Andrew Alper

With a $5 million gift for careers and entrepreneurship, the chair of the board ensures College grads will know more about the working world than he did.

Andrew Alper, AB’80, MBA’81, has served on the Board of Trustees since 1999 and as chair since 2009. In February he made a gift of $10 million to support the College, Chicago Booth, and Medicine and Biological Sciences.

Alper’s gifts to the College include $2.5 million to encourage entrepreneurship and $2.5 million for career support. The gift for career support takes the form of a challenge: donors who give $75,000 or more will have their gifts matched 1:2. “It’s a good deal for donors,” he says. “Everybody likes a deal.”

When you were an undergrad, there was minimal career support. How did that affect you?

My second year in the College, I decided to try to get some work experience. So I went to the career office, which consisted entirely of a card catalog of index cards with newspaper ads cut out and pasted on them. If you went in and said, “I’m looking for a job,” they would just point to the catalog.

So I found an index card with an ad for a job in the credit card fraud detection unit at Continental Bank. It was a really terrible job.

Did you learn anything?

I learned I didn’t want to be in credit card fraud detection.

Later a group of us started a newspaper on campus, the Chicago Journal, a free newsweekly that competed against the Chicago Reader. I was the business manager. And the summer between years of business school, I worked for McKinsey. My roommate, who worked for Lehman Brothers, said I should interview with an investment bank. I said, “What’s an invest-ment bank?” He said, “It’s fun.” So I interviewed with a couple of investment banks, and that’s what I ended up doing.

What are your favorite memories of the College?

My favorite course was Meteorology with T. Theodore Fujita. It was the middle course of a Core science sequence. If you watch the Weather Channel, you’ll hear about the “F” scale for tornadoes. That’s the Fujita scale.

This guy was incredibly passionate. He had a contract with NASA, and whenever there were conditions in the Midwest that were conducive to a tornado, he would get picked up in a Lear jet and fly across the top of these thunderstorms.

You met your wife Sharon Sadow, AB’80, JD’84, during O-Week, right? I think students today call that an O-mance.

We’ve been together for 37 years, married for 28 years this September. I always warn students, be careful who you sit next to at O-Week.

What’s the best thing about being a trustee?

If you want to be a philanthropist, there are few better places to do that than a research university. We both create knowledge and we educate—we really influence the world.

At Chicago in particular, I think we’re going through a very special period. We’re blessed to have great leadership in the president and the deans of the schools and units. You can really feel the growing impact of the University of Chicago in many dimensions—urban health, urban education, energy policy, inner-city violence, regulatory issues, China, to name a few.

What’s the worst part of being a trustee?

My weekly commute from New York. I’m the first board chairman not to live in Chicago, and now I know why.

The Chairman’s Cup in broomball was your idea. How did that start?

When Jim Crown, my predecessor as board chairman, retired, we named one of the houses in South Campus Residence Hall in his honor. Sports are very important to his family, so I suggested that Crown House and Alper House [in Max Palevksy Residential Commons] have a broomball contest. His response was, “What’s broomball?”

It’s a pretty rough game. It’s played in regular shoes on ice, and you’re chasing around this little tiny ball. As soon as you stop moving your feet, you slide.

The first year they played, it looked like the outcome of a random physics  experiment. But the last couple of years, there’s been some strategy involved. Alper House won again this year, 2–1.

Your daughter Karen, AB’11, also attended the College. How did her experience compare to yours?

The education was strikingly similar. The names of the classes were different, but she read the same books. It was fascinating to watch her analytical skills develop—you could actually see it, almost week by week. As parents, it was gratifying to see.

Other aspects of her experience were very different. Karen got to go to Athens, where she studied Greek civilization with the chair of the classics department. Our
study-abroad program now is phenomenal. Most colleges outsource study abroad, whereas we send our own faculty along with our students.

I was also struck by how global the College has become. She made friends from Mexico, India, Brazil, China, Singapore, Turkey. Many of them came back for their first-year reunion. I don’t think they even realize yet how valuable that is, having a global network of friends and contacts.

Any advice for today’s students?

Be flexible. Be curious. If you think you want to major in X, take courses in—not even Y. Take courses in A. This is the time in your life to see what’s out there.

I’m a huge believer in the value of a liberal arts education. When I was on Wall Street, a lot of my colleagues would want to recruit students who had narrowed
themselves: studied accounting in college, for example. We can teach employees accounting. We can’t teach them how to think.