The Jay Pritzker Foundation Makes a Major Commitment to Improving the Collegewide Student Experience Through Philanthropy

December 7, 2022 | By Eve Tolpa

Pritzker Student Center St Johns College Santa Fe
The Pritzker Challenge aims to improve the student experience and includes an upcoming renovation to Santa Fe’s re-christened Pritzker Student Center.

In fall 2021 Warren Spector (A81) saw a meteor heading toward St. John’s College. No, it wasn’t literal.

Spector, a member of the Board of Visitors and Governors (BVG) and chair of the Campaign Steering Committee, had been rejoicing with fellow board members at the elimination of St. John’s structural deficit after five years of difficulty. “We were feeling very good, very celebratory,” he said, “but also doing a self-assessment of where the college really was.”

That’s when the meteor came into view, so to speak. “We had not been keeping up with improvements to [the] physical plants of both campuses,” Spector continued, noting the importance of including those factors in the school’s financial plan.

Not long afterward, BVG member Karen Pritzker phoned Santa Fe President Mark Roosevelt and asked what was needed to solve the problem. The answer: ten years and roughly $75 million.

After conferring with her husband, she stepped up with a pledge from the Jay Pritzker Foundation of $25 million to the Freeing Minds campaign—and a challenge for the St. John’s community to match those funds one-to-two.

On Friday, November 11, Spector related this story of hardship and redemption to an audience at St. John’s Santa Fe campus who were gathered to celebrate the upcoming renovation of that campus’s student center using funds from the Pritzker Challenge.

“Today, we are christening this historic building the Pritzker Student Center in honor of the unflagging support and vision of St. John’s board member Karen Pritzker,” said President Roosevelt, who was joined in gratitude by Annapolis President Nora Demleitner and BVG chair Ron Fielding (A70).

In St. John’s 2021 Annual Report, Pritzker called the Santa Fe student center upgrade “the first major investment in this challenge, sensitively transforming a much-loved building into a 21st-century student center.”

Santa Fe’s campus, hailed by Architectural Digest as the “Prettiest College Campus in America,” is on the National Registry of Historic Places, and as such, any renovations to its Territorial Revival–style buildings must be approved by Santa Fe’s Historic Districts Review Board.

In addition to updating plumbing, lighting, electrical wiring, and HVAC systems, upgrade plans encompass the construction of two new student lounges, a revamping of the student-run Cave, an expanded bookstore that connects to the coffeeshop, and improvements to the Great Hall—all while taking extra care to conserve the murals and painted doors created by mid-century graphic design luminary Alexander Girard.

According to Sanyum Dalal (SF25), who spoke during the festivities in Santa Fe, “The student center is the heart of our community. Here, we think and read together, we eat together, and we share our ideas with one another. The improvements that are in store will make this space safer, more comfortable, and more inviting for all students ... Improvements to the Cave are, to us, a demonstration of the support for student initiatives. And since the Cave is student-run, it is an opportunity for students to become more accountable for the kind of campus culture we create.”

Over the coming decade, significant improvements to student experience will also be implemented in Annapolis. As Pritzker put it in the 2021 Annual Report, this long-term plan “ensures that while not fancy, the college’s two beautiful campuses are clean, well-maintained, comfortable, and entirely respectful of the seekers and strivers who come to engage with St. John’s transformational academic Program.”

Her vision was echoed by Santa Fe Assistant Dean Maggie McGuinness, who spoke at the celebratory event. “Sometimes we feel that the life of the mind must be conducted in poor surroundings to be truly genuine,” she said. “And I don’t think that’s entirely wrong. There is poetry in the trenches, there is beautiful music made in horrible apartment complexes. However, I think the changes made by this gift will do so much to honor and elevate the activities that we conduct here. At bottom, what we are really excited about as faculty is having a space that will meet the beauty of the work we are doing.”

Though Pritzker did not attend the college, she told Santa Fe attendees that she considers herself a Johnnie at heart. “If I had known about St. John’s, I would have come here. And when my son [Jon Pritzker (SF20)] read Percy Jackson in the sixth grade and decided he wanted to learn ancient Greek, I thought, ‘I know where you are going.’”

Time proved her correct. After giving the undergraduate Program a yearlong test drive in 2016, he ended up completing all four years, developing in the process a fascination for Euclid. With the support of Santa Fe’s Office of Personal and Professional Development, he secured a job as a math teacher, described by his mother as “meaningful work ... instilling in his students the same passion that St. John’s nurtured in him.”

Her son’s experience at St. John’s became a source of inspiration for Pritzker, compelling her not only to sit on the BVG but to contribute financially to the college. When St. John’s launched the Freeing Minds campaign in 2018, it was with the goal of raising $300 million by June 2023 to bolster the college’s financial health, support a tuition reduction, and enhance the student experience.

Student experience is a multifaceted category that comprises, among other things, environmentally sustainable campuses and a strengthened community—both of which St. John’s students have expressly said they want.

That first item on the Johnnie wish-list is well on its way to completion. Thanks to a gift (that predates the Pritzker Challenge) by an anonymous alumni couple and an energy audit supported by the Class of 2019, the Santa Fe campus projects that by the end of 2023, the electrical power needs of the campus will be supplied entirely by solar power. This off-the-grid initiative also includes LED lighting for buildings and campus walkways, both of which are already completed. In the future, 20 electric vehicle charging stations as well as solar-powered shade benches will add to the campus’s sustainability efforts.

To further strengthen community, the Jay Pritzker Foundation also funds the Pritzker Promise, which provides St. John’s Pell Grant recipients with fully matching grants. In addition, the Pritzker Promise includes a summer bridge program that helps equip underrepresented and economically disadvantaged incoming freshmen with the tools and support they need to succeed.

In 2021, as the Bridge Program was entering what was then its second year, Pritzker reflected that “we have been impressed with the results—and deeply moved by the feedback we have received from students.”

One such student is Dalal, a beneficiary of the Pritzker Promise Bridge Program and now a Pritzker Promise Peer Mentor. At the Santa Fe event, she described it as “a transformational experience for both me and my peers,” adding that she is “inexpressibly grateful for the Pritzker family’s support in making this campus a flourishing community.”

“Aristotle tells us in his Nicomachean Ethics that one of the marks of a truly virtuous friendship is the goodwill that one has for one’s friends,” Dalal continued. “Speaking for all students, we are so grateful for the friendship the Pritzker family has extended to us.”

Her words were met with a standing ovation.