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In Conversations with the President, looking ahead

President Schapiro reflects on COVID-19, return to campus, his final 16 months as president

In his 22nd Conversations with the President event today — held remotely for the second consecutive year due to COVID-19 safety precautions — Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro reflected on the pandemic’s impact on campus safety, what we’ve learned as an institution and where we’re headed as restrictions begin to loosen.  

“I think one of the safest places in the world has been Northwestern, and we have the numbers to show that,” President Schapiro said, referencing the low positivity rate on campus since students returned for Winter Quarter (only 567 positive cases out of 145,000 COVID tests) and the increase in vaccinations received by members of the Northwestern community both on and off campus. 

The 75-minute Zoom event, co-sponsored by the Northwestern University Staff Advisory Council (NUSAC), the Faculty Senate and the Office of the President, addressed social justice on campus, University rankings and Northwestern’s commitment to two merit increases for faculty and staff over the next two fiscal years. 

Following his opening remarks, President Schapiro was joined by Provost Kathleen Hagerty, Senior Vice President for Business and Finance Craig Johnson and Vice President and Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer Robin Means Coleman for a Q&A session led by NUSAC chair Nate Daigle and NUSAC vice chair Joan Trimuel.

Faculty and staff recognition

Johnson expressed heartfelt gratitude to the essential employees who put their health on the line and continued to work on campus from the beginning of the pandemic. He said the University is prioritizing their safety by providing PPE, COVID testing and vaccinations. For all employees, the University has offered two additional floating holidays to recharge their mental health while “living in very difficult times,” as well as asking leaders around the University to manage their staff “with grace,” including during performance excellence reviews.

To financially recognize contributions by faculty and staff, Johnson said the University will commit to a 3% merit pool salary increase for faculty and staff this year and next, for a total of 6% salary growth over two years. Managers will have discretion to go above or below 3% each year for individual employees, drawing from the overall 3% pool. 

Vaccination status and return-to-campus plan

About 50% of Northwestern’s faculty and staff have either received their first shot or are fully vaccinated, according to self-reported and on-campus vaccine clinic data, Provost Hagerty said. The University is continuing to vaccinate faculty and staff by age with vaccine supply from the City of Evanston. 

As the University again enters a phase of increased uncertainty and tremendous change in the pandemic, much like last spring, the alternative workplace accommodation remains in place through June 20, with an update to the community coming within the next month, Hagerty said. Additionally, she said the University is looking at pilot programs for a new way to work.  

Northwestern is planning for in-person classes this fall, which are dependent on health and safety recommendations, Provost Hagerty added.

“We have to plan in this really complicated environment,” she said. “If you don’t plan for it, you can’t do it. One way to navigate through all this uncertainty is to have as much flexibility as we can possibly allow.”

Social justice

In response to a question about Northwestern fulfilling its commitments to social justice following the death of George Floyd last May, Coleman said the University is committed to transparency and accountability. She encouraged attendees to visit the Social Justice website for updates, as well as the website dedicated to the Black House Renovation Project, which is on schedule and is expected to be open for 2021 graduates this June.  

“I think an important reminder is that this work has been going on for nearly 170 years,” Coleman said. “It started with our community members around Evanston who were seeking change and partnering with the University on these very topics of social justice and inclusion and belonging on campus. This was a robust community who was saying that social justice needs to be at the fore of all our work, embedded in all of our processes. There’s a long history of ensuring that those who come here stay here and thrive.” 

Rankings, research funding and campaign

Noting this would be his penultimate Conversations with the President address, President Schapiro reviewed Northwestern’s accomplishments during his tenure.

Northwestern has risen from 41st to 21st in funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and President Schapiro said he hopes the University will rise to 13th by the time he leaves. The University received $887 million in sponsored research funding last year, making significant progress toward his goal of $1 billion a year in such funding. President Schapiro credited this accomplishment to the leadership of Vice President for Research Milan Mrksich and his predecessor Jay Walsh, but especially to the scientists and support staff in the labs – and all researchers across the University — who make Northwestern a great research university. 

He also cited the extraordinary success of the We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern, which recently surpassed the $5 billion mark. President Schapiro thanked Vice President of Alumni Relations and Development Bob McQuinn and the more than 177,000 unique donors who have contributed. The president said he intends to continue to prioritize the development areas of endowed chairs and offering need-based aid to undergraduates.

Currently ranked No. 9 in U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges, applications to Northwestern for the 2021-2022 academic year topped 44,000 for 800 spots. “I’m very proud people recognize Northwestern University is one of the best places to get an education, anywhere in the world,” President Schapiro said.

Looking ahead

Provost Hagerty said she is excited to work with Coleman to hire new faculty to re-energize the campus. Coleman said she and the other senior leaders who have started during the pandemic are excited to connect with the community and hear voices as sort of a “restart” to their jobs, working “three-dimensionally” as opposed to the “two-dimensional” work of the past year. 

Johnson said he looks forward to talking to people again face to face to learn what went wrong and right during the University’s response to the pandemic, so Northwestern can learn and improve. 

“These are the moments where organizations can learn a lot about what we did right and what we did wrong,” Johnson said. “This has been a very difficult time for all of us. Failure is only really impactful when you learn from it and don’t make those same mistakes again." 

President Schapiro said he divides his final 16 months as the 16th president of Northwestern into two periods. In the next eight months before his successor is named, he said he plans to focus on celebrating the graduating classes of 2020 and 2021, as well as restoring some of the undergraduate traditions he helped build, such as March Through the Arch, the freshman trip to Six Flags and the annual class photo. 

“That final eight months is just trying to focus on paving the way for a seamless transition to my successor,” Schapiro said. “I’m very excited about the momentum that we’ve created under the new normal and moving onto greatness that’s unimaginable right now.”

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