University of Chicago Medal honors commitment of Dennis and Connie Keller
When the University of Chicago Booth School of Business’s Charles M. Harper Center opened in 2004, its light-filled atrium and soaring ceilings inspired students, faculty, and alumni—one alumnus in particular.
“It was soul-stirring to see how much the students loved it,” says University Trustee Dennis Keller, MBA’68. “They didn’t go home. They would stay all day into the evening.” Keller, cofounder and retired chairman and CEO of DeVry Education Group, had cochaired a fundraising campaign for Chicago Booth in 2000 that helped raise money for the building.
The Harper Center, Keller believes, prompted the Chicago Booth community “to think about the fact that we can be the best.” The building’s psychological effect, along with images of students studying, debating, and hanging out, fed into a long-simmering idea of his.
Ever since Dennis’s friend and fellow trustee Irving B. Harris died in 2004, Dennis and his wife, Connie, had thought about how they might pay tribute to him and his service to the University. Harris was the chief benefactor of the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, whose mission and work increasingly impressed the Kellers. The more they learned about Chicago Harris, the more they found that the school, like Chicago Booth, exemplified what they love most about the University of Chicago: “finding new ways to look at things, new ways to do things,” as Dennis puts it.
The Kellers knew that Chicago Harris needed a larger building, so they decided to help spark the same inspiration in the Chicago Harris community that they’d seen at Booth. In 2014 they made what was then the largest gift in Chicago Harris history, which will go toward a major renovation and adaptive reuse project for the school’s future home, to be known as the Keller Center, as well as support collaborations between Harris and Chicago Booth.
The Kellers’ first major gift to the University was to the business school, to establish the Ralph and Dorothy Keller Distinguished Service Professorship, named after Dennis’s father and his mother, who entered the College in 1929 but was unable to finish for financial reasons. In the College, Keller House, in the Renee Granville-Grossman Residential Commons, is named for Dorothy as well. Extending their philanthropy across campus, the Kellers have supported Odyssey Scholarships, the Urban Education Institute, Court Theatre, University of Chicago Medicine, and other areas of the University.
Their strong belief in the University community has fueled a commitment that transcends financial gifts. Connie, a Women’s Board member since 1983 and past member of its steering committee, characterizes the couple’s involvement with the University as a natural progression. “You give your time,” she says. “You give your energy, which leads to relationships and contributions—even if it’s time just stuffing envelopes—to bigger commitments and more confidence and other roles. Pretty soon you’re in way over your head and are passionate about it.”
One of Connie’s passions is nature. The Kellers live in Oak Brook, Illinois, just across a creek from her childhood home in what was then Hinsdale. Both houses sit on what was once Breakenridge Farm, a 120-acre wooded lot her grandfather Walter Breakenridge Templeton bought in 1922. “When you grow up in these woods,” she says, “you appreciate the natural world.” Connie, a past chair of the board of the Nature Conservancy’s Illinois chapter, remains active with the organization. Uniting her passions for education and nature, she chairs the Field Museum’s board of trustees. The Field, Connie notes, does extensive research and collaborates with the University of Chicago through postdoctoral researchers and professors like Neil Shubin, the Field’s provost. “It’s wonderful to see that kind of support and coordination,” she says. “It’s bringing those groups together that’s important to me.”
Like Connie, Dennis supports both environmental and educational causes. He chairs the board of trustees of the Mpala Wildlife Foundation and Research Trust, which focuses on wildlife conservation in Africa. At UChicago his time and support extend to several committees, including the University of Chicago Harris Visiting Committee, the Council on Chicago Booth, the University’s Campaign Council, and the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics advisory board. He also serves as an emeritus trustee at Princeton, his undergraduate alma mater.
Dennis also grew up in Hinsdale. His first business was selling corn and tomatoes from his grandfather’s garden to neighborhood families, delivering the produce in his little red wagon. At Princeton he expanded on that experience, cofounding a pizza-delivery service.
After earning his bachelor’s in economics, he returned to Chicago to work for Motorola. Newly married in 1967, he was ready to develop his own entrepreneurial ideas and enrolled at what was then the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. Thanks to a business school fellowship plus Connie’s full-time job, he was able to focus completely on his studies: “I went to school wearing a tie because I just decided that for 15 months my business was the Graduate School of Business, and I was going to dress for business.”
Dennis is reluctant to single out particular professors or classes that shaped his career: “I found things that I have used and have helped me in many of the courses I took from terrific faculty members, and a number of them became friends that I have kept since then. In fact, people I didn’t even take a course from became influential friends.
Such valuable relationships, he thought, should be available to people working full time, both in the business sector and out of it, who did not have the privilege of dedicating themselves to full-time education. After graduation Dennis took a job in marketing with Bell & Howell’s educational division, DeVry, which offered associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in electronics and engineering. He shared his idea for a business school for working people, taught by instructors from the business world, with Ron Taylor, DeVry’s controller.
In 1973 he and Taylor left DeVry to found what would become the Keller Graduate School of Management. The school anticipated today’s widespread executive MBA programs with features like evening and weekend classes. In 1987 Keller Graduate School acquired DeVry Institute of Technology and became DeVry Inc.
Dennis and Connie’s relationship with UChicago, meanwhile, grew as their family did. All three of their sons had wonderful experiences at UChicago, says Dennis—Jeff, IMBA’97, a member of Chicago Booth’s first international MBA class; John Templeton, or “Temp,” in the executive MBA program, from which he graduated in 2007; and David, JD’08. Temp’s wife, Kerry H. Keller, AM’12, studied at the School of Social Service Administration.
Since Dennis’s retirement in 2008, the Kellers have enjoyed spending time with their eight grandchildren. The couple also travels often—to the beach in Nantucket, the mountains in Colorado, or the Mpala Reserve in Kenya. Their philanthropy remains a constant, in part because they recognize the difference their support can make.
Just as important, seeing the results of that support—especially when it involves students—makes them happy. “The promise that unfolds in front of your eyes—and the chance to just be part of making that possible,” says Dennis, “brings a lot of joy.”