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President Emeritus Arnold Weber passes

Northwestern’s 14th president helped elevate school financially and academically

Northwestern University President Emeritus Arnold R. Weber, who presided over a decade of growth and prosperity that strengthened the University financially and academically and put it on a path to national prominence as a research powerhouse, died Thursday (Aug. 20) at his Northbrook home. He was 90.

Weber served as Northwestern’s 14th president, from 1985 to 1994, and was known best for putting the University on a solid financial footing, which gave Northwestern the ability to attract top faculty, address deferred maintenance and develop significant new academic initiatives, including returning to a strong focus on teaching undergraduates. His leadership enabled Northwestern to strengthen schools and academic departments across the University.   

Weber’s legacy also includes attracting unprecedented support for the University’s growing research enterprise and helping triple its invested assets. When he stepped down as president, gifts from private sources were approaching $100 million a year, and students were applying to undergraduate, graduate and professional programs in record numbers. During his tenure, he also greatly enhanced the faculty, the student experience and the beauty of the physical campus.  

“Arnie was a transformative president. His brilliant leadership set the stage for everything good that has followed at Northwestern,” said Northwestern President Morton Schapiro. “His vision, his humanity and his legendary wit will always be celebrated at Northwestern and, as generations march through the Weber Arch to begin their Northwestern journeys, they will be reminded that Arnie Weber left his glorious mark on our institution.”

Weber had been hospitalized recently for congestive lung failure and passed away at his home, said Paul Weber, one of Weber’s three sons. 

“Our father grew up in a Jewish family in the Bronx, where his father was an electrical worker and an important person in the electrical workers union, and he was incredibly influential on my dad,” said David Weber, another of Weber’s sons. “He originally was going to go into journalism at the University of Illinois and actually wrote for a humor magazine that was run by Hugh Hefner at that time. But he then switched to economics and focused on industrial relations and labor economics.”

Weber received his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where George Shultz, who later became a cabinet member under three presidents, was his advisor.

After Shultz went to the University of Chicago as a dean, he recruited Weber to the faculty of the Graduate School of Business, where Weber taught from 1958 until 1973, including as the Isidore Brown and Gladys Brown Professor of Urban and Labor Economics from 1971-1973. During those years, Shultz and Weber were referred to by some as among the nation’s leading labor economists.

The two also worked closely at the Office of Management and Budget in the Nixon White House and remained friends for all of Weber’s life.

Weber began his academic administration career as dean of the Graduate School of Industrial Administration at Carnegie Mellon University from 1973 to 1977, and he served as provost and professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon from 1977 to 1980. Weber was president of the University of Colorado from 1980 to 1985, when he was hired to become Northwestern’s president.

"My parents were happiest at Northwestern," said David Weber. "My mom (Edna) grew up on a farm in Illinois, and my dad came from big city New York, so life in Evanston, with Chicago just up the road, was the perfect combination for them."  

The third of Weber’s three sons, Bob, graduated from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, and three of Weber’s grandchildren also graduated from Northwestern.

Weber was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of eight books and monographs and numerous articles on economic policy, industrial and labor relations and higher education, and he was a regular contributor to various business publications.

“Arnold Weber was an incredible leader for Northwestern and such an important figure for the University’s history, who improved Northwestern both financially and academically during his tenure,” said Howard Trienens, former chair of the Board of Trustees at Northwestern. “He also set the University on a steady path toward the international reputation it enjoys today as a research powerhouse. He was a bearcat on budget, an extremely strong budget disciplinarian, which was a critical need at Northwestern when he arrived."  

“Arnold was a great partner and a pleasure to work with in leading the University, with his vision and keen wit, melding the classics and pop culture,” he added.

Trienens was on the search committee that chose Weber for the job, and he was chair of the board during Weber’s tenure. Thinking back on the committee’s decision to select him, Trienens said, “We thought when we picked him, he would be the best. He turned out to be better than we thought. And he even managed to set the football program on an elevated path with the hiring of Gary Barnett. He left a powerful legacy!” 

Indeed, Weber took over Northwestern’s helm at a time when the University needed some budget discipline. He was qualified to help on that front. He was a member of the board of directors of Aon Corporation, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Inc., PepsiCo Inc., Tribune Co. and John Deere & Company.

However, Weber never wanted his financial successes at the University to outweigh his academic achievements at Northwestern.

“I don’t want to go down in history as the University’s greatest accountant,” Weber told Northwestern magazine in a 1994 article. “All of that is fine, and there should be due regard to it. But money is not an end in itself; it is an instrument that permits you to go about the main chore of the university with a sense of choice and comfort.”

Jay Pridmore, author of “Northwestern University: A History,” notes that Weber saw clearly what made Northwestern unique. It was the first place he had ever worked “where you had to tell people how good they were. The last thing we wanted was to be just like the Ivy League,” Weber said. “Our goal was to raise Northwestern’s aspirations as a national university and to elevate its academic performance while retaining the strong values in its Midwestern roots.”

Under Weber’s leadership, “A Framework for Distinction” was created in 1986, which promoted strengthening interdisciplinary programs. A fundraising drive was engaged to provide new labs and research funding for the Technological Institute; in 1989, the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation became a primary benefactor, and the Institute was renamed the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in recognition. Other significant fundraising under Weber’s direction included the $35 million Campaign for Kellogg (1989), a $30 million Campaign for Great Teachers (1990), $21 million Athletic Facilities Campaign (1987) and the $43.5 million Materials and Life Sciences Building (1992).

“President Weber laid the structural financial foundation for the University's strategic growth at a critical time in its history,” said Ingrid Stafford, former Northwestern vice president for financial operations and treasurer. “His disciplined management launched a generation of academic strategic initiatives, which greatly strengthened the stature and accomplishments of the University and have been built upon by Presidents (Henry) Bienen and Schapiro.”

Weber will be remembered for many other achievements at Northwestern, as well, not least of which was the “Arnold Weber Arch.” After almost a decade as Northwestern president, Weber, in 1993, felt that the absence of a single gate through which students, faculty, alumni and visitors officially entered Northwestern was an architectural “gap” on the Evanston campus. The arch was completed in 1994.   

In 2011, President Schapiro, Trienens and others honored Weber at a celebration ceremony naming the arch for him and placing a plaque on the stone footing of the arch that has become the main gateway to the University’s Evanston campus. It is also now the spot where first-year students enter at the start of their time here, following the Northwestern Marching Band into campus during Wildcat Welcome.

Constructed in Weber’s last presidential year, the arch was designed by Northwestern University landscape architect Ann Ziegelmaier, who also worked tirelessly with Weber and his wife, Edna, on projects to beautify the campus.

“It is really appropriate that the physical pathway to our great University goes through the Weber Arch,” said President Schapiro at the dedication. “Anyone who knows the history of Northwestern or any historian who writes how we got to be such a great teaching and research university knows that the path to excellence started with President Number 14, Arnie Weber.”

Part of those efforts towards excellence included widespread work on campus landscaping and on improvements to and renovation of Shakespeare Garden. Edna Weber was a member of the Evanston Garden Club, and that group led that work and still maintains the garden today. Despite concerns on the part of some University administrators, Weber approved having the Garden named to the National Register of Historic Places, which occurred during his presidency. 

Throughout his tenure, Weber was noted for his pithy wit. Remarking on his decision to retire as Northwestern’s president, he said, "I knew, when in a two-week period the basketball team beat Michigan and went to the NIT, and the debate team beat Harvard for the national championship, that it was time to leave." In his wake, Northwestern found itself stronger than ever and back on solid footing.

A book of Weber’s wit and wisdom was compiled by colleagues during his time as president, "Selected Quotations of Arnold R. Weber, Northwestern University President 1985-1994." Among the quotes was his comment on the Northwestern presidency: “It’s not a sentimental job. People tend to view the University as not a real enterprise, as somewhere between a commune and a 7-11. In point of fact, it is an enterprise with 6,000 employees and an annual budget in excess of $600 million and assets of $1.6 billion. We write 1,200 checks a day, so somebody better keep count.”

In another, he spoke about being resolute as a university president, noting, “You can’t be an academic wind chime, making music as the wind blows. You have to have a sense of your own view and your own purpose.”

Beyond his work at universities, Weber was extensively involved in government and public administration. From 1970 to 1971 he was the associate director of the Office of Management and Budget. In 1971, during the wage and price freeze, he spent 90 days as executive director of the Cost of Living Council.

“As executive director of the Cost of Living Council, my dad was charged with administering the wage-price freeze of 1971,” Paul Weber recalled. “He worked with Secretary of the Treasury John Connally. This role is what really launched my dad as a national figure at the time. 

“While at the Department of Labor, my dad, together with Arthur Fletcher, both under Shultz’s direction, implemented the Philadelphia Plan, the nation’s first federal affirmative action plan,” he said. “My dad was tasked with negotiating with Philadelphia trade unions to break down structural barriers and open opportunities for Black workers.”

Weber was an economic consultant to the Secretary of the Treasury from 1976 to 1979 and a member of the Economic Advisory Committee to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce from 1980 to 1982.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan appointed Weber as chairman of the Presidential Railroad Emergency Board where he worked to head off a possible train strike. “A strike was averted, and one of the results of the negotiations that my dad led was the elimination of the caboose,” Paul Weber recalled.

Following his retirement from the Northwestern presidency, Weber remained active on both a local and national scale. He followed his predecessor's footsteps becoming University Chancellor in 1995, and on June 30, 1998, was named President Emeritus, the first since Franklyn B. Snyder. He then served as president of the Civic Committee of The Commercial Club of Chicago, the leading business/civic organization in the metropolitan area, from 1995-1999

In addition to his academic roles, Weber was a director of the Eurasia Foundation, an organization established by the U.S. Congress to support the development of democratic and free market institutions in the former Soviet Union.

He also was a trustee of the Museum of Science and Industry, the Committee for Economic Development and the Aspen Institute. He was a member of the board of directors of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and served as president and member of the executive committee of the Economic Club of Chicago.

He also was a member of the Board of Trustees of the Malcolm Baldridge Foundation and the Chicago Annenberg Challenge in Public Education. As a trustee for the Annenberg Challenge, Weber worked with a young Barack Obama, who led the effort to deploy substantial investments in public schools. 

Weber also worked with Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar and the Illinois General Assembly to push legislation through the state legislature reforming the public schools, notably by giving more authority and responsibility over Chicago’s schools to the mayor of Chicago. 

Paul Weber remembers that his father worked with business leaders like Lester Crown, Pat Ryan and Jim O’Connor to push the Leadership for Quality Education initiative that resulted in 100 new charter schools in Chicago. 

Weber served as a trustee of the University of Notre Dame. He received honorary degrees from various universities including Notre Dame, the University of Colorado, Loyola University of Chicago, Northwestern University and the University of Illinois. In 1990, he received the Alumni Achievement Award, the highest recognition given by the University of Illinois Alumni Association.

On April 22, 1995, Weber received the Order of Lincoln, the highest recognition given by the state of Illinois to those “whose achievements have brought honor to the state whether by birth or residence.” On November 16, 1995, he received the 1995 Daniel R. Burnham Distinguished Leadership Award, given to individuals “who exemplify leadership and vision through their commitment and public service to the city of Chicago.”

Weber received a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Illinois in 1950, a master's degree in industrial relations from Illinois in 1952 and a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1958. 

Weber was preceded in death by his beloved wife, Edna, and he is survived by his three sons and eight grandchildren. Services are pending.