Former Board of Trustees Chair James Crown Dies in Car Racing Accident

Crown, whose family is the namesake of several facets of the University, served as Board of Trustees chairman from 2003 to 2009 and remained a trustee until his passing at age 70.


The University of Chicago

The School of Social Service Administration will be renamed The Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice after a landmark donation.

By Eric Fang and Peter Maheras

Chicago businessman and University trustee James Crown died on June 25, his 70th birthday, after a single-vehicle racing accident at the members-only Aspen Motorsports Park racetrack in Colorado. Crown and his family were substantial philanthropic figures for both the city of Chicago and the University.

Several University buildings and institutions are named after the Crown family. These include the Henry Crown Field House; Crown House in Renee Granville-Grossman Residential Commons; and the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice.

Crown obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from Hampshire College in 1976 and his Juris Doctor from Stanford Law School in 1980. He served as chairman of the University of Chicago’s Board of Trustees between 2003 and 2009 and remained a member of the Board until his death.

Crown also served as the chairman and CEO of his family business, the investment firm Henry Crown and Company. He was the lead director of aerospace and defense contractor for the General Dynamics Corporation, a director of JPMorgan Chase, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Aspen Institute, a trustee of the Museum of Science and Industry, and a member of former president Barack Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board.

“The University of Chicago community is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of James (Jim) S. Crown,” University spokesperson Gerald McSwiggan wrote in a statement to The Maroon. “As a member and past chair of the University of Chicago’s Board of Trustees, and as a devoted civic leader, Jim was committed to expanding access to a quality education at every level and building thriving communities. His tireless advocacy and philanthropy have supported the transformation of urban education in Chicago and nationwide, as well as advancement in the scholarship and practice of social work.”

In 2021, the University’s School of Social Service Administration was renamed the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice in recognition of a $75 million gift from James and his wife Paula Crown. This gift represents the largest-ever donation in support of a school of social work.

“The Crown Family School is deeply saddened by the passing of Jim Crown,” Crown Family School Dean Deborah Gorman-Smith wrote in a statement to The Maroon. “The Crown Family’s generous gift to the School two years ago was, without question, transformative. It accelerated our ability to address disparities, conduct innovative research, and train leaders to confront difficult societal problems. We are committed to honor[ing] and uphold[ing] Jim’s legacy to make deep and sustained social change, and will take inspiration from his bold vision.”

Following the renaming of the Crown School in 2021, some students at the former School of Social Service Administration protested the change because of the Crown family’s investments in defense contractors.

In addition to serving on Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board, Crown was an early financial supporter of Obama’s senatorial and presidential campaigns. He co-chaired Obama’s 2008 Illinois finance committee.

“Jim was a pillar of Chicago, a prominent voice in the Jewish community, and a true civic leader who loved our city,” Barack and Michelle Obama wrote in a statement. “He cared deeply about Chicago and making it a place where everyone could thrive—no matter who they are or what part of town they call home.”

In an interview with The Maroon, Lawrence McEnerney, former resident dean at Renee Granville-Grossman Residential Commons, remembered Crown for attending the annual Chairman’s Cup, a broomball competition between Crown and Alper houses.

“I think the warmest one of these things we ever did was about 25 degrees, and it was sometimes below zero,” McEnerney said. “No matter what the temperature was, no matter how cold it was, there was Jim standing at the side of the rink cheering on Crown House.”

Joel Brown and Erin James-Brown served as the resident heads of Crown House in Renee Granville-Grossman from fall 2019 to spring 2022. In an interview with The Maroon, Brown praised the role of the Crown family in founding the house.

“Crown House is a place where students are able to share life together and to learn together,” Brown said. “It was, for many students, a kind of home away from home. I think it’s probably one of the best legacies of the Crown family name.”

Crown is survived by his wife, Paula; his parents, Lester and Renée; six siblings; four children; a son-in-law; and two grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at a later date, according to a statement from the Crown family.