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Conversations With the President

President Morton Schapiro underscores strides in research, admissions, fundraising

  • Panel of senior Northwestern leaders joins program for first time
  • Provost Linzer, Executive VP Chinniah, Student Affairs VP Telles-Irvin, General Counsel Harris on panel
  • NUSAC-sponsored events take place on Chicago and Evanston campuses 
  • Schapiro: ‘We have to be a good citizen, not only of the world, but locally’


EVANSTON --- President Morton Schapiro declared at his annual Conversations with the President Tuesday (April 26) that Northwestern University is making great strides increasing research funding, attracting top students, investing in infrastructure and powering forward on fundraising through We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern.

The president underscored the importance of the work the University is doing not only to increase diversity on Northwestern’s campuses, but particularly in trying to improve the experience for people from all backgrounds so they feel welcome, included and safe.

“It’s one thing to be need-blind here in admissions; it’s another thing to be need-blind in experience,” Schapiro told a standing-room-only crowd on the Evanston campus, “and make sure that every student regardless of that student’s background and sexual orientation, sexual identity, income, race — whatever it is — feels like this is their school. That is exactly what we’re working on and working hard on.”

The president noted that many people at Northwestern are “putting their heart and soul into ensuring that everybody has the same wonderful experience here. It’s not just undergrads; it’s graduate and professional students. It’s not just students; it’s staff, and it’s faculty as well. That’s what we have the money to do. That’s what we have the ideals to do. That’s what we are trying to do.”

During conversations on both the Evanston and Chicago campuses, the president outlined major areas of advancement over the past year and, in particular, emphasized the value of Northwestern’s collaboration with Chicago and Evanston in helping more public school students find a surer path to opportunity at elite colleges and universities.

“We have to be a good citizen, not only of the world, but locally -- and we’ve made some real impact in Evanston, in Doha and here in Chicago,” the president said, discussing partnerships with local schools. He cited the Northwestern Academy for Chicago Public Schools that is working with 200 students to help them prepare for admission to selective colleges. Right now, he added, two groups of Northwestern Academy students are taking their first college tours during the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) spring break.

Moreover, the University has worked successfully to raise the percentage of Pell-eligible students admitted to Northwestern. He noted that the numbers of local public school students admitted has risen sharply in recent years. This year, the entering class included 82 students from CPS, and more than 100 are likely to be in next fall’s incoming class at Northwestern, he said.


After the opening remarks on each campus, four senior members of President Schapiro’s staff joined him in a panel discussion that covered topics ranging from student activism, diversity, divestment issues and campus safety to concerns about uniting Northwestern's campuses. 

In addition to President Schapiro, the panel 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.

The annual “Conversations” are co-sponsored by the Northwestern University Staff Advisory Council (NUSAC), the Faculty Senate and the Office of the President, and are webcast live on this site hosted by the Office of the President.

The first of the two annual “Conversations” this year took place April 21 on the Chicago campus. The second was held April 26 in Evanston.

In Chicago, the panelists took questions from Rhea Banks, NUSAC vice chair and assistant director of executive and accelerated LLM programs at Northwestern, and from members of the audience as well as questions that had been submitted earlier. In Evanston, Tracey Gibson-Jackson, chair of NUSAC and assistant director, Student Organizations and Activities, moderated the event and handled the questions.

In his remarks, the president emphasized the steady expansion of the research enterprise at Northwestern and said investing in infrastructure is one of the things that keeps faculty and staff productive and engaged. He singled out the Chicago campus and pointed to construction of the new Louis A. Simpson and Kimberly K. Querrey Biomedical Research Center now underway at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and set to open at the end of 2018, on time and on budget.

“That’s an enormous project,” the president said. But he stressed it’s what happens inside the buildings that is so important. “The building is not the end, it’s the means,” he noted. And Simpson-Querrey will bring in 100 new scientists "to change the world" and boost Northwestern’s sponsored research far beyond its current $620 million.

The building will be “a game changer” for Northwestern, he said, in terms of gaining more sponsored research funding, particularly from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“We are moving up and up,” he said about sponsored research. In the 1990s, Northwestern was 41st in the country in NIH funding; now it’s ranked number 18 among the top 20 universities.

Provost Linzer pointed out that in addition to the research space itself, the research enterprise must be supported by staff to help with grant submissions, grant management, research safety, research training and oversight, among other needs.

“The research administration to help faculty and students and staff do their work becomes larger and more complex,” Linzer said. “We know that will have to grow on the Chicago campus as well as the Evanston campus, probably more on Chicago with the opening of Simpson-Querrey.”

As Northwestern adds at least 100 new research investigators and all of their laboratories downtown, the University needs to find space to put their administrative support staff, Linzer said. While all the plans are not yet finalized, some staff members will be housed in the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago’s current building, once the hospital moves into its new space in about 11 months, he said.

Citing recent construction on the Evanston and Chicago campuses, the president underscored the importance of expanding infrastructure at Northwestern -- from the Kellogg School of Management’s new Global Hub, which is still under construction, to the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Center for the Musical Arts. He also singled out the new residence hall being built at 560 Lincoln St. and other projects.

The president had high praise for the work of the Office of Alumni Relations and Development on the $3.75 billion ‘We Will’ campaign, and he noted the campaign has raised $2.8 billion since it launched the public phase of the five-year project in March 2014.

“The campaign is doing so well,” the president said, noting that he, his senior staff, the provost and the University’s 13 deans and other officials have been working actively to promote the campaign. “I think very soon we’re going to cross the $3 billion threshold,” he said. “We’re about a year and a half ahead of the campaign progress goal.”

“We’re raising $11 million a week now, and that’s a little daunting,” he added, noting there were four gifts made in the last year that topped $100 million each. “At the rate we’re going, we’re going to blow through the $3.75 billion mark.”

President Schapiro also touted the record number of undergraduate admission applications Northwestern attracted this year, noting that some 35,000 students applied, and the admission rate was 10.7 percent, which he called “by far the lowest in the history of the University.”

“They’re taking a Northwestern direction,” he said, echoing the University’s new brand identity. “And not only are we down to admitting about one out of 10, it’s the most diverse group,” he added. “If you take it by socio-economic status, race, ethnicity, nationality, it’s really an extraordinary group. We’re very excited about that. We’re shattering our records.”

The president covered a number of key issues in his opening remarks on both campuses, and he singled out the hard work and accomplishment of Northwestern’s 7,000 staff members as well as the work of distinguished faculty. He also underscored the importance of empowering and retaining the best people.

“If you don’t hire and retain top staff and faculty,” he said, “then the future of this place is not going to be very good.”

One way to do that is to create opportunities for mobility and to promote from within, the president noted, and he added that Northwestern fills about “60 percent of our job openings internally.” He also observed that at a recent NUSAC coffee he attended, a third of those attending had worked on both the Chicago and the Evanston campuses.

The president also spoke about student demonstrations and unrest on campuses around the country recently, and he observed that the University is interested in students who care about the world and want to make it better.

“It’s obviously been a challenging year,” he acknowledged, referring to those protests, including some at Northwestern. But President Schapiro emphasized the importance of university officials not being defensive about them, but rather listening closely to the students seeking change.

“We really want to make our universities better. We might not always agree with the methods that people use to express their displeasure,” he said. “But they are sincere, and they really have good points, and we want to take those points.”

He emphasized a statement he made two weeks ago when speaking to admitted students considering coming in the fall: “We want students here who care about making Northwestern University better. We want students at Northwestern who care about making our country — and whatever country they’re from — better. And we want our students at Northwestern who care about making the world better.”

The president also emphasized the importance of the University giving back to the community and mentioned his recent agreement with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to offer annual scholarships of up to $50,000 to City Colleges of Chicago students who are admitted as undergraduates and transfer to Northwestern.

“We’re going to take as many as we can,” he said. “I have been teaching for 37 years, and every time I taught a transfer student from a community college, I found they are so inspired, they are so resilient and they are so grateful.”

Holding up a copy of a Chicago Tribune with a front-page story on Northwestern’s recent moves to eliminate students’ loan debt and increase financial aid for those who need it, the president noted: “I heard more positive things about this than anything we have done in seven years. This is Northwestern redoing our packages to make us even more affordable than we have ever been.”



Campus safety and culture issues related to campus activism

• President Schapiro

He discussed the difficulty of balancing freedom of speech with providing a safe environment on campus, stressing his leadership team’s commitment to doing just that.

“I alluded before to all the things going on out there [on college campuses],” he said.

“Even sometimes when you don’t agree with the tactics, you really have to admire that people want to make Northwestern a better place.

“At the same time, we want to protect faculty and staff and other students, so they can continue to learn. It is a very tough balance.”

• Executive Vice President Chinniah

“Over the last decade or more, just about every institution in the country has been focused on the diversity question,” Chinniah said. “That is, how do the numbers look? Are they representative of the United States? I think everyone agrees we made tremendous progress.”

The focus now is about providing an inclusive campus in which students feel their specific needs are being met, he said. “We are trying to create a climate in which conversations can happen, so there is learning both ways.”

Northwestern leadership is not so much interested in the ways in which information is conveyed, but rather on what students are saying, he said.

“Just because somebody is shouting at us in a forum does not mean they are not communicating issues that are significant,” Chinniah said. “So, at the same time we are focused on these issues, this really is as much about listening as much as talking.”

• Vice President for Student Affairs Telles-Irvin

Echoing President Schapiro’s sentiments, Telles-Irvin said student activism is “kind of refreshing, because in the last several decades students have been pretty complacent, so to see this interest has been heartwarming on some level.”

University leaders are committed to meeting in person with students to hear their concerns, so they know who to follow up with on any given issue, she said. At the same time, she said leadership is dedicated to clearly communicating to students parameters of appropriate communication.

“They can do the demonstration, they can protest, but they need to know how, where and when,” she said. “We need to be clear about what the consequences are if they try to disrupt the operation of the University. These things are critical, and the clearer we are about the parameters that exist the more they are able to voice their concerns in the ways that are appropriate at a university.” 


Working to make Northwestern a more inclusive place

• President Schapiro

The president spoke of his own personal experience facing micro-aggressions as a person of the Jewish faith, going back to his childhood, and he emphasized that he understands how students can feel slighted, insulted and hurt by others, even by well-intentioned words.

“You’re off your guard, right?” he said. “When it happens in a classroom or it happens in a dorm, those are the things that haunt you for life.

“I’m proud to be a faculty member. But when I hear these stories, the cutting stories from students, it makes you cringe. Those are the things that tell students that we don’t care enough about them to make sure they have that same great experience [as other students]. Educations helps, but it’s really hard to figure out exactly how to deal with it.”

The president looks at it not as a “challenge” but as “an opportunity.”

• Vice President for Student Affairs Telles-Irvin

She underscored the importance of everyone — students, faculty and staff — taking responsibility and working to make things better and to create “a better sense of community, competence and collaboration.”

“It’s not just about bringing the numbers, it’s about the environment,” she said, noting that she had established the office of Campus Inclusion and Community in 2013 to create programs to address inclusion issues.

She mentioned efforts toward fostering more inclusion and related services — including providing a place where students can go to get support if they’re faced with micro-aggressions, working on a strategic plan for interfaith engagement and starting a program to ease the experience of low-income students.

“We’re really trying to serve our students of low-income and also to improve that experience-blind experience for our students,” she said. “Whether it’s an internship they want to go on, whether it’s a laptop that they need or a coat for the winter, we’re really trying to make sure that our students experience not only the basics, but also even Dance Marathon, if they want to. We want to try to open and reduce the barriers to allow them to experience Northwestern to the fullest degree.”

• Vice President and General Counsel Harris

Harris noted the importance of senior officials at the University backing efforts and demonstrating leadership to create a more diverse and inclusive campus.

“My view has been that always starts from the top,” he said, “and we have a president who really talks the talk, walks the walk on this issue.”

He noted it is crucial that leaders at Northwestern — or, people hired to represent the University in different venues — reflect these priorities, champion diversity and behave consistently with these Northwestern values.


Uniting Chicago and Evanston campuses

• President Schapiro

More and more there is a sense of working at Northwestern, rather than at a particular campus, President Schapiro said. “Now, increasingly, particularly for staff, they think of themselves as working at Northwestern, rather than in Streeterville or Evanston or even Doha.

• Provost Linzer

Today the campuses are tied together more closely than ever in academic pursuits that cross disciplines and complement each other, he said. “When I started here years ago, there was much more of a limited scope of research and teaching areas that were defined by departments or maybe by schools. Now the big questions people pursue span many areas of the University.” Northwestern keeps barriers low between its 12 schools to enable a highly collaborative approach. 


Issues of most concern

• Vice President and General Counsel Harris

Northwestern is a very large research enterprise with a lot of employees and a lot of complexity, he stressed. Intellectual property and real estate issues are big focuses of the general counsel office, and, as with peer institutions, the office also spends a fair amount of time on Title IX and Title VII issues, he said. Because Northwestern deals with so many government entities, the office also continually works on complex regulatory issues.

“The important thing is to be as proactive as possible,” Harris said. “You don’t want to be in a reactive mode. You want to anticipate challenges and deal with them up front. That’s what I try to do and what I try to lead.”


Debate about how the University should invest

President Schapiro

He emphasized the Board of Trustees’ fiduciary responsibility to invest wisely the University’s $10 billion endowment while seriously considering students’ concerns about the ethics of how the money is invested.

Northwestern’s trustees, particularly the investment committee, “exercise that responsibility brilliantly,” he said, “and we have the sixth-largest endowment [among private universities] after Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford and MIT.”

Like other universities, Northwestern is continually considering issues of divestment versus maximizing returns to support teaching, research and internships related to environmental concerns, for example.

President Schapiro also noted the University’s recent adoption of the United Nations-supported Principles for Responsible Investing and the planned formation of an advisory committee on socially responsible investing.


Highlights from past “Conversations”

Watch video and read about President Schapiro’s annual Conversations with the President:

Pat Vaughan Tremmel, associate director of Media Relations, contributed to this story.

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