President’s Letter

Art Institute of Chicago ▲

James D. Parsons

In recent years, it has been exhilarating to see how many of our grantees have contributed to remarkable progress, and in some cases dramatic breakthroughs, in their areas of work.

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

As we celebrate the Holidays and look toward the dawn of a new year, it is a good time to step back and reflect on what each of us has achieved.  In a time when society appears to be hopelessly divided and our political leadership seems to inevitably disappoint, it is easy to become frustrated and jaded about our individual and collective ability to achieve greater goals.  It would be a mistake, however, to assume that just because the news (regardless of which source we may choose) is so overwhelmingly negative that we, as a society, are not making progress on many fronts.  If, for example, we take a moment to focus on the tireless efforts and impressive accomplishments of the many dedicated individuals who commit their energies to the work of the non-profit sector, it can lead one to be inspired and have hope for the future.

Our job at the Foundation is to identify programs that have the potential to make a difference in seven areas of Education and five areas of Scientific Research.  Each year our program officers carefully review each of our grantees to determine whether their and our goals are being met.  In recent years, it has been exhilarating to see how many of our grantees have contributed to remarkable progress, and in some cases dramatic breakthroughs, in their areas of work.  While the level of our financial support to any given grantee or issue is relatively modest, it is hugely satisfying to be able to play a role, however small, in helping these organizations move the needle.

What achievements am I referring to?  I could list many, but given the limited space here, I will mention just two: one in Education and one in Scientific Research.

The achievement in Education involves the collective impact that a cross section of our grantees have had on the educational landscape in Chicago.  Despite the constant troubling headlines about the leadership and financial challenges faced by Chicago Public Schools (CPS), CPS students have been making remarkable progress over the past several years.  Since 2011, the high school graduation rate of CPS students within five years of starting high school has increased from 57% to 77%, but this notable improvement only tells part of the story.  A recent study by Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis found that between 2009 and 2014 the average scores of CPS students on standardized tests in third through eighth grade grew faster than those of students in 96% of school districts nationwide.  While there is still much room for improvement, these statistics suggest that the work of many of our grantees that support CPS principals and teachers, and promote the academic development of CPS students, are making a measurable difference.

The achievement in Scientific Research involved the observation of gravitational waves, which were first predicted by Albert Einstein over 100 years ago, and first detected by scientists worldwide in late 2015.  This initial discovery, which had its genesis in the world of theory, was made using the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), which Kip Thorne, long-time lead theoretical gravitational wave researcher at our grantee CalTech, was instrumental in developing.  The LIGO detections of gravitational waves created from the merging of black holes has launched somewhat of a revolution in astrophysics. Most recently the detection of gravitational wave signals from neutron star collisions were coupled with observations from various technologies to pinpoint the source.  The magnitude of the initial discovery was demonstrated in the award of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics to three researchers, including Kip Thorne.  Scientists at several of our other grantees have also played key roles in this field-changing scientific breakthrough.

I am not highlighting these advances because I believe the Foundation has played a material role in any of them.  Such an assertion would be unjustified and inappropriate given the relatively modest resources we have available to fund this work.  Rather, I am highlighting them because they are examples of the many noteworthy advancements being made through the tenacious efforts of a legion of dedicated educators and scientists across our country.  If we step back for just a moment from the mind-numbing torrent of negative news we hear each day and focus on the promise of the achievements, such as those I have mentioned above, we have every reason to be optimistic about our future.


James D. Parsons
December 2017