May 10, 2007
Vol. 26 No. 16

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    Harper’s historic gift provides GSB center with name, support

    By Allan Friedman
    News Office

    University alumnus Charles Harper (at podium) addresses guests at a reception at the Graduate School of Business, following the announcement that he was giving the GSB the largest cash gift in its history. Harper’s gift, in an amount he requested be undisclosed, will support the school where he earned his M.B.A. in 1950. Dean of the GSB Edward Snyder (left to right), University Trustee Andrew Alper, who chairs the Chicago Initiative, the University’s $2 billion capital campaign, and President Zimmer listen to Harper’s remarks.
    Photo by Dan Dry

    The University announced on Friday, May 4, that alumnus Charles Harper, retired chairman and chief executive of ConAgra Foods, is giving the University Graduate School of Business one of the largest cash gifts in its history.

    In recognition of the gift, the business school building on the University’s campus has been named the Charles M. Harper Center. Harper, who received his M.B.A. from the University GSB in 1950, requested that the amount of his gift not be disclosed.

    “It is with great pleasure that we announce this landmark gift to one of the University of Chicago’s outstanding professional schools, the Graduate School of Business,” said President Zimmer. “At the newly named Charles M. Harper Center, the Graduate School of Business will train future leaders and innovators in the exemplary mold of Mike Harper himself. His generosity ensures that the GSB will continue to be an international center for business education and research, and we are profoundly grateful.”

    That gratitude echoed throughout the day on Friday, when the University hosted its fifth annual Chicago Convenes event, at which the University recognized many of the alumni and friends who have contributed to the Chicago Initiative, the University’s $2 billion capital campaign, and recognized Harper at a special reception at the GSB.

    Previous large gifts to the GSB include $25 million from Dennis Keller, chairman of DeVry, Inc., Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., and $20 million from Robert Rothman, chairman and chief executive of Florida Bank Group and chairman of Black Diamond Group, Tampa, Fla.

    “Chicago GSB had an impact on the good fortune I had in business,” Harper said. When he joined ConAgra in 1974 as chief operating officer and executive vice president, the company’s stock was trading near $3 per share. When he retired in 1992—after a stock split—it was around $600 a share, he said.

    Left to right, Dean of the GSB Edward Snyder, alumnus and donor Charles Harper, Trustee and Chair of the Chicago Initiative Andrew Alper and President Zimmer stand under the banner naming the GSB building The Charles M. Harper Center.
    Photo by Dan Dry

    Under his leadership, ConAgra’s annual sales increased from $600 million to more than $20 billion, making it the second largest U.S. food company at that time.

    “Mike Harper is a great person and the naming of our building in his honor is fitting,” said Edward Snyder, Dean and the George Pratt Shultz Professor of Economics in the GSB. “First, he loves the building. Second, he appreciates and indeed is proud of the work that our faculty, students and staff do here. Third, the naming of the Harper Center gives us a chance to tell the wonderful story of his career in building a company into a powerhouse, using his Chicago M.B.A. and his relationships with other University alumni to full advantage along the way.”

    After a short-lived retirement, Harper joined RJR Nabisco as chairman and chief executive from 1993 to 1996.

    At the start of his career he was an engineer for General Motors, then he spent 20 years at Pillsbury, a unit of General Mills. When Harper left Pillsbury in 1974, he was group vice president with operating responsibilities for poultry and food service businesses.

    The Charles M. Harper Center, previously known as the Hyde Park Center, was completed in September 2004 at a cost of $125 million. Architect Rafael Vi–oly designed the 415,000-square-foot building to accommodate the latest innovations in teaching methods and student collaboration.

    The six-story glass Rothman Winter Garden rises through the center of the building topped by curved steel beams that form Gothic arches, a signature of the University of Chicago’s architecture.

    Chicago GSB has a second campus in Chicago, the Gleacher Center located along the Chicago River near Michigan Avenue. The building is named for Eric Gleacher, chairman of Gleacher Partners and a 1967 graduate of the GSB and a long-time supporter of the school.

    For many years, Harper and Gleacher had a close business relationship in which Gleacher served as Harper’s investment banker. Now, years later, they each have a Chicago GSB building named for them.

    The GSB has raised $283 million in its current capital campaign toward a goal of $300 million. The campaign is part of the Chicago Initiative, the University’s $2 billion capital campaign.