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President Schapiro: 'You have to do the right thing'

Acknowledges concerns over proposed cuts in federal research funding

EVANSTON - Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro declared Tuesday (April 18) that despite uncertain times at the national level, the University will carry on successfully with its research mission, is thriving financially and remains committed to creating a “need-blind, inclusive campus” for all its students.

RELATED: Northwestern's global focus more important than ever

The President vowed to “double down” on research, advance the University’s expanding international position and protect the global mobility of its scholars amid threats by the current administration to cut budgets and curtail immigration. 

He again covered a wide variety of topics at the second of the annual “Conversations with President Schapiro,” which took place today on the Evanston campus. The first conversation took place April 12 on the Chicago campus. 

At both events, President Schapiro stressed that the University is strongly guided by its values in all it does, whether in working to protect its international students or striving to create a campus where students from highly diverse backgrounds — economic, racial, ethnic and otherwise — feel truly included in the life of the University. 

Four senior members of his staff joined the President and fielded questions during both the Evanston and Chicago conversations. The panelists included Provost Daniel Linzer, Executive Vice President Nim Chinniah, Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin and Vice President and General Counsel Philip Harris.

Expressing gratitude to Robert McQuinn, vice president for alumni relations and development at Northwestern, and his staff, President Schapiro noted that Northwestern has the latitude to carry out its mission because the University is working faster than expected toward reaching the $3.75 billion campaign fundraising goal for We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern. So far, the Campaign has raised $3.35 billion.

The times when Northwestern was dubbed “a sleeping giant” by some are over, “trust me,” the President said, referring to the University’s sports fame and achievement during March Madness this year. Northwestern keeps getting better and better across the board, whether in sports or academics, he added, noting the excitement over Northwestern making it into the NCAA men’s basketball tournament for the first time as well as the University’s improving record in research funding. 

Growing sponsored research

“The single biggest revenue source for us is the $650 million we get from sponsored research each year,” President Schapiro said. “It’s 28 percent of our $2.3 billion operating budget. … We pay a lot of attention to sponsored research. The reality is we have really made a difference in terms of transforming this place — investments in faculty and staff and in students, post docs, Ph.D.s and others. We’ve invested in infrastructure, and I think we’re very well positioned to continue to take market share.” 

Northwestern has thrived during a period when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and similar federal funding sources have been largely flat, he said. The President added that his aspiration is for Northwestern to reach $1 billion in annual sponsored research in the not-too-distant future.

“If you look at the AAU (American Association of Universities) and its 62 member institutions, Northwestern had the largest single increase in sponsored research among any of these 62 great private and public research universities in the U.S. and Canada,” he said. “So can we continue that? I’d like that $650 million to hit $1 billion — that’s a nice round number.”

The President asserted in both the Chicago and Evanston conversations that he was confident in Northwestern’s ability to navigate the current political uncertainty.

“I think we have the resources to carry us through,” President Schapiro declared, but he acknowledged concerns about the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts for research funding and strict travel restrictions on visitors from six Muslim-majority countries. “Nobody thought that we’d be almost under siege in academe,” he added.

“When you get 28 percent of your budget to support the research labs, you worry about that,” he said, referring to proposed cuts to NIH. “But, I think we have contingency plans.

“And you know what the best contingency plan is? To have brilliant scholars, to have brilliant researchers,” President Schapiro added. “Even when NIH wasn’t increasing funding, basically, at all, with sequestration, we were still going up, because we’ve been hiring and retaining brilliant scholars in STEM fields. But some of them were in my department, economics, some were at Kellogg, and some are in the humanities and in the arts — and in the qualitative social sciences, as well as the quantitative social sciences, like economics.

“So, am I worried about the future of research? You better believe it,” the President observed. “But if you look at the contribution to economic growth and prosperity that comes out of supporting NIH and similar kinds of institutes, how do you argue against that? So, I think that even if we might expect a tough time for the next year or two, I’m not really worried about the future of research support in this country.”

Linzer also emphasized the importance of federal research funding to global economic growth and research discovery, but he acknowledged the uncertainty surrounding the prospects for continued federal funding in the current climate.

“It’s hard to predict the future, but I would say, first, I’m an optimist,” Linzer said, “primarily because it’s illogical to cut funding for research, given all the benefits the country sees from investing in university-based research.”

Linzer said that “when local, state and federal governments want to see economic growth, that comes from ideas in research universities that turn into startup companies, that turn into successful new products that existing companies pick up and benefit from. And that adds jobs, it adds to the health of our community, it adds to our ability to provide energy, it adds to our national security. 

“If you don’t invest in the research, those benefits are going to disappear,” Linzer observed. “At the end of the day, even if the federal government wants to remake itself, it has to question what the federal budget investment is going to do to advance the nation. There is no bigger payoff than to invest in university-based research. It doesn’t make sense to me to cut that.”

The annual Conversations with President Schapiro events are sponsored by the Northwestern University Staff Advisory Council (NUSAC), the Faculty Senate and the Office of the President. More than 200 attended the Evanston session today in the McCormick Foundation Center. An additional 285 viewers followed the event on a live webcast. More than 250 faculty and staff attended the earlier session on the Chicago campus, which was held in the Rubloff Building. An additional 206 unique viewers followed the event on a live webcast. Many members of the community emailed questions, read aloud by NUSAC staff members at both sessions.

Supporting international students

The President and the panel were asked about Northwestern’s response to the Trump Administration’s travel ban executive orders, which could impact about 70 Northwestern students and scholars.

Harris noted that Northwestern is working with 30 other private peer institutions, which all recruit such scholars and were potentially affected. For those individuals with Northwestern who were directly impacted by the executive orders, he said, the University has reached out to provide them with the assistance they need.

Moreover, the executive order affects everyone at Northwestern, Harris stressed, noting that the University will continue its efforts to mitigate the immigration orders and their impact, including joining as a signatory to an amicus brief on the issue before the courts. 

“The reality is that those executive orders affect all of us, because we are all part of a global university,” Harris said. “We have 45 students and 22 scholars who are impacted potentially by the two executive orders. You know what? There are a lot of smart people in this world who aren't born in the United States, and we recruit those people aggressively.” 

The University has carefully studied the order and is making sure to comply with federal law, while doing all that it can to protect Northwestern’s interests and its ability to compete effectively globally, he said. 

Also addressing the travel ban, Telles-Irvin explained, “We’ve been meeting with some of those students who have been impacted from those particular countries.” She noted how critical the contributions of these students are to research and the University’s environment. As a result of those meetings, she and Linzer organized a dinner with 25 students who were affected by the order. 

“These are human beings who are in a very tenuous situation, and they’re scared,” Telles-Irvin said. “They didn’t know if they’d be able to go back to their home to see their family. These are obviously researchers who go to conferences, sometimes international conferences, and they are questioning whether or not they should go.” 

Telles-Irvin noted that the International Office is helping the affected students but that everyone at Northwestern should be concerned about what the threat to students’ and scholars’ mobility means to the University. 

“I want to make sure that you hear this,” Telles-Irvin said. “It’s one thing to hear what’s happening federally, but it’s really affecting the lives of members of our community. We need to be aware of that and sensitive and compassionate and flexible when it comes to what they’re facing.” 

The President and the panel were also asked about an executive order denying federal resources to those jurisdictions that provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants. The audience responded when President Schapiro said, “You know, it’s very uncertain. You have to do the right thing.

“In troubling times, you need to step forward and do what you think is right,” he added. “There could be a point at which there’s such a draconian consequence with different things that we have to think about what we’d do. But right now, I think it is important to say that this is a global community, we take it seriously and there are certain things that people try to force you to do that just aren’t consistent with your mission, and you’re just not going to do it, and that’s exactly what we said, explicitly.” 

Fostering inclusivity

The President and the panel also discussed the efforts underway at Northwestern to ensure more access, affordability and diversity — not just a more diverse student population but also a more inclusive environment on campus.

“I’m really happy that we’re opening the door much more widely than we ever did in our history, and much more widely than the vast majority of peer institutions,” the President said, singling out “first-generation kids and particularly kids from relatively modest backgrounds. 

“The measure for that is, what percentage of your first-year students come from families with incomes low enough to be eligible for Pell grants,” he explained.

President Schapiro said he was “really proud” that by that measure, Northwestern is excelling at that goal. 

“We were second of the 20 COFHE (Consortium on Financing Higher Education) research universities,” he said. “We had 18 percent Pell-eligible freshmen. And a lot of our peer institutions had 10 percent Pell. I had vowed, publicly, actually, at the White House, that we were going to be at 20 percent by the year 2020. I don’t want to wait for that — I’m hoping this year we’re at 20 percent Pell.” 

Beyond that, President Schapiro underscored the importance of being “need blind” not just in admissions, but also in how people feel about their experience on campus. “It’s a challenge once they get to our campus: How do we make sure that the experience is need blind? And we really struggle with that, and you know we’re honest about it,” he said. 

“This is the Midwest. We like those values of transparency and honesty and humility — and we have a lot to be humble about, frankly,” the President said. “So, we’ve always done a better job creating a diverse community than creating an inclusive community, but we’re moving forward there as well.

“I just want to compliment the students, the staff and the faculty for trying to envision a better Northwestern and trying to hold us accountable to create that. I love that,” President Schapiro added. “Sometimes it’s a little hard when people are screaming at you, but in general, they really want the right thing. And if they weren’t there, would we be complacent? I don’t know. But we’ll never know, because they are there, and I love the fact that people are saying, ‘Hey, we could do a better job, because we know we can.’ ”

The President tipped his hat to Jabbar Bennett, associate provost of diversity and inclusion, calling him “a godsend here” for the work he has done to build an inclusive community on campus. But President Schapiro emphasized that the job is an obligation all faculty and staff should work toward achieving.

“We all know what it must be to be accepted or to not be accepted,” he added. “And all the 3,000 faculty, the 6,000 staff, everybody, we have to work better as a community, I think, to create a truly inclusive community. We don’t want to just say it’s Jabbar’s problem or Patricia’s problem or my problem. It’s all of our problems. We all have an obligation not just to do something that makes us more effective, but to do the right thing, the morally correct thing.”

Valuing truth

Toward the end of the conversation on the Chicago campus, President Schapiro and the other four top administrators on stage responded to an audience member’s question about how the University is responding to the fears about the new Trump Administration and its questioning of established facts in what many have dubbed a “post-fact world.”  

The University leaders stressed in their comments that it is more important than ever for Northwestern to do the important work of educating the next generation and doing what is right — to adhere to the truth, rely on evidence-based research and, most importantly, regardless of costs, stay true to the University’s mission and values. 

“It’s more important for us as teachers to say there’s right and wrong, there’s truth and there’s fiction,” even though some people are increasingly skeptical about what is being said and done at universities, President Schapiro said. 

“Facts matter,” said Harris, referring to himself as a “very empirical person” and adding, “We need to measure the facts against our values and make sure we’re doing the right thing. But where I think the discourse is falling short is on the empiricism.” 

During a time of renewed activism on college campuses, one of the most important missions of the University is to help students understand how to do rigorous research and find the facts, said Telles-Irvin. “One of the things I love about working at an institution of higher education is that we are an institution of hope.” 

She noted the importance of college leaders serving as role models for sometimes uncomfortable but needed conversations about hot-button issues that often play out throughout the nation. 

Linzer cited the critical role that the University will continue to play in national decision-making. 

“The University has an opportunity to inform government decision-makers at multiple levels,” Linzer said. “At a high level, we have the Institute for Policy Research, which coordinates outstanding faculty across schools to communicate on issues that have policy implications — to inform government decisions and to communicate directly with government leaders.” 

Chinniah echoed earlier remarks about the importance of relying on the University’s values in these uncertain times, whether in responding to the Trump Administration’s executive order on immigration or strategizing to make sure that the path-breaking research being done at Northwestern continues.  

“If we lead with our values, the world will continue to recognize us as a place where values still matter, and the truth still matters,” Chinniah said. “There’s a greater responsibility on the people up here and the people in this room in the current context to be true leaders and to really lead with our values.”

- Pat Tremmel, associate director of media relations, and the staff of the Media Relations office contributed to this report.

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