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Roberta Buffett Elliott Honored for Gift of Over $100 Million

Crowd packs Pick-Staiger to learn about largest single gift in Northwestern’s history

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January 28, 2015 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel
produced by Erin Spain

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Gift to create Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Studies
  • A transformative moment for Northwestern’s endeavors in international studies
  • Celebration centers around global panel discussion by Northwestern experts  

EVANSTON, Ill. --- More than 1,000 people packed Pick-Staiger Concert Hall today to celebrate alumna Roberta Buffett Elliott and her gift to Northwestern University exceeding $100 million -- marking a transformative moment for global studies at the University.

The mood was warm and light, and Northwestern President Morton Schapiro was in his element moderating a lively panel discussion on global issues by University experts from Northwestern’s three campuses, including the University’s first international campus in Qatar.

Read more on the panel discussion.

The enthusiastic crowd responded repeatedly with sustained applause for the program and two standing ovations for Mrs. Elliott and her historic gift.

President Schapiro began his remarks by letting the audience know that he was going to read words from a script that were sure to cause a sensation.

“I am elated to report that Northwestern University has received the largest single gift in the University’s history,” he read, pointing his finger in the air. “This gift of more than $100 million from alumna Roberta Buffett Elliott brings her total giving to the campaign to almost $110 million, which will be used to create the Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Studies.”

The crowd cheered loudly, only too happy to give President Schapiro the enthusiastic response he predicted.

The Buffett Institute for Global Studies will follow a multidisciplinary and problem-solving approach to advancing important global issues and “take the scope and impact of our global programs to a whole new level,” President Schapiro added.

Mrs. Elliott, a 1954 Northwestern graduate who for many years has been a major supporter of international studies at the University, observed most of the celebration from her front-row seat in the audience, next to her brother, Warren Buffett, the legendary financial investor and chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway.

After she was prompted by the president to stand up and be recognized, the spillover crowd clearly registered its love for Mrs. Elliott, giving her the longest sustained applause of the day. 

At the end of the panel program, President Schapiro recognized that Mrs. Elliott’s “big brother,” obviously a crowd favorite, would escort her to the stage so that she could receive her gift. After Mr. Buffett did, President Schapiro hugged Mrs. Elliott and presented her with a large antique map of the world, eliciting a standing ovation.

President Schapiro read the inscription on the gift’s plaque: “For Roberta Buffett Elliott, in grateful recognition of her historic and visionary gift creating the Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Studies. This Institute will ensure that Northwestern University will forever be at the frontier of global understanding. January 28, 2015.”

“One of the four pillars of the [strategic] plan was globalization, and thanks to Bertie’s visionary philanthropy, we now will have the resources in place to transform nearly every corner of the University’s global programming,” President Schapiro said at the beginning of the celebration. “And because she took the unusual step of funding the entire gift immediately, implementation begins today.”

The University can begin recruiting the Institute’s founding director and implementing its programs.

Mrs. Elliott previously made a series of gifts to endow what is now named the Roberta Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies at Northwestern.

President Schapiro cited the “breathtaking success” of the Buffett Center, upon whose work the new Institute will build, asking leaders of the center and its students, including Bruce Carruthers, Brian Hanson and Hendrik Spruyt, to stand up and be recognized. Earlier, he also had fun shouting out the names of a number of University deans, who also stood up when called upon.

In his introductory remarks, William A. Osborn, chairman of the Northwestern University Board of Trustees, too, expressed deep gratitude to Mrs. Elliott.

“We are here today, of course, to celebrate one individual in particular whose extraordinary, record-breaking generosity is going to positively and forever transform our global studies programs -- and amplify Northwestern’s impact on the world,” he said.

A member of the Steering Committee for We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern, Mr. Osborn said, “As one of the leading universities, Northwestern is rising to the challenge of addressing the most critical issues facing our global society. At the same time, we are helping our students gain a worldview and preparing them to be truly global leaders.”

Mrs. Elliott’s total giving to the University’s $3.75 billion fundraising campaign is approximately $110 million. With the gift announced today, the total amount raised for the We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern has surpassed $2 billion, marking a new Northwestern milestone for campaign fundraising.

“A major strategic priority of the campaign relates to how we engage locally and globally,” Osborn said.

The centerpiece of the event, the panel discussion had the crowd riveted as President Schapiro threw out both provocative and playful questions, engaging the panelists in an animated discussion of issues related to their studies in areas ranging from economics, journalism, politics and medicine to the performing arts and literature.

The discussion highlighted Northwestern’s wide-reaching excellence in international studies, with panelist Joel Mokyr, the Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences, saying in his remaks about the future of the economy, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

President Schapiro was effusive in citing how Mrs. Elliott’s generous gift affirms the University’s strategic plan.

“When we developed our strategic plan a few years ago -- and I should point out Dan Linzer, our fabulous provost was the main architect of that plan -- you can clap -- we were careful to make sure that the strategic plan was in fact strategic, specific and realistic,” President Schapiro said.

“But of course the market test was whether it would prove to be compelling in the eyes of donors,” he said. “It most certainly has been, and you’ve seen the evidence for that. And with that success, we are going to be able to realize many of our most ambitious goals.”

He cited "Bertie’s visionary philanthropy."

“Thank you, Bertie, for the trust you have shown in us,” he said. “We will not let you down.”

Buffett Institute Will Advance Important Global Issues

The Buffett Institute will advance important global issues, such as the spread of democratic political systems, economic development in impoverished regions of the world, immigration policies and forced migrations, the impact of cultural exchanges on societies, global religious movements and global communications, media and technology. The Institute will conduct and facilitate research, coordinate campus-wide discussions with visiting experts about pressing global challenges confronting society and provide collaborative funding to academic departments and programs throughout the University.

Mrs. Elliott’s Historic Gift Will Have Broad Impact

  • Add interdisciplinary professorships. The gift will enable Northwestern to hire new faculty members focused on international areas, with joint appointments at the Institute and a number of academic departments.
  • Fund interdisciplinary research. The gift will provide resources for faculty-led research projects with the potential for incubating solutions to critical global issues. 
  • Hire a renowned expert in global affairs to direct the University-wide Buffett Institute. The new director is expected to be someone with high-level experience in government and/or academia who will provide overall direction for the Institute and work with Northwestern’s provost, deans and other academic leaders.
  • Provide scholarships for international students. Up to $20 million of the gift could be used as a matching challenge grant to donors who will endow scholarships benefitting international students.
  • Expand a visiting scholars program that brings distinguished international scholars to Northwestern for the academic year. Drawn primarily from the social sciences, each cohort of visiting scholars will build academic relationships with Northwestern faculty, graduate students and each other.
  • Provide travel grants to students. The additional funding for travel will enable more students who receive financial aid to participate in study abroad and other international travel programs.
  • Provide funding for graduate student fellowships. Graduate students will work closely with faculty members on research projects and with undergraduates in the classroom.
  • Create a postdoctoral fellows program. Fellowships will allow scholars early in their careers to work on individual and collaborative research projects and to teach undergraduate courses on topics relevant to the Institute’s core areas.

 “I’m very pleased to be able to support the important work that Northwestern does in international studies,” Mrs. Elliott said earlier. “A better understanding of the world is critical in an increasingly global society, and the Institute’s research and support of academic programs will help reach that goal.”

“Bertie’s extraordinary commitment and her unprecedented generosity to Northwestern will fundamentally transform every corner of the University’s global programming,” President Schapiro said in the announcement of gift. “In our conversations over the past several months, Bertie and her husband, David, expressed their appreciation for what Northwestern has already been doing in terms of its global outreach, while recognizing that the University could have a much greater impact on the world with expanded and new programs.”

Northwestern leaders on the global issues panel moderated by President Schapiro.

  • Everette Dennis, dean and CEO, Northwestern University in Qatar
  • Beth Shakman Hurd, associate professor of political science, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences
  • Claudia Leung, ’11, ’16 M.D., student, Feinberg School of Medicine
  • Joel Mokyr, the Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences, Weinberg
  • Gary Saul Morson, a Frances Hooper Professor of the Arts and Humanities, Weinberg
  • Harvey Young, associate chair of theatre, School of Communication

About Mrs. Elliott

Mrs. Elliott earned a degree in history and Phi Beta Kappa honors from Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. While at Northwestern, she served on the staff of The Daily Northwestern and was a member of the Women’s Debate Team, YWCA and the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. She served as co-chair of her 50th class reunion in 2004. Two of her grandchildren have graduated from Northwestern, and one is a current student.

Mrs. Elliott has been a major supporter of international studies at Northwestern for many years. Her earlier gifts enabled the University to expand the Center for International and Comparative Studies, now called the Buffett Center. The Center supports 33 research centers, programs, working groups and funded projects across the University and has 218 affiliated faculty representing all of Northwestern’s schools. The Center sponsors or co-sponsors nearly 10 conferences annually, hosts 12 to 15 visiting scholars per year and enables approximately 30 to 40 graduate students to conduct research abroad during the summer.

Mrs. Elliott, along with her three daughters, established the Berkshire Foundation in 1996. She has served on the boards of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Monterey County Symphony Association, Carmel Bach Festival, Community Foundation for Monterey County and Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. In addition, she is a former president of the Junior League of Monterey County.

David Elliott is a retired managing partner of an international executive search consulting firm. A U.S. Peace Corps volunteer for many years, he managed Peace Corps programs in India, Nigeria and Sierra Leone from 1964 to 1969 and served in Poland in the early 1990s. 

We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern

The $3.75 billion University-wide fundraising campaign was announced in March 2014. The funds raised through the campaign will help realize the transformational vision set forth in Northwestern’s strategic plan and solidify the University’s position among the world’s leading research universities. More information on We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern is available at wewill.northwestern.edu

Topics: University News, In the World