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Family foundation gives $100 million to U of C

On Wednesday, it was announced that the University of Chicago has received a $100 million gift to open The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts. Appearing at the announcement were: Daniel Diermeier (left), dean of the Harris School of Public Policy; donor Thomas L. Pearson; Robert J. Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago; donor Timothy R. Pearson; Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. | Ashlee Rezin/For the Sun-Times

The University of Chicago announced Wednesday morning it had received $100 million — a tie for the university’s second-largest gift — that will fund an institute dedicated to the study and resolution of global conflicts.

The donation comes seven years after the university’s business school received a $300 million gift from investment firm CEO David G. Booth, for whom the business school was renamed.

The money was donated by the The Thomas L. Pearson and The Pearson Family Foundation to establish The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts. The money also will fund the annual Pearson Global Forum, which will bring together scholars and policymakers.

“At the end of this, when we look back, 10 to 20 years from now, we want to have changed, fundamentally, the way we think about global conflict,” Daniel Diermeier, dean of the university’s Harris School of Public Policy, told students, faculty and media who packed into a university auditorium on the school’s Hyde Park campus to hear details of the new program on Wednesday.

“We want to be the place where the next generation of policymakers have been educated. And we want to be the place known where the leading policymakers and academics come together to find new policy solutions,” he said.

Brothers Timothy and Thomas Pearson, while seated on the auditorium stage next to University President Robert Zimmer on Wednesday, said they looked at their options before going with the University of Chicago. “We looked at, all due respect, 10 to 12 different universities,” Thomas said.

“You made the right decision,” Zimmer chimed in. The audience applauded.

Diermeier wouldn’t be pinned down when asked if perhaps President Barack Obama, who is leaving office in early 2017 and worked as a law professor at the university before going into politics, might play a role in the new program. “As we move forward we would expect to engage in a whole variety of policymakers, some of them out of office, some of them in office,” he said.

Thomas and Timothy Pearson, 61-year-old fraternal twins, attended DePauw University in Indiana and had no links to the U of C before the donation. The brothers are business entrepreneurs and investors who live out of state — Thomas in Oklahoma and Timothy in Georgia.

The duo — there are four Pearson brothers total — said they hoped the endeavor would become their family’s legacy.

“Our gift is intended to advance the scholarship, understanding and resolution of global conflicts,” Thomas Pearson said Wednesday.

Timothy Pearson highlighted the need for such an institute by pointing to grim figures: “19.5 million people are refugees worldwide, with more people being displaced this year than any time since WWII,” he said.

Timothy shared an anecdote from his youth that affected the brothers’ perspective on the world.

His father, Richard Pearson, a Methodist minister in small-town Iowa, went away for the summer once under circumstances that, at the time, were not entirely clear to his sons. During his absence, someone delivered a package to their home with a message that read: “The Klan is watching.”

Only later did the Pearson brothers realize their father had been in the deep South that summer, where he worked to register black voters and took part in the civil rights march in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery.

“To this day each of the four sons keeps a framed copy of the Klan’s warning and one of our father’s last sermons,” Timothy said.

Diermeier said the new institute arrives at a critical moment for the world.

“For too long conventional methods have been applied to unconventional problems with little impact,” Diermeier said. “Much policymaking continues to be based on intuition, prior experience and ideology. We must move beyond the old ways of thinking to confront the new challenges of global conflicts.”

Using data-driven analyses will allow for new and sometimes counterintuitive discoveries about the underlying causes of conflict and the social issues that may be the root cause, Diermeier said.

To highlight this, Diermeier pointed to a study that revealed, contrary to popular belief, that terrorists are neither poor nor uneducated. “Rather, terrorist organizations, like any organization, carefully assign highly educated operatives to more difficult missions . . . so education programs, well-intended as they may be, can be counterproductive — merely increasing the supply of highly skilled operatives if they are not coupled with investment and job opportunities.”

In addition, Diermeier said The Pearson Global Forum will “equip the next generation of policymakers to put these insights into practice.”

The money will initially establish four named professorships in the Harris School. The institute will be housed in existing space at the Harris School, so no new construction at the South Side campus is associated with the donation.

Both Timothy and Thomas Pearson said they plan to be in Chicago several times a year, but the frequency of such visits also “depends on how the Cubs are doing,” Timothy Pearson said.

Thomas L. Pearson (center) answers questions about The Pearson Family Members Foundation’s $100 million gift to the University of Chicago to open The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts. With him are Daniel Diermeier (left), dean of the Harris School of Public Policy, as well as university president Robert J. Zimmer. | Ashlee Rezin/For the Sun-Times

Timothy R. Pearson, of the The Pearson Family Foundation, announces that his organization has donated $100 million to the University of Chicago to open The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts. | Ashlee Rezin/For the Sun-Times