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Faculty Trustee Dinner — A Tribute to Bob Pritzker
President Lew Collens — September 19, 2006

I am delighted to welcome all of you to the faculty trustee dinner. Tonight is both a special and nostalgic evening because Bob Pritzker is retiring as Chairman of our Board of Trustees. 

Bob has been a member of the IIT family and a staunch advocate of the university for longer than some of us have been alive. He joined the IIT board in 1962.

In 1975, he chaired the Commission on the Future of IIT and because he did such a good job, a decade later he chaired the 1985 Commission.

In 1981, he established the Pritzker Institute of Medical Engineering. He also created the Pritzker Chair in Science that is held by Nobel Prize winner Leon Lederman.   

In 1989, he was appointed Chairman of the Board of Trustees. Since then, he has been honored many times by IIT—including an honorary doctorate in 1984, induction into the IIT Hall of Fame in 2002, and election as University Regent in 2005.

Tonight, however, we gather not to recognize a single achievement of Bob’s, but to recognize a lifetime of achievement—a lifetime of dedication and service to IIT and the Chicagoland community. 

I have had the privilege of working closely with Bob for more than thirty years. We first met in 1974 when I was the new dean of the Chicago-Kent College of Law. I had been invited to attend the Board of Trustees meeting and Bob, who at the time was vice-chairman, was actually chairing the meeting.  One of the agenda items addressed the visibility of the university and there was a suggestion that the university name should be changed to include the word university.  I stood up and seconded that idea.

Bob’s response: “MIT and Cal Tech get along just fine without the word university in their names.”

I remember thinking he was wrong and that if I were president, the first thing I would do would be to put the word university in our name. Well years later when I became president, I began thinking it would be an even better idea to put Pritzker in our name. Well, earlier this year it finally happened—we merged the two names. PRIITZKER was emblazoned on the t-shirts worn by the Camras scholar alumni group at a dinner honoring Bob earlier this year.

I have known many sides of Bob Pritzker. At that first trustees meeting, I met the modest, unassuming Bob.

After the meeting ended, he offered me a ride downtown to the law school. As we walked out of the meeting, there was a line of black limousines. Naturally, I started to head in their direction when he said “No, I am over here.”  Not only was he driving himself, he was driving a Chevy Nova…and it wasn’t new.

It wasn’t too long after that when I discovered that modest unassuming Bob had a relative named frugal Bob.

I asked him about getting a university discount card for the Hyatt Hotels. His response? He didn’t think it was good idea because he never stayed there—they were too expensive.

I have also known academic Bob, who has taught and guest lectured at many schools including the University of Chicago, Oxford University, and IIT.  A couple of years ago he sent me a letter with a copy of his payroll authorization for teaching at IIT. It showed that he was getting paid the handsome sum of $300 per semester. The letter said:

“Dear Lew:

Enclosed is a copy of a payroll authorization for me as an instructor at IIT. I’d like to renegotiate the salary.”

Bob loves the faculty. The first month I was president, I walked into the faculty club and was surprised to find him having lunch with some faculty members. I soon learned that this was not unusual. His love for academic discourse has earned him many friends at IIT and other schools around the country.

I have known Bob, the legal commentator. Now that may surprise you because he often proudly says that he is the only member of his family who is not a lawyer. When I was dean of the law school, he would regale me with stories about his experiences with lawyers—all bad. 

When he interviewed me for the position of president he asked me how a car works. I told him that you turn on the motor, adjust the mirrors, step on the gas which causes smoke to shoot out the back and propel the car forward. He responded “Hah!  A typical lawyer—all smoke and mirrors.” 

After this response, I was a bit surprised when he offered me the position of president. And, although my predecessor told me how it would be risky to take the job—he already knew the freshman class was going to be the smallest in university history—I accepted the position because I knew I would have a great partner in Bob. 

And I did. I experienced Bob the coach and mentor—and I needed it. When I did something that was ill-advised, he didn’t rush to correct me but waited to see if I would self-correct. But like any good mentor, he was always there for support, particularly in those early years when the financial condition of the university was fragile—actually that does not begin to describe it. I remember one meeting where I said to him that I thought we would soon run out of money and that I thought there was a chance we would have to file for bankruptcy. He said, “You may, but you aren’t there yet. So just keep at it.”

What impresses me most some 16 years later is that Bob believed that the institution could be saved AND that it was worth doing. The first couple of years that we were at it, we tried a few things, including trying to become the ROTC student capital of the world. But the reality was that the school was in deep trouble.

There were always discussions about raising more money to support the school. At one such meeting of the Trustee Fund-Raising Committee, Bob opined that it would be a good idea if we could find someone to give the university 10 million dollars!!!  There was silence in the room as all heads turned in his direction. He turned to me and asked whether I had any ideas.  I told him I would get back to him.

I have also known Bob the strategist.

In 1994, we created the National Commission, chaired by Bob Galvin with very active participation by Bob Pritzker. At the first meeting, the perilous condition of the university was acknowledged when the leadoff question was posed: Has IIT fulfilled the mission of its founders or is there more work it can do?

The commission met numerous times for more than a year. It considered moving the university to the suburbs, revamping the curriculum, closing the undergraduate program and many other options. In its report it recommended a number of things including a major curricular overhaul.  We very quickly instituted the interprofessional program, eliminated many degree programs, and made some other organizational changes.

However, as I reported to Bob, all of these changes still had a feeling of moving deck chairs around on the Titanic because we lacked the financial base to operate the institution.

He agreed and we spent many hours discussing the financial and academic condition of the university. In order to implement the rest of the recommendations of the National Commission, we very quickly focused on attracting better students to the university by creating an aggressive scholarship program.

The key question was whether substantial scholarships would in fact attract students.  Bob, in his usual deft manner, challenged me, expressing skepticism that we could really do it. I told him I would make him a bet. If IIT successfully attracted outstanding students through the use of significant scholarships and met certain other goals, he would give us a lot of money. If we failed to meet those goals, he would get to keep his money. I like bets like that.

Well, it is no secret that we both won the bet…and that’s when I came to know Bob the benefactor. He and Bob Galvin made an amazing gift to IIT, reenergized the university, and launched a new era in IIT history.

A footnote. When we were discussing the terms of the $120 M gift, Bob reminded me of the comparative history of IIT and the University of Chicago.  Both schools started about the same time and both started with an investment of $1 M.

IIT received a $1M check from Philip Armour.  The University of Chicago received a challenge gift of $600K from John D. Rockefeller, conditioned on a match from Chicago civic leaders of $400K.  Bob was of the view that Philip Armour made a mistake because he never used his gift as a way to involve others from the civic community.

Hence the Pritzker Galvin challenge.

And it was a success…we more than matched the $120M.  In fact, we raised an additional $150M; firmly established the Camras Scholar program; established several new faculty chair programs; built the campus center and began the rejuvenation of the campus; created the leadership program; and added the entrepreneurship program to augment the interprofessional program.

Equally important, Bob was able to forge a new partnership with Mayor Daley and the result was the investment by the city in the neighborhood.

And the success of the campaign has continued to pay dividends.

Endowment has grown to nearly $300Million.

Enrollment has grown both qualitatively and quantitatively.

Finances are stronger than they have been in several decades.

With Bob’s encouragement and support the University Technology Park has been launched — it will provide a base for faculty and students to be heavily involved in technology entrepreneurship in the years ahead.

So, what has Bob Pritzker meant to IIT?

Dick Jaffee, the co chairman of the Pritzker Galvin challenge campaign said recently in a note:

Consistency of purpose and steadfast support are what I remember and cherish about Bob’s leadership as board chairman of IIT…without his involvement the university that we know today would not be possible. While Bob has the broadest of perspectives he has never lost his very human touch.

And he has never lost his fierce commitment to IIT.

The most dramatic example of that occurred in 1995. Bob called me in April and said that he was teaching a class at Oxford University and that the schedule had been modified and he could not attend the May trustee meeting. Well, it was a very important meeting—among other things we were proposing to eliminate 25 degree programs and I needed his support.  So, when Bob finished teaching class at Oxford, he raced to the airport, landed at O’Hare, arrived a little late for the Executive Committee meeting, stayed for the complete Board of Trustees meeting, and raced back to O’Hare to make it back to Oxford in time for his next class. Now that is dedication…particularly when you are flying coach.

Because he is so dedicated, I assure you that although Bob Pritzker’s term as Chairman is ending, his commitment to IIT is not. He is particularly focused on building the Pritzker Institute of Bio Medical Science and Engineering.  He will chair the Pritzker Institute Board as well as the Trustee Policy Committee. 

He has been instrumental in helping the Pritzker Institute and Vince Turitto strengthen ties with the University of Chicago Medical School.  And, supporting the newly created joint Center for Integrative Neuroscience and Neuroengineering is of the highest priorities to Bob.

At a personal level I feel very fortunate to have had the privilege of working with Bob Pritzker.  His belief in me gave me the confidence to move ahead. His dedication to IIT gave the university an imprimatur of importance.

Bob is in the IIT Hall of Fame, but more importantly he is in our hearts.

IIT would never be what it is today without you, Bob….and students fifty years from now will still feel the impact that you have made on your alma mater.  We are so lucky to have you.

Thank you Bob.


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