Franci Neely is a long-time supporter and board member of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and the Houston philanthropist says the nonpartisan think tank has only become more essential to the global narrative over the years. The Baker Institute’s anniversary galas raise funds so the organization can continue to research policies and inspire a new generation of political leaders — and not only will Neely be there with bells on, she’s also a co-chair of the lively gathering.
“It’s an evening of fun, a fun dinner, but this is really about a thoughtful discussion about a number of issues,” Neely muses. “And so, it’s a thought-provoking evening. And one in which we’ll be celebrating the Baker Institute’s 30 years in existence.”
The organization, ranked No. 1 among the best university-affiliated think tanks in the world by the 2020 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, is getting ready to celebrate this landmark date with a 30th-anniversary gala in front of James A. Baker III Hall at Rice University.
Franci Neely will be co-chairing the black-tie event alongside Ann and Karl Stern, and Sheridan and John Eddie Williams Jr. The occasion traditionally attracts a media frenzy thanks to its high-powered hosts, which have included almost every living former president of the United States and a VIP guest list.
Everyone from The Houston Chronicle to The New York Times to The Atlantic typically covers the Baker Institute’s galas. Neely has sung the praises of past galas as “a fun and memorable evening for those who attend and support the event.”
2023: 30th-Anniversary Gala
This year’s gala is shaping up to be an unforgettable evening with not one, not two, but three former U.S. secretaries of state. “We’re going to be having in Houston secretaries of state galore, Secretary Henry Kissinger, and Secretary Hillary Clinton, and Secretary James Baker, of course, who lives in Houston and for whom the institute is named,” shares Neely. “They’ll be in conversation moderated by CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell.”
Now, more than ever, trusted sources delivering credible analysis is crucial, said David Satterfield, former ambassador to Turkey and Syria and current director of the institute.
“The gala will look back on the institute’s foundation of excellence and look forward to how actionable data and resources can benefit both the public and policymakers.”
While the discussion will undoubtedly be groundbreaking, Franci Neely is also celebrating her own history with the Baker Institute. Her friend and founding director Edward Djerejian introduced her to the work the institute is doing and she says she was instantly fascinated by the research.
“The Baker Institute was established to bring together scholars, statesmen, and students to generate research that would impact the domestic and foreign policies of our nation,” said Djerejian, who is now retired. “Our nonpartisan policy research is disseminated to decision-makers around the world.”
Co-chairing the 25th-anniversary — and now the 30th-anniversary — galas, Neely emphasizes the goal is always to create a fun and memorable evening for those who attend and support the event while raising money to benefit a good cause.
Franci Neely walks us through the evening. “To start, there’s a time to gather and sip your beverage of choice and maybe have a few hors d’oeuvres and see friends. You’ll have a lovely seated dinner under a tent, and after dinner, you will hear the conversation among the three former secretaries of state — hopefully on a pretty Houston night that’s not 107.”
Here’s a look back on some of the past galas and the impact they made.
2018: 25th-Anniversary Gala
Former President Barack Obama undoubtedly stole the show at the Baker Institute’s 25th-anniversary party when he took the stage for a heartfelt discussion with former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and presidential historian Jon Meacham as moderator.
“First let me compliment Jim not only for the extraordinary work that’s being done here at the institute as well as the ambassador and all those who support what you’re doing,” Obama said. “I had a chance to meet with some of the young people who are interning here and the excitement that they have about the prospect of serving their country in various ways got me excited and inspired.”
Obama’s appearance helped raise $5.4 million at the event, which Neely co-chaired. The Houstonite has been open in her admiration of the 44th president.
“I admire people who have the capacity for self-reflection, especially those who have accomplished much and have legitimate bragging rights,” she says. “This may be why I’m a fan of Barack Obama and his autobiographies. Writing brilliantly, he reflects on his motivations in seeking political office and shies away from self-congratulation. If only others holding high political office could and would do the same.”
2013: 20th-Anniversary Gala
The Baker Institute hosted former President George W. Bush at the event, which raised more than $3.4 million. Bush spoke about “Addressing the Challenges of the 21st Century,” and his parents — former first lady Barbara Bush and former President George H.W. Bush — were in attendance. The James A. Baker III Prize for Excellence in Leadership was awarded to businessman Hushang Ansary for his work in the public and private sectors. Djerejian oversaw the panel between Bush and Baker while feasting on cuisine prepared by six Houston chefs — all James Beard Award nominees.
Bush shared his reflections on his presidency, economics, and immigration while recalling emotions on 9/11 and conversations with foreign leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin. In addition, the 20th-anniversary gala also marked the redesign of bakerinstitute.org to offer a stronger interactive platform for stakeholders and the community.
2008: 15th-Anniversary Gala
Condoleezza Rice, who served as secretary of state from 2005 to 2009, delivered a keynote address at the Baker Institute’s 15th-Anniversary Gala offering advice on how to keep America strong as a global superpower.
Rice mentioned she was “delighted to be here tonight” with her good friend, mentor, and predecessor Jim Baker, as well as Djerejian. “This Institute is, indeed, doing great work,” said Rice, who is now director of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Praising the Baker Institute, Rice said, “And it’s only fitting that it is doing the work of bridging theory and practice, of bridging domestic and foreign because it is named for someone who has done all of that with great eloquence and elegance, with great skill, with great integrity, with great commitment and dedication, and with great success, and that is Jim Baker. “I want to thank you for what you do each and every day to help us bring together our ideas and our ideals.”
2003: 10th-Anniversary Gala
Vice President Dick Cheney was the keynote speaker for the Baker Institute’s 10th-anniversary soiree, which raised more than $3.2 million for the organization’s programming and brought out 800 guests to the formal affair.
Cheney paid tribute to the institute’s honorary chair, James A. Baker III, before sharing his thoughts on the battle against terrorism.
“There is a certain kind of man you only encounter a few times in life — what I call a ‘hundred-percenter’— a person of ability, judgment, and absolute integrity,” Cheney said, referring to Baker. “[The Rice University Institute named in his honor was founded] to bring voices of experience and learning into the discussion about American foreign policy and national security.”
The 10th-anniversary gala took place under a large tent in front of James A. Baker III Hall and guests celebrated the achievements of the Baker Institute’s first decade while toasting to the future.
Baker acknowledged the former director’s wife, Françoise Djerejian, as an “unsung heroine” of the Baker Institute and others who supported it in its earliest days.
Now, 30 years later, the institute still has an impact, and Franci Neely is here for it.
“The panel discussion isn’t prescripted,” Neely explains. “That is for them to decide and discuss. And I will be learning along with everyone else.”