Bill Caruso once thought of himself as “a math and science guy,” but he had an epiphany while taking an organic chemistry class his freshman year at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “Rote memorization of carbon formulas was not something I found exciting,” he says with a laugh.
He turned his attention to law. “It was the natural choice,” he notes. “My parents always said I had an affinity for reading, writing, and especially talking. I was drawn to the intellectual rigor and challenge of it, and the fact that there are no right answers.”
In fact, Caruso was born to the breed. His grandparents and parents were lawyers. His three siblings are also lawyers, and Caruso specializes in highly regulated industries. For the past eleven years, the industry has been education. He is the general counsel, secretary, and vice president of regulatory affairs at DeVry University in Chicago and for eight months during the pandemic, he served as DeVry’s interim president.
DeVry University is celebrating its ninetieth anniversary this year. Caruso was drawn to the university, he says, in large part by its mission: DeVry University strives to close our society’s opportunity gap by preparing learners to thrive in careers shaped by continuous technological change. Through innovative programs, relevant partnerships, and exceptional care, DeVry empowers students to meaningfully improve their lives, communities, and workplaces. “We do that by convincing people that they can. They may have tried college and failed or never thought they could do it. It’s our mission to help them be successful.”
DeVry’s mission is very much of a piece with Caruso’s social justice and equal opportunity bent, something else instilled in him by his family. His grandmother graduated from Northwestern University in the mid-1930s, when there were fewer opportunities for women in the law, he reflects. She became the director of Chicago’s Legal Aid Bureau and pioneered closer relationships with local social service organizations to help the fledgling immigrant population with such priority issues as healthcare, food, and housing.
His grandfather, who had a small law practice with his brother, spent a lot of time with his wife helping combat segregation in their community, Caruso says.
Caruso’s father started his career at the law firm Sidley & Austin when the number of lawyers was in double, rather than quadruple, digits. He was first general counsel of the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities founded in 1966 after Martin Luther King’s Chicago Freedom Movement to address housing discrimination in Chicago.
He is one of the country’s foremost fair housing experts, Caruso notes, and he proudly remembers watching his father present oral arguments in one of his two cases before the Supreme Court.
When asked if he is consciously carrying forward the torch of what his family did, Caruso agrees, and adds, it’s about “the lack of satisfaction in just getting a paycheck and not having a more important goal and mission.” That, he says, is what he liked so much about previous employers AT&T—where he spent nearly a decade as a senior attorney—and Caremark, another in-house position at which he would work extensively on shaping the company’s compliance policies and programs.
“What are we doing other than putting widgets in the box?” he frames the question as to what motivates him. “What are we doing other than making money?”
In his role, Caruso is responsible for all of DeVry’s legal needs, including human resources, governance, real estate litigation, and intellectual property, as well as regulatory affairs, student financial services, internal audit, and government relations and public policy. He leads a team of over seventy.
One of the biggest challenges Caruso faced in his career was when he was asked to step in on an interim basis in January 2020 while DeVry searched for a new president. “Our board decided that I would be the best option,” he says. “My colleagues on the leadership team trusted me; they knew me for not taking sides but honestly advising and listening. Our board felt that a calm and collaborative approach was what was needed to move DeVry forward and maintain momentum during the transition.”
Caruso is proud that DeVry “didn’t miss a beat,” he says. “We sent everyone home on March 11 and 12,” he recalls. “We were fortunate to be extremely well prepared for remote work, the result of a very bad experience during the massive snowstorm ten years ago that closed our operations in the Chicago area for two days. All of our colleagues were already outfitted with the necessary technology to be able to work from home, so all we had to do was tell colleagues to grab a monitor and a keyboard.”
The collaboration needed to see DeVry through is at the heart of Caruso’s core leadership philosophy. “Humility is critical,” he says. “The minute you think you know everything is the minute you begin losing. The good news was that I certainly didn’t know everything, and so I focused on listening, learning, and gaining consensus.”
He doesn’t think that his time as interim president changed his leadership style. “In my view, a key to being a successful in-house lawyer is that you need to have an opinion,” he says. “Giving advice is about options and implications. When your CEO asks what they should do, if you’re an outside lawyer, you can say, ‘I don’t have an opinion. I’m just giving you the options based on your risk tolerance.’
“As an in-house lawyer,” he continues, “my view is that you bring the most value when you step up and say, ‘I know the business, I know the challenges, opportunities, and risks. I’ve laid out for your four or five viable options, but I have an opinion that this option is the better option.’”
Now in his third decade in law, Caruso occasionally runs into someone who knew his parents, and the encounters reminds him of the legacy for good he upholds.
“They’ll ask if I’m related,” he says. When he answers in the affirmative, the response is always the same; big smiles and “‘They’re the greatest people in the world.’”
Congratulations Bill Caruso on this well-deserved honor and Happy 90th Anniversary DeVry! Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila LLP is proud to be a strategic partner to your team and celebrate your innovative and impactful work. Fortune 100 and other market-leading businesses turn to RSHC’s elite trial teams, litigators, and C-suite advisors to handle their most pressing challenges.
Husch Blackwell LLP:
“Bill is a forward thinking leader, who makes strategic decisions that align with institutional mission and the needs of students. Bill has deep-seated passion and dedication in supporting and serving students through innovative higher education. That passion and talent shines through in his commitment and work as general counsel at DeVry University.”
–Lisa J. Parker, Partner