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President Schapiro reaffirms Northwestern's leadership role in critical research

Conversations With the President underscores University's financial strength

President Morton Schapiro

EVANSTON - Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro today (April 12) reaffirmed the University’s leadership role in critical research in science, medicine and the humanities, noting that federal research dollars coming to Northwestern increased by 53 percent in recent years.

  • Video: Watch the complete Conversations With the President - Evanston and Chicago

Citing a National Science Foundation study for the 2006-2015 time period, the President observed that while the government’s sponsored research funding had not grown substantially overall, or among the University’s peers, Northwestern’s rapidly growing share has boosted it into the top third of elite universities during his nine-year tenure.

While Northwestern may have started at a lower base among its peer institutions in the prestigious American Association of Universities (AAU), he said, Northwestern now earns $677 million a year in sponsored research from the federal government. “Two-thirds of that comes from the Feinberg School of Medicine and the other third from all the other schools and entities at Northwestern,” he said.

The President spoke about the state of the University in wide-ranging remarks at the annual “Conversations with President Schapiro” event on the Evanston campus, held at the McCormick Foundation Center, which was filled to capacity with faculty, staff and students — some of them standing at the sides and the back.

He was joined by three senior staff members — Provost Jonathan Holloway, Executive Vice President Nim Chinniah and Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin — for the event, which was sponsored by the Northwestern University Staff Advisory Council (NUSAC), the Faculty Senate and the Office of the President.

The dialogue was the second of the two “Conversations” this year, following an earlier session last week on the Chicago campus, where the President was joined by a panel that included Chinniah, Holloway and Vice President for Research Jay Walsh.

In both Chicago and Evanston, President Schapiro declared that his goal is for the University to hit $1 billion a year in sponsored research by 2025 or before, and he noted that Northwestern is on track to do that with an annual compound rate of growth in research funding of 5 percent.

“If we continue at that rate,” he declared, “we are going to hit the magic billion. I always talk to the Board of Trustees about that, and I say that $677 million a year in sponsored research is great. But $1 billion is a nice round number. That's where we want to be.”

$ 1 billionPresident Schapiro's goal for annual sponsored research

The President said that Northwestern could hit that mark a few years sooner, if the University can accelerate the grant rate, up to 8 percent. “We will try to do that from two different ways,” he added. One is that Feinberg has been growing its sponsored research at an even higher rate, some 6.3 percent, in recent years, while the entities outside of Feinberg have been growing at 2 percent, he said. Northwestern will work to incentivize more research among the units growing at 2 percent, he said, and Feinberg actually is growing at 8 percent this year, so that could help accelerate the trend.

“The other is to make sure we have the investments in the physical infrastructure, compliance, the number of Ph.D. students, post-docs” that will be ready to execute the research that will draw increased sponsored funding, he added. On the Chicago campus, he noted, the Simpson Querrey Biomedical Research Center building is almost complete and is due to open next year, which will add important new capacity for research.

“At the end of the day, there’s a lot more than just the rankings,” President Schapiro observed. “I alluded to the magic that will take place in that new facility or the magic that will take place in the latest infill at Tech that we will be bringing online.

“It’s not just to be able to say we have a higher number. It’s what happens in those labs,” the President said. “You know, we are on the forefront of ALS research. We are on the forefront of research about depression, about cancer, about Parkinson's. This is really heady stuff. And when you think about it, it’s nice that it's correlated with better rankings and better numbers, but at the end of the day, it's the magic that happens here.

“And it's not just all the research, but it’s also all the great stuff that happens in terms of artistic expression and in terms of the research that my colleagues do in the literature departments and the history department and on and on and on, that moves forward our understanding of the world. And it really is important.”

Excellence in teaching

President Schapiro noted that Northwestern also is a place that prides itself on teaching as well as research. “And when I talk about teaching, I talk about quality undergraduate teaching. … You want to make sure that undergrads and other students are brought into your labs — that your research enlivens your teaching at all levels, and that’s what we try to do.”

The President and Chinniah both talked about improvements in benefits for employees at Northwestern and the institution’s intent to keep the University competitive.

“What guides it is trying to keep people here and keep them fulfilled and proud to wear that purple,” President Schapiro said. “You can't do everything, but we've had a major increase in benefits, and there’s no intention whatsoever to walk any of those back.”

Chinniah emphasized the concept of “stackable credentials,” noting, “Thomas Gibbons, the dean of our School of Professional Studies, had a great statement recently. He talked about stackable credentials — which is when you get certified, you get your training, and then you stay in that same field for a very long time, but as the world changes and opportunities change, (we’re) giving our staff the opportunity to think of their credentials as stackable credentials.  

“That's why we've been more focused on that staff development component, and that actually mirrors what we learned from the recently completed staff survey around what staff really think we should be working on,” Chinniah added. He said staff members were often asking, “Give me the opportunity to re-tool and re-train myself, so that I'm better positioned, either for opportunities at Northwestern or in the region or elsewhere. 

“We've made those kind of focused investments and benefits to help people stay relevant, stay current and continue to refine their credentials,” Chinniah said. “When you're a great educational institution like we are, whether it's at SESP or SPS, there are great programs that people can benefit from right here.” 

The President noted that the University and its finances are strong, despite recent constraints on spending announced this year. He pointed to the University’s endowment, which has been well above $10 billion, and to the fundraising effort, “We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern, which he said is doing exceptionally well and is well ahead of schedule.

He underscored the rate Northwestern takes from its endowment annually for operating expenses, which is 5 percent, and he explained that it was a conservative and fiscally responsible rate compared to some other universities, which take more.

“This is the Midwest,” he said. “I think we should be somewhat on the conservative side, especially with uncertainty in financial markets, with the volatility of stock markets. … That's why there's no panic here or anything.”

While the University is doing some fiscal belt-tightening this year, he said, “The reason we are doing it now is because, I don't want to be a president where we ever have the Draconian moves that a number of peer institutions have had.

 “So people asked, are you going to have a hiring freeze for staff and faculty? No. Are you going to have a salary freeze for staff and faculty? No. Are we going to have a reduction in benefits where we walk back tuition benefits to staff and vacation days? No. Are we going to have a moratorium in new construction projects in Chicago and Evanston? No. We are still doing it,” the President said.

“Are we going to move back in our generous financial aid, like, for example, putting loans back in undergraduate aid packages? No, absolutely not!” he added. “So the idea here is that we need to be careful with head count and we need to reallocate internally, whenever possible, and we are not freezing anything. And if we get this right, as we seem to be, we are not going to have any of those things. And so I'm not worried. It's a challenge. I wouldn't lie about this. It sort of came abruptly, but we are dealing with it a year or two before it becomes a great problem.” 

Are we going to move back in our generous financial aid? No. Absolutely not.”

President Morton Schapiro
on fiscal belt-tightening

Holloway said he recalled going through drastic cutbacks at his previous institution, Yale University, and he noted that morale suffered. “But this was in the economic collapse in ’08-’09,” Holloway said. 

“But one thing I learned from that experience is, when you recognize that there is a challenge, a financial challenge, and Morty has already said this, it is absolutely in your best interest to move quickly, because if you don't take care of it now, rest assured in two or three years you are facing real pain,” Holloway added.

Walsh also had reassuring words about the financial difficulties, noting, “I would point out that the product that we produce, which is new knowledge and graduates, is a fantastic product. It's well recognized. The revenue sources, which is donations from mostly alums, but also philanthropists, is up and from our sponsors is up. So that's a clear indication that our product is really good. So, you know, at a macro level, we are doing really well. So, yes, there are morale issues that are going to come as we readjust things here, but the revenue streams are doing well.”

More students applying

One measure of Northwestern’s success, President Schapiro said, is the number of students applying to attend – and the resulting drop in acceptance rates. When he started, the acceptance rate among students who applied to attend was 30 percent. This year, only 8 percent will get in, the President said.

President Morton Schapiro

“It’s also nice to be recognized in your own backyard,” the President said, citing increases in the number of students admitted from both Evanston Township High School and Chicago Public Schools. Nine years ago, 30 first-year students came from CPS schools. Now the number is 124, he said.

He also cited the University’s commitment to the Northwestern Academy for Chicago Public Schools, a college preparation and enrichment program for academically motivated CPS students. Schapiro said he attended the first graduation class from the academy.

“You know, sometimes I get emotional, but man, I cried like a baby the whole time,” the President said. “Student after student came up and they said ‘Thank you for Northwestern, for believing in me.’”

While Northwestern has become more popular — and selective — the University has worked hard to remain affordable. President Schapiro said that less than a decade ago, only 9 percent of Northwestern’s undergraduate students came from families eligible for federal Pell Grants, which are designed to help students who have financial need. This year, the number is 19 percent.

Of course, not every student Northwestern accepts decides to come here. In 2017, the schools students most frequently chose after turning down Northwestern were Stanford, Harvard, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Yale and Princeton.

“You’re not going to win them all,” President Schapiro said. “If you are losing to Stanford, Harvard, Wharton, Yale and Princeton, you must be doing something right.”

Audience questions

The President and the panelists answered more than a half-dozen questions in Evanston and about a dozen questions in Chicago from the Northwestern community, submitted through emails to NUSAC, via the web and from audience members inside Thorne Auditorium and the McCormick Foundation Center.

Among the questions in Evanston was one about the “swatting” incident March 14 in which an anonymous caller dialed Evanston Police with what turned out to be a hoax threat — leading to reports of a man with a gun in Engelhart Hall in Evanston. University Police, senior officials and multiple law enforcement agencies responded, and the University sent emergency messages for faculty, staff and students to shelter in place.

panel638President Schapiro and panel. Photos by Jim Prisching

The President noted that the reports of a shooter on campus were believed to be real, and the University responded accordingly. “Some things worked. Some things didn’t,” he said of the emergency response. “We learned a lot from that, and it reminds us again of what our responsibilities are 

“You want to know the highest priority? It’s the safety of our community. Everything else comes after that,” he said.

Chinniah echoed the President, noting that Northwestern has been working to incorporate feedback and lessons about the incident from faculty, staff, students, parents, neighbors, law enforcement and others. “There was a lot we learned, and we will continue to refine that,” he said. “The thing about emergency planning is, it’s not a destination, it’s a journey. So every time you think you’ve got it all figured out, you learn something new.”

Telles-Irvin also noted that Engelhart is a graduate residence hall, and the incident impacted the staff working in that building. “One of the biggest lessons was the importance of following up with the staff and making sure that they had the support they needed,” she said, “and many, fortunately, accessed that support, because it was very real to them and very frightening.”

Another question was about how individuals can work to improve town-gown relations, and the President responded that the University’s relationship with Chicago is strong, and the one with Evanston is getting stronger.

He said relations with the City of Evanston have steadily improved in recent years, including his close relationships with a series of Evanston mayors. Beyond that, the President and Chinniah both talked about Northwestern’s continuing effort to invest in community schools, people, parks and all kinds of things.

“You know, we’re blessed to be in Evanston; they’re blessed to have us here, frankly,” President Schapiro said. “I think we’ve really turned it around,” he added.

Asked in Evanston about the global strategy the University is developing, President Schapiro said Northwestern is reviewing a report by its Global Strategy Task Force that will provide guidance in the future about developing more international reach and impact.

“We partner with great institutions everywhere, and that’s our global strategy,” the President said, noting that since Provost Holloway joined the leadership team, he expects the University will look more closely at the task force report and other strategies in the near future.

Northwestern must step up proactive efforts to get its global brand better known in the world, the President said, but he noted the University must be careful to lead that strategy with its values.

“If it has the Northwestern name on it, it should be first-class,” he said.     

Another question posed to the panel was about the findings of the recent staff engagement survey.

Chinniah identified three major issues that stood out among the results. One, he said, was a group of issues around diversity and inclusion. A second centered around staff development and career path opportunities. The third was what he termed “University leadership and visibility.”

“The fortunate part about it is these are all initiatives that are already underway, but it was great to have our staff amplify the need for further work in each of these categories,” Chinniah said.

He said the plan is to provide ongoing communication about the results and resulting changes.

“In addition to providing the data, what we are also planning to do is provide supervisors and leaders around campus with a menu of options, sharing best practices,” Chinniah said. “So, if some group is doing something really well in terms of the engagement with their staff, we want to share that with other places that may not be doing it so well, so people can really figure out how to respond.”

President Schapiro took time to recognize Chinniah, who recently announced his resignation and plans to leave the University in May. Schapiro praised Chinniah as a close personal friend, and he said Chinniah has been by his side for many of the things the University “got right” in recent years.

“I had really hoped, Nim, over the remaining years of my presidency, we would still be side by side, and it’s a little daunting moving on without you,” the President said. “But I just wanted to thank you for the incredible leadership you have shown from the day you came in.”

Chinniah said it has been a great privilege to work at Northwestern.

“What I take from Northwestern are the incredible relationships that I have built with people in this room,” he said. “I'm totally grateful, and there's no relationship I value more than the one I have had the privilege of building with Morty, not just on a professional level, but also on a deeply personal level. So I'm truly grateful to have worked with you.”

Also among the questions asked at the event in Chicago was one about the ongoing investigation into allegations leveled against Professor Alec Klein of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

Holloway said the University is “doing things appropriately” in regards to the investigation.

“We are legally bound in ways that we simply can't say certain things,” Holloway said. “But if you are asking about values, you better believe that Northwestern's administration believes deeply in values of equity and making sure that the campus is a safe campus, in any of these ways that we are talking about it, and we are determined to make sure we get there.”

- Jon Yates contributed to this report.

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