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Appreciating Northwestern More Than Ever

President Schapiro offers candid assessment of University’s strengths, challenges

EVANSTON, Ill. --- President Morton Schapiro stressed in two “Conversations with the President” this week that Northwestern University’s greatest sustaining strengths are its national pre-eminence as a research university and its equally passionate focus on exemplary teaching.

In his fourth year of annual “Conversations” engaging staff, faculty and students, President Schapiro underscored the emphasis Northwestern places on undergraduate education. He also cited the University’s distinction as an academic powerhouse in the Big Ten that manages athletics the “Northwestern Way,” putting academics first.

Held on the Evanston and Chicago campuses, the two conversations were sponsored by the Northwestern University Staff Advisory Council (NUSAC).

In the two, wide-ranging, 90-minute talks and question-and-answer sessions, President Schapiro offered a candid assessment of the University’s strengths and challenges. He stressed that the University has worked aggressively to expand diversity and inclusion internally, while working externally to improve town-gown relations with Evanston and Chicago. He also underscored Northwestern’s financial stability and need-blind financial aid, its “perfect” size and its Midwestern values.

On campus for events marking Take Our Daughters and Sons To Work Day, a visiting student helped kick off the Evanston session in the McCormick Tribune Center Forum by asking what the president’s “proudest moment” was in his four years at the helm.

President Schapiro said he had more than one, noting his “proudest accomplishments” included redoubling efforts on research and focusing “a little bit more on undergraduate students than we were.” He added he was excited about efforts to refurbish dorms and the student center as well as plans to build new recreational facilities. Then he underscored the importance of quality teaching.

“There aren't that many great research universities which care broadly about teaching, and if they do, they care more about their post-docs and their Ph.D. students and professional school students and master’s students,” he said. He is deeply committed to keeping Northwestern’s “focus on undergrads without losing the identity as a great research institute.”

Northwestern is in the top third of all institutions in the American Association of Universities (AAU), an elite association that consists of top research universities, he said. At the same time, Northwestern students benefit greatly from working closely with the professors who make Northwestern a great research university.

“We’re on the move, we take market share every year, going from 41st to 23rd in a 15-year period in NIH funding,” he said, but not at the expense of teaching.

About 150 people attended the Evanston campus conversation today, with more submitting questions and viewing it online. On Tuesday, April 23, some 200 people attended the Chicago campus event in the Hughes Auditorium in the Robert H. Lurie Medical Research Center. Approximately 300 people also viewed it online.

President Schapiro described the University as a great wall made up of sustaining bricks that upon closer inspection can be seen as integral to what makes Northwestern preeminent. But that close inspection also reveals other “bricks” in need of replacement or refurbishment to reflect the realities of today’s world and the University’s strategic plans, he said.

A glimpse follows of what President Schapiro discussed during his two talks and his responses to faculty and staff questions:

Research and membership in AAU

Northwestern is one of only 62 research universities that has been admitted to AAU, and its research ranking from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) went from 41 in 1997 to 23 last year. Northwestern was awarded $508.3 million in sponsored research funding last year. Northwestern’s place in the AAU represents “the single most important” sustaining brick in the University’s foundation, he said.


“Most schools that embrace big-time science don’t really embrace teaching the way we do,” President Schapiro said. “I’m talking about teaching broadly defined, I’m talking about post-docs, I’m talking about what we do with Ph.D.s, what we do with masters students and, indeed, what we do with undergrads.” He went on to say, “One of the joys of my job and the joys of what we all do here is to maintain not just becoming a big research park, if you will, but in fact realizing that we have 16,000 students, and they expect a great education.” He noted that Northwestern is the rare research university at which leading researchers and top scholars teach freshman chemistry and have freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors working in their labs. “Great teaching is not just at the undergraduate level,” he observed. “I see it at professional schools, and I see it in the graduate programs, too. The marrying of great research with great teaching -- those are probably, I think, the two greatest bricks that we have at Northwestern.”


President Schapiro emphasized his excitement that Northwestern won its first bowl game since 1949 this year, noting that it brought huge national and media attention to the University. “Every story about us mentions that we have very high academic standards for our 491 varsity athletes spread across 19 varsity teams,” he observed. “I love being in the Big Ten.” He added that a quick look at the roster of football players showed that their listed majors represented no less than 20 different departments. “So one of the bricks for me is the Big Ten and its athletics,” he said, “but it’s only a brick that’s healthy for me if two things are true: We resist the temptation to win at all costs, and we continue to have 491 varsity athletes who are exemplars of the best of the values of Northwestern University; and the other one is that we don’t cannibalize academics to fund sports. The vast majority of Division I sports teams in this country take money from academics to support athletics. We don’t do it … If we ever just have to come up with a choice between athletics and academics, it’s academics.”

Perfect size

President Schapiro cited Northwestern’s size as one of its “sustaining bricks.” “I like that we have 8,000 undergraduate and 8,000 graduate students,” he said. “Northwestern is large enough that you can find your niche. But it’s small enough that you’re forced to engage in what I call uncomfortable learning. If you just want a certain kind of thing, and it’s divided by sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, race, religion or political ideology, you will have that group but you also will be forced to engage with everyone else.” 


President Schapiro defined diversity as including sexual identity as well as race, religion and political ideology and nationality. He cited Dwight McBride, dean of The Graduate School, as a national and international leader in promoting representation of previously underrepresented groups and for his diversification efforts at Northwestern. “Creating an inclusive campus is difficult,” President Schapiro said. “I don’t think anyone does a particularly better job than we do.” At the same time, he said, Northwestern is not immune to the societal challenges that have impeded diversity. He referred to recent efforts under way to create a more inclusive community. See message to the Northwestern community.

Midwestern values

“I love the civility, I love the humility, I love the respect, I love the friendliness, I love the lack of entitlement,” President Schapiro said. “We are a Midwestern university, and we have all the great qualities that come with that description.”

Flip side of Midwestern values

While stressing his love of Midwestern values, President Schapiro pointed out the flip side of the University’s humility: an underappreciation of Northwestern's excellence in the world. Northwestern was ranked 19 in the most recent Times of London ranking of universities. The good news, he said, is that “the ranking puts us at 19 in the world, and way up from in the 30s a few years ago.” The bad news, he said, is that Northwestern would have had a much higher ranking if it had scored higher in the “reputation” category. “We are systematically looking at our global image”and getting our story out there more, he emphasized, because Northwestern is undervalued in the “world community.”    

Need-blind admission

Northwestern is one of 35 to 40 universities that offers need-blind admissions, but President Schapiro worries that other schools have been losing ground in this area. “I wish we had more company,” he said. “I don’t care if we’re the last ones left. The joys of an education at Northwestern should be available to the most talented people in the country, regardless of the ability to pay.”  

College education more valuable today than ever

Responding to a question about tuition, President Schapiro, an economist who specializes in the economics of higher education, referred to a recent op-ed in the Chicago Tribune that he co-authored, titled “Fact and Fiction About Getting a College Education.” “Higher ed is the best investment you can make,” President Schapiro stressed to the audience. “The rate of return is higher now than it’s ever been.” The rate of return for more prestigious schools, he said, has been higher than it has ever been. He also noted that prestigious schools such as Northwestern often are more affordable because of their generous financial aid packages. He advised the questioner to not get confused by the “sticker price, predominantly paid at Northwestern only by 40 percent of students who are well off in the income distribution.”

Northwestern's involvement in online learning

President Schapiro singled out Provost Dan Linzer’s recent initiatives to get Northwestern involved with non-selective, non-credit massive open online courses, or MOOCs, as well as with “Semester Online,” a consortium of Northwestern and peer institutions offering undergraduates for-credit, paid, online courses, starting this fall. He said he was “glad” Northwestern was making these new forays into online learning technologies but that it was also important to be “a fast follower” rather than “a first mover” -- given the millions of dollars lost in early experiments with such learning approaches.

Compensation for staff

Asked about compensation, President Schapiro said the University will look carefully in the future at being more aggressive on raises and compensation for staff.

“The good news is we’re one of the few institutions in the not-for-profit, for-profit world that didn’t lay people off in 2008,” he added. “I think we send a signal to people that even when times get bad, we have your back. We talk about a Northwestern purple community. We mean it.

“The bad news is we haven’t been all that aggressive as we continue to recover from the financial debacle in '08-'09, in terms of average salary increases,” he observed, noting that the University needs to put more resources into this. “I think the time is coming when we have to be more aggressive.”

Town-Gown Relations with Evanston

Asked by an Evanston resident how relations were going with Evanston, President Schapiro asserted that they have been steadily improving thanks to strong efforts by both Northwestern and Evanston officials.

“I think that we’re working hard to be a very good citizen,” he said. “Evanston has been very responsive. I have to commend my partner in this Liz Tisdahl, our wonderful mayor, recently re-elected again, and the city manager, the aldermen -- we work together in a very productive way.

“But part of it is the outreach we’ve made. It’s not just buying a fire engine or buying an ambulance, supporting more generously ETHS, but those things help. It really is nice that when you go to Evanston Township High School, and you walk right into it -- there’s a room in purple,” he added, referring to collaborative efforts and programs Northwestern is doing with the high school. “I think some of those outreach things have done really well.”

Outreach to Chicago and Evanston Public Schools

Addressing the University’s outreach to Chicago Public School (CPS) students, President Schapiro also noted that Northwestern started the Good Neighbor, Great University program to assist students from Evanston and CPS schools in applying and affording to go to elite universities such as Northwestern.

“We have already invested mightily in financial aid,” he said. “When I came here, we were spending about $80 million a year. Now we spend about $120 million a year, so we have had a 50 percent increase in the last four years in our need-based packages. So that’s important.”

He also announced that the University was working on a new program to develop talent at CPS schools and to help students apply to and succeed at Northwestern and similar schools, with generous scholarships and other benefits to make it possible for low-income, need-based students to matriculate.

President Schapiro noted that since he became president, “We’ve gone from about a dozen CPS kids in the freshman class to 75 in a couple years. That’s remarkable progress. … I’m not happy with 75. I would like to double that.”

To help that goal, he said the University will announce a major outreach program for CPS students in the near future, one that is “not just to get kids to come to Northwestern, but to get the kids to go to the most selective public and private schools that admit them.”

“And we’re going to spend a lot of money on it,” he added. “We’re busy raising money for it. We’re really going to do much more in terms of serving the Chicago community. It’s not just for our own good; it’s for the public good, and, ultimately, that’s our good as well.”

The “Conversations with the President” are a collaboration of the Northwestern University Staff Advisory Council, the Faculty Senate and the Office of the President. 

(Storer Rowley, director of media relations at Northwestern, contributed to this article.)

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