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Northwestern poised to lead on diversity, ‘engagement across difference’ and academic strength

At inauguration ceremony, President Michael H. Schill says Northwestern can have an impact that is second to none

Presidential inaugurations are rare events at Northwestern: Michael H. Schill is only the 17th president in the institution’s 172-year history. Inaugurations provide an opportunity to reflect on that history, while celebrating the University’s successes and laying out a vision for its future.

President Schill spoke to each in his inaugural address. He noted some of the things that inspire him the most about Northwestern — highlighting its legacy of interdisciplinary strength in fields from the arts to the sciences — and enumerated some of his priorities, including diversity, equity and inclusion and engagement across difference.

Northwestern Board of Trustees Chair Peter Barris ’73 (’11, ’18 P), University Chaplain Rev. Kristen Glass Perez and Professor Megan Bang, director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research, were among those who spoke at the beginning of the June 2 inauguration ceremony held at Ryan Fieldhouse’s Wilson Field on the Evanston campus.

Barris welcomed Northwestern community members representing numerous groups attending in person and via livestream, including representatives from the University’s campuses in Evanston, Chicago and Qatar; academics from other institutions; and the many local leaders in attendance.  

I believe Northwestern is a rare place of expansive ambition, of excellence across a wide breadth of areas, and of honest sensibility that together create an environment for boundless opportunity,” he said.

> Related video: Complete ceremony featured on inauguration website

Glass Perez delivered the invocation, and Bang presented a gift of reciprocity in acknowledgment of Northwestern’s growing partnerships with Native and Indigenous communities.

“This moment and the inclusion of Native peoples and our traditions in your inauguration honors these efforts and marks a first in Northwestern history,” Bang said. “Northwestern is preparing some of the most promising young Native leaders in the nation. Your leadership of our school matters and will influence who they will become.”

After an honor song by the Oka Homma Singers, Northwestern President Emeritus Morton Schapiro presented President Schill with the symbols of office, reflecting on the gravity of the moment and the significance of the presidential transition.

“What I love most about Northwestern is that we are never satisfied — from the stages to the lab, to the classroom, to the playing fields — we don’t settle for anything less than excellence,” Schapiro said. “That is what Mike Schill stands for, and that is why we’re all so fortunate to have him to lead us forward.”

Though trust in universities may be at a low ebb, President Schill said, “Northwestern can play a major role in building back that trust ...”

In his introduction of the 17th president, Northwestern President Emeritus Henry S. Bienen noted that he taught President Schill as an undergraduate at Princeton University and “kept tabs on him” over many years as he rose in higher education administration. They renewed their acquaintance when President Schill moved to Chicago to serve as dean of the University of Chicago Law School.

“We spoke about Chicago as a city, universities, the world in general,” Bienen remembered. “I was always struck by the fact that Mike cares. He cares about institutions. He cares about people and good work, and excellence and fairness.”

Northwestern ‘feeds off creative energy’

In his address, President Schill described Northwestern as a place that “feeds off creative energy.” Though it’s typical for presidents to celebrate an institution’s history when beginning inauguration speeches, he said, it’s important to also acknowledge that those histories are complicated and flawed in many ways.

Even so, there is so much to be proud of at Northwestern, he noted. Over its history, the University has become a leader in myriad areas. It has cultivated great arts programs, outstanding scientific research, leadership in professions like law and medicine, exceptional libraries, prowess in sports and uncountable other accomplishments.

President Schill also spoke about the challenges facing higher education and his priorities for addressing them. Universities are under more scrutiny than in the past, he said, facing questions about affordability, threats to academic freedom and declining public trust.

Focus on four key areas

To help remedy these challenges, President Schill said he will focus on some key areas.

He placed emphasis on growing Northwestern’s potential to innovate solutions to problems facing society like climate change, renewing the University’s emphasis on diversity and inclusion — even in the face of pending challenges to affirmative action — and fostering what he termed “engagement across difference,” by bringing together freedom of speech with respectful, productive dialogue.

“Our commitment to diversity is rooted in two beliefs,” President Schill said. “First, regardless of where you were born, what skin color you have, all individuals of merit should have the opportunity to get a world-class education. Second, the benefits of diversity accrue to everyone on our campus and the larger society.”

Though diversity, equity and inclusion will remain key priorities, President Schill said, it’s also important to “remember that with diversity comes difference.” He warned that campuses shouldn’t become close-minded by silencing perspectives they disagree with.

Looking to the future, President Schill said that Northwestern is poised to become a leader in research areas that can address some of the most pressing challenges facing our society, including the biosciences, clean energy and sustainability, and data science and artificial intelligence.

The University’s global engagement, he said, will also grow stronger, by deploying the expertise of its institutes and centers and the strength of its faculty — including world-class economists, psychologists, political scientists and sociologists — in partnerships beyond Northwestern’s campuses.

Another aspect of Northwestern’s increasingly engaged outlook, he said, will be partnering with “our academic neighbors in Hyde Park to promote a prosperous and equitable future for the region.”

> Related: Northwestern commissions ceremonial tune for inauguration

President Schill said that Northwestern is poised to build on its momentum of the last 172 years to lead nationally and internationally.

Though trust in universities may be at a low ebb, President Schill said, “Northwestern can play a major role in building back that trust … by doing what we do best: serving as an engine of opportunity, an engine of prosperity, a place of intercultural understanding, a proving ground for ideas and an institution that enriches the world with beauty as well as innovation.”