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A Champion of the Liberal Arts

Don Phillips receives the University of Chicago Alumni Service Award for his relentless support of the Graham School’s liberal arts mission.

Don Phillips

Don Phillips AM ’86, CER ’17 is a self-described Graham School fanatic.

A 2017 graduate of the Graham School’s Basic Program, Phillips’s learning adventures have continued well beyond commencement. He’s completed alumni sequences on the Middle Ages and Ancient Rome and embarked on Graham-sponsored trips to Greece and England, immersing himself in the study of great minds from Socrates to Shakespeare alongside other curious, knowledge-seeking souls.

But his connections to Graham extend far beyond the classroom.

As chair of the Graham Council, a collection of distinguished leaders who embrace the School’s lifelong learning mission, Phillips advises Graham School leadership, including Dean Seth Green, on ways to advance the School’s strategies.

Phillips has also been an ardent financial supporter of Graham’s growth and evolution, particularly efforts to uphold Graham’s high-level instruction. He endowed the Cyril O. Houle Chair of the Basic Program and has given generously to support endowed funding for other Basic Program teaching positions. He’s also involved with the Basic Program Fund Development Committee, which aims to solidify the future of the University’s flagship program in liberal education for adults.

“I admire how the Graham School continues to enrich others’ lives as it continues to enrich mine,” Phillips says.

For his devotion to the Graham School, the University of Chicago recently named Phillips a recipient of the University’s Alumni Service Award. Phillips, who will be honored during UChicago’s Alumni Weekend May 18-21, is the first Graham-affiliated individual to win the prestigious honor recognizing outstanding service to the University.

“It’s meaningful because it shines a spotlight on Graham and the wonderful work it does to teach the liberal arts and create a vibrant community of learners,” says Phillips, a managing director with Morningstar, the Chicago-based financial services firm he helped grow into one of the world’s premier investment research enterprises.

Understanding the value of the liberal arts

Early on in his career at Morningstar, where he was the firm’s seventh employee and led its research efforts, Phillips took a few Saturday morning Graham courses in the “old Fine Arts Building.” Yet, his involvement with Graham didn’t truly accelerate until he enrolled in the Basic Program in 2013.

“Reading, literature, and philosophy were my first loves and all things the Graham School does so spectacularly well,” says Phillips, who originally entertained thoughts of working in academia while pursuing his master’s degree in American literature at UChicago prior to joining Morningstar.

For Phillips, his return to the liberal arts proved energizing and uplifting.

Revisiting a number of works he had read decades prior as a young student, Phillips discovered his own personal development and life experiences made for richer study and more intense reflection.

“The text was the same, but I wasn’t,” he says.

Meanwhile, reading in concert with other students and hearing their perspectives in lively discussions awakened Phillips to novel thoughts and interpretations. He credits the Basic Program with sharpening his ability to think critically, independently, and creatively while broadening his knowledge of the world.

“You begin to understand your point of view isn’t the only one out there and that sets the stage for discovery,” he says.

Recognizing Graham’s value in stirring new perspectives and open dialogue, Phillips worked with Graham leadership to bring liberal arts courses to Morningstar’s Chicago headquarters. With the growth of online education, that collaborative venture is now global. Today, any of Morningstar’s 12,000 employees across 27 countries can enroll in Graham courses specially curated for Morningstar team members.

Supporting Graham’s mission

Given the Graham School’s role in enriching his life, Phillips has been disappointed to see the liberal arts come under continued threat as learners feel pressured to obtain an immediately “marketable degree.” Rather than be a passive observer to the assault on liberal arts education, Phillips has instead chosen to champion the liberal arts and what it espouses, including critical thinking, collaboration, and reflective citizenship.

“We need the humanities now more than ever, but we’re getting the humanities less and less,” he says.

One solution, he contends, is to provide exposure to the liberal arts and humanities at later stages in life, a position neatly aligned with the Graham School’s mission. That’s why Phillips is helping to secure the Basic Program for the future, preserve the School’s unique style of rigorous inquiry, and advance the School’s strategic plan.

“If I can prime the pump a little, I know there’s an army of others who want to sustain the Graham School and see it endure for the next generation,” he says. “I’m a bit of a fanatic, but I’m not alone. Graham gets into people and sparks passion.”

Daniel P. Smith

Freelance Writer

Daniel P. Smith is a freelance writer at the Graham School.

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