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Five Minutes with David Vitale, ’76

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
I like to think we’ve shifted the
culture at Chicago Public Schools to one where high expectations are actually OK and continuous improvement is something we can aspire to without negativity. A big
challenge was to convince people that every child can learn. I like to think I had something to do with us setting that standard.

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Improving Chicago Public Schools

As a college senior in 1968, David Vitale planned to join the Peace Corps to teach English and math in Ankara, Turkey. But a chance encounter with a campus recruiter from the First National Bank of Chicago led him instead to embark on a 35-year career in banking—and an MBA at Chicago GSB.

Watching the Vietnam War escalate, Vitale weighed his options. “I thought I’d end up being drafted,”he said.A recruiter from the bank told him about the First Scholar program. Designed to attract college graduates who hadn’t considered a career in banking, it provided a position at First Chicago and covered tuition at Chicago GSB. A history major, he took the job and enrolled in the Evening MBA Program. “It was a way to get additional education paid for, and it was an adventure because I’d never left
New England before,” said Vitale, ’76. “I never thought I’d be here more than three or four years.”

Nearly four decades later, his career in Chicago has taken him from banking to advising the Chicago Public Schools for $1 a year, a move that has earned Vitale the 2006 Distinguished Public Service/Public Sector Alumni Award. “I come from a modest, blue-collar background and was the first in my family to go to college,” he said. “Public education clearly made the difference in my life.”

Vitale had not expected to begin his professional career as a banker, but he was struck by a remark made by an executive at First Chicago. “Gaylord Freeman, chairman, told me, ‘Your customers expect you to be their advisor, and to know not just about the economy and money, but also what’s going on in the world. There’s nothing that’s not on your plate, from their perspective.’ That turned out to be true. I was never a traditional banker, so it was a fascinating career.”

Joining senior management at First Chicago also meant taking an active role in philanthropic organizations, so Vitale joined boards at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Science and Industry, and Glenwood School for Boys and Girls in the south suburbs, among others. “I was following in the footsteps of my boss and the others before him,” he said. “I had an interest, but I was shaped by the institutions I was involved with.”

Vitale made time for nonprofits even as he led the bank through two successful mergers, first with NBD and later with Banc One. “It was a very intense experience,” he said of the mergers. “The second one was enough.”He was vice chairman at the new company, Bank One, when he left in 1999 and never returned to banking.Vitale spent a year as an adjunct faculty member at Chicago GSB. He also remained active on various boards of directors including the Chicago Board Options Exchange, where managers were struggling with the Chicago Board of Trade, which had launched it. In trying to help the two sides settle their disagreements, Vitale found himself offered the position of CEO at the Board of Trade. “I wasn’t seeking it,” he said. “I agreed to do it only because it was an interesting challenge.” He modernized the management, reined in expenditures, ended the Board of Trade’s relationship with the German exchange, and smoothed out the rift with the Options Exchange. After 18 months, his tenure ended.

The path toward nonprofits that Vitale began in college came full circle when he was tapped by newly appointed Chicago Public Schools (CPS) chief Arne Duncan to guide a restructuring effort. Vitale made an organizational assessment of CPS, and when Duncan approved of the plan, Vitale agreed to implement it at a salary of one dollar per year. “The reason I could add value was that I’d learned some skills at the bank during the merger and in making improvements at the Board of Trade,” he said. “Organizations that haven’t had a lot of discipline or modern management have a lot of the same problems.”

According to the Chicago Tribune, “his role grew in influence and scope as he became one of the top two managers under Duncan overseeing seven departments.”Vitale said he and Duncan determined the 600 schools were like franchises performing at various levels of success. “We started differentiating our management process,” Vitale said. The result included autonomously managed performance schools—about 85 schools that have greater operational freedom because of their success—and Renaissance 2010, a program announced in 2004 that calls for closing about 50 troubled schools and replacing them with nearly 100 new smaller ones. A nonprofit called Renaissance Schools Fund is raising private money for the new schools,
and Vitale’s role in the school system is highly valued by the business community.Don Lubin,who chairs the fund, told the Tribune, “He brought a certain business discipline to the school system. He had an independence and he used it wisely to get things done.”

Under Vitale’s direction, CPS has maintained budgetary discipline by eliminating administrative overhead in order to close budget gaps. “We closed $200–$300 million budget gaps per year in the last two years,” he said.

Vitale will leave CPS before the calendar year is up, four years after taking the post. He is unsure where his path will go next, but was glad to serve the Chicago Public Schools. “When do you get to apply what you’ve learned in one world to another world that you think is really important to others?” Vitale said. “Not often. I think it’s a pretty unique gift.”

Patricia Houlihan