DuPage County

Q&A: What the first woman to be Morton Arboretum’s CEO plans for its future

Jill Koski is returning to her career roots as the Morton Arboretum's new president and CEO. Koski is only the fourth leader in the 100-year history of the arboretum and the first woman selected for the role. (Brian Hill | Staff Photographer)

Jill Koski’s career has come full circle.

She started working for a rapidly growing Morton Arboretum 15 years ago. As the head of fundraising, she launched a $70 million campaign for the arboretum’s horticultural research and conservation programs.

Koski is now stepping into a new yet familiar role as president and CEO of the suburban jewel in Lisle. Her appointment comes at what she calls a “pivotal moment.” A yearlong celebration of the arboretum’s centennial officially concluded Dec. 14, the day founder Joy Morton signed documents dedicating his family estate to the “knowledge and love of trees.”

It’s also a “critical time” for trees as the arboretum’s scientists work with other botanical gardens to save plants from extinction, Koski wrote in a letter to donors on her first day as CEO last week.

Koski – the first woman selected for the role – succeeds Gerard Donnelly, a former botany professor who retired this fall after more than 30 fruitful years leading the 1,700-acre arboretum into a new century.

“I look forward to also having a long tenure and carrying on that tradition of long-term commitment to the organization, and most especially to a mission that is more relevant today than ever before,” Koski said.

The Daily Herald recently spoke with Koski about her background and plans for the arboretum. Here is an edited version of the conversation.

Q. What inspired your career?

A. I grew up [in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin] spending a lot of time outdoors. I spent a lot of time in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan at our family camp, which was on 40 acres of woodlands. There’s a personal passion and connection to me to the outdoors, to nature, to visiting national parks.

And I feel really fortunate that I was introduced from very early in my career to science-based, cultural organizations that have been really focused on the environment, from my first position at what’s now the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum [in Chicago] to my role at Shedd Aquarium and then really connecting directly to my passion for trees and plant life when I accepted my first position at the Morton Arboretum.

Q. What brought you back to the arboretum?

A. The Morton Arboretum is the most influential arboretum in the world. And I’ve always had a really deep respect and admiration for their mission that’s only become more relevant as it’s moved through its time in its history. And I think one of the most exciting things is that we’re at another pivotal moment in the organization’s history as we look to define the second century of work. And it’s just such an honor and super exciting to be the one leading that charge.

Q. As the arboretum enters its second century, what is your vision for the future? What will be an area of focus for you?

A. I am a big believer in the power and importance of the role of public gardens and arboreta and the expanding role and importance of public gardens and arboreta locally, nationally and internationally. As an arboretum, our core is our tree and plant collection and really that great outdoor museum of trees envisioned by Joy Morton 100 years ago.

Key areas of focus will be growing critical, global tree science programs and increasing engagement in planting and protecting trees in the Chicago region, engaging the next generation of tree advocates through education programs, especially as we emerge from the pandemic, and, of course, continuing to provide exceptional experiences and exhibitions for all the visitors that visit the arboretum grounds.

Q. What exhibitions would you like to bring to the arboretum?

A. As just a side note, if you haven’t visited Illumination [the arboretum’s holiday lights display] this year, it’s a must-see. We’re already planning Illumination for next year.

And we’ve had really great success creating one-of-a-kind, sort of specifically curated exhibitions that really tie to the arboretum’s mission and work, and we’ll be continuing to expand upon those experiences. And I look forward to working with the team here to identify those next best exhibitions. And I can’t share it yet, but we’ll be announcing something new and big for the 2023 season very soon.

Q. What do you think about being the arboretum’s first woman CEO?

A. Fifty to 100 years ago, it was really uncommon for women to hold these top leadership roles in major organizations. But I’m really proud that my professional experience and the leadership skills that I’ve been able to hone over decades of work in leading cultural institutions – and most recently as CEO of Holden Forests & Gardens (in Kirtland, Ohio, northeast of Cleveland) – were the right fit for The Morton Arboretum as we enter the second century.

And I really look forward to advocating for and continuing to build that pipeline of future women leaders in science-based cultural organizations and other nonprofit organizations. It’s just an incredible honor to be serving as the leader of such an impactful organization. And I really hope that I can continue to mentor and bring along other women on a similar pathway.

Q. What programs and initiatives were you most proud of at Holden?

A. I think we had really significant growth in our science and conservation programs to address key threats facing trees in northeast Ohio, including climate change, pests and diseases. So those programs were on a significant growth trajectory during my tenure, and I look forward to watching that continue to grow.

We launched multiple programs to inspire and equip the community to personally engage in tree planting to increase the urban tree canopy.

Our job as a nonprofit is to really work in service and to inspire the community to bring our mission well beyond our borders.

Q. Since you’re no stranger to the arboretum, what’s your favorite spot to find some solitude in your busy schedule?

A. Well, that’s always a tough question, right? But I have lots of memories. I actually love walking on the far east side of the arboretum in the more natural areas. You mention sort of a place of solace or respite. I love Sterling pond, which is on the west side of the arboretum.