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A Unique Learning Partnership: Morningstar and the Graham School

Taking the Basic Program of Liberal Education to Morningstar

Basic Program students

When Don Phillips started at Morningstar in 1986, it was a Chicago-based startup with seven employees. Thirty-five years later, the prominent global investment research company, which strives to equip investors with the tools they need to make successful financial decisions, employs a team of over 9,000 across offices in 29 countries. And though the company’s footprint is larger today than ever before, “the spirit of Morningstar has been maintained,” says Phillips, who now serves as the company’s managing director.

In fact, over the past five years, Morningstar has worked to further cultivate that spirit—which has long been defined by the company’s commitment to personal growth, independent thinking, and intellectual curiosity—through a unique partnership with the University of Chicago Graham School.

A graduate of Graham’s Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, Phillips traces the origin of the collaboration back to a conversation he once had with instructor Adam Rose, who first posed the question, “Why don't we just take [the Basic Program] to Morningstar?”

Since the launch of the learning partnership in 2017, instructors at Graham have worked with Morningstar to develop a curriculum centered around an annual theme (last year’s, for example, was sustainability). From there, instructors and participants explore that theme through close reading and discussion of great texts, core tenets of the Basic Program tradition. Two remote courses are offered per quarter and course formats include both half-day symposiums and three-week courses. No prior or take-home reading is required.

“One of things we really try to do is make it a very collegial experience, where people can feel comfortable saying what they want to say,” says Graham’s Director of Academics Zoë Eisenman, who develops courses for the partnership, including “Migration and Refugees,” which delves into excerpts from the Aeneid as well as modern-day poetry. “They can ask questions, and there are no expectations or worries or pressure. We want it to be a very open discussion.”

For Morningstar, the results are profound, as courses work to connect employees—all of whom go by their first name throughout—across departmental, hierarchical, and geographical barriers.

“As you get bigger, companies get siloed: you work with this team on this floor in this area,” Phillips explains. “This partnership brings people together in a completely different way.”

In addition to boosting camaraderie and critical thinking skills, the courses are also changing the way employees see the world around them. As Morningstar’s Global Head of Learning and Development Kevin Seifert says, “Not only do employees look at problems from different perspectives, but the most important thing I've seen is: they look at people from different perspectives.”

That new sense of perspective will undoubtedly continue this upcoming year when the partnership focuses on the theme of cultural crossroads. Inspired by Morningstar employees’ diverse global perspective, the courses will explore how people across cultures connect with each other through conflict or exchange, and mutually transform through translation. The year’s curriculum is titled “A World of Difference”—a fitting title for a partnership making a world of difference in the lives of participants.

The photo above comes from a class in the Graham School’s Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults.

Headshot of Briana Shemroske.

Briana Shemroske

Manager of Outreach & Communications



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