions owned and operated a technical school called the DeVry Institute of Technology. While working there, Keller learned the value of professional training that emphasized developing immediately marketable skills, as opposed to concentrating on theoretical and conceptual training. Keller figured that the DeVry model would translate to other disciplines, including postgraduate business training.

That was important, because he also knew there were lots of recent liberal arts graduates struggling to find work. So he hatched an idea aimed squarely at that demographic: a for-profit business school that would give underemployed liberal arts graduates a time-efficient way to refocus on careers in business management.

“I saw a need for a more applied program,” Keller says. “I knew plenty of people would still want to go to big research universities, where you have advantages of a well-known name and credential, but I reasoned there were also a lot of other people who would prefer to be taught mostly by practitioners, and with an eye to what is necessary and most useful to someone who wants to manage and run a business.”

Keller left Bell & Howell to launch the new school in 1973 along with partner Ron Taylor, a Bell & Howell colleague who had a similar background. (Taylor had earned his bachelor’s degree at Harvard University, then an MBA at Stanford.) The pair introduced a number of innovations that have since gone mainstream, such as practitioner-taught classes and accelerated, boot camp style degree programs. They also introduced nights-and-weekends MBA courses that prefigured modern executive MBA programs, as well as an enhanced focus on job placement. Those additions were on top of the school’s revolutionary business model as a for-profit graduate school. The idea wasn’t to undercut premier business schools but to fill a need ignored by many of the business programs offered by state universities and private colleges: focusing on practical skills and job placement.

“The genius of the American educational system is that it isn’t homogenous,” says Keller. Taylor agrees: “We saw a student audience that wasn’t being served by traditional institutions, and we followed that old entrepreneurial adage that goes, ‘Find a need and fill it.’ It was a combination of philanthropy and business, of wanting to make a profit but doing it in a way that’s high-quality and helps people get jobs.”

It was a wild success. In its first two years, when Keller and Taylor offered certificates in business administration, the school grew from seven students to more than 100. In 1977, the school became the first for-profit educational institution to be accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, and began to offer a full MBA degree program.

The original name of the school was the clunky-sounding “CBA Institute for Post-Graduate Education in Business.” The pair decided to replace it with something that had a nicer ring to it, so they put a few contenders to a vote among students,who chose to name the institution after the man who had co-founded it and devised its business plan. The Keller Graduate School of Management was born. Keller was 34.

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, the professional partnership between Keller and Taylor flourished as the school grew in size and stature. By 1987, the enrollment at the Keller Graduate School of Management was nearly 2,000 students. The two men agreed that they would always earn equal salaries, and they became so adept at working together that their arguments often ended with the two switching sides.

“We would argue, then go away and think about it,” says Taylor. “And when we would come back to argue again, we would be arguing the opposite points – we’d convinced each other.”

Whatever the formula, it was working. In 1987, the pair decided to make their most aggressive decision yet: they came full circle and acquired DeVry from Bell & Howell for $182 million. It was a highly leveraged buyout, but Keller and Taylor managed to pull DeVry out of debt within a few years. In 1991, the new parent company, DeVry Inc., went public.

DeVry had the exclusive claim to the market it had created for many years, but eventually competitors caught up. First, traditional business schools began emulating portions of the Keller model by adding practitioners to their faculties, offering multiple-site classes and establishing nights-and-weekend MBA programs. More recently, for-profit postsecondary education has gained steam and acceptance, thanks to the high profile of schools such as DeVry and the University of Phoenix.

“I believe that competition and choice is the secret sauce of a productive and growing economy,” Keller says. “We’ve added a lot of that to the education economy.”

DeVry continued to grow, with Keller as CEO and Taylor as president, until Keller retired as CEO in 2004 (he stepped down as chairman in 2008). Taylor, who served as sole CEO from 2004 until 2006, remains on the board, and Keller now serves as an adviser. There are currently eight institutions under the umbrella of the DeVry Education Group, including a college of medicine,a college of nursing, a college of veterinary medicine and a college devoted to accounting – and that total doesn’t even include the Keller Graduate School of Management,which is the graduate school of DeVry University. The DeVry Education Group encompasses 160,000 students, including nearly 13,000 at the Keller Graduate School of Management. There are 140 campuses, and 2014 revenues totaled $1.9 billion. 

With his pioneering model of for-profit education and his enduring commitment to traditional institutions such as the University of Chicago and Princeton, Keller seems to straddle very different worlds. How does he maintain his balance? He believes in the mission and function of research institutions, as well as the on-campus undergraduate experience provided by the thousands of public and nonprofit private colleges. But he also believes strongly in the value provided by professional-training-focused colleges such as the Keller Graduate School of Management. The unifying thread is a conviction that higher education works best when it expands opportunities for all students, providing them with a diversity of options as they pursue their goals.

“One of the wonderful hallmarks of our country’s educational system is that it is so flexible,” he says.“You can start over, you can try something new, you can wait until you’re 40 and then go start. You just can’t do that in most developed countries in the world.”

In the years following his retirement, Keller has shifted his attention away from long-established ventures and toward more entrepreneurial, family-focused efforts. He now invests along with his three sons – all University of Chicago alumni – through TK Capital, a family fund that acquires and operates industrial manufacturing companies.

Keller’s son Temp, MBA’07, is following in his father’s footsteps as an education entrepreneur; he runs WonderLab, a supplemental education lab for middle school students based in Austin, Texas. His brothers and his father are board members and co-investors in WonderLab’s parent company, Templeton Learning.

Another family legacy is outdoor sports and conservationism. Keller has been a trustee of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team Foundation along with several wildlife-focused groups. Here, too, his sons have followed suit: Jeff and David, JD’08, also sit on the boards of conservation-focused nonprofits. Dennis Keller remains an avid skier and, until recently, a runner – a habit he picked up early in his career in order to stay in shape and boost his energy level despite working long hours. A spinal injury that occurred in 2012 when the Kellers were staying at their summer home in Nantucket, Massachusetts, has curtailed his running but not his skiing. Despite doctors’ orders, he was back on the slopes that December, four months after the accident.

Keller’s physical stamina is matched by his impressively active work as a philanthropist. His recent gift to Chicago Harris is the third in a series of impact gifts he has given to academic institutions. Through these gifts he has donated more than $100 million, including $60 million to the University of Chicago and a similar amount to Princeton.

“Dennis wants to have an impact, and he has a clear vision of where he wants to go,” says Dean Diermeier. “He really incorporates that entrepreneurial spirit into his philanthropic giving.”

But Keller’s sense that Chicago Harris is worthy of his attention isn’t the only reason for his recent gift. There’s also his affection for the late Irving Harris, who provided the core endowment for the school and for whom the school is named. Keller considers his gift a sort of legacy partnership with Harris. Even though they didn’t work together on projects related to Harris, the two were good friends. To this day Keller expresses admiration for Harris’s success in business as well as his commitment to philanthropy.

“He’s one of my heroes, someone I loved dearly,” says Keller. “He was such a warm, interested, encouraging person, and anything with his name on it is good by me.”

Like his friend Irving, Keller believes Chicago Harris has an important role to play in shaping public policy, particularly relating to access to education. He feels the tone surrounding the subject has grown too shrill, and that the school’s quantitative, analytical approach can foster a healthier discussion of the issues.

“The stridency of the rhetoric and accusations and the lack of statesman- and stateswoman-like behavior on both sides has gone too far,” Keller says. “It really is upsetting because I think it’s counterproductive and masks the real issues and the communication we could be having. Rather than call each other names, we could be trying to work through how we can integrate our ideas and improve both the economy and the lives of the many people on the lower end of the income spectrum.”

In addition to his gift to Chicago Harris, Keller has earmarked $5 million to support Chicago Booth. “It is my hope,” he explained in a press release, that the gifts “will spur students and faculty from both schools to work together more collaboratively and will provide opportunities for students from each of those schools to extend their knowledge base beyond their individual disciplines.”

“Dennis is always looking for significant impact, someplace where his giving will be transformational,” says President Zimmer. “He loves the University and he’s been an absolutely wonderful supporter, but in this case he also saw that sort of opportunity.”

Keller agrees: “This little jewel that we have has every potential to get better and better, and to fill more and more important needs for its students and also for society.”

—Steve Hendershot


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