by Jay Pridmore
Morton Owen Schapiro appeared in Evanston in January 2009, his first visit after being named Northwestern's 16th president. He was introduced at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall by Mark Ratner (G69), the distinguished Northwestern chemistry professor, who intoned that this was the man to lead Northwestern into the ranks of "a handful of elite" institutions of higher learning.
Morty — he's introduced at formal and informal occasions as "Morty" — got a rousing applause. He began by joking that he didn't expect the high point of his presidency to come so soon. He hadn't done anything yet. He was here mostly to listen. But Schapiro, then completing his ninth year as president of Williams College, said that he knew something about the job ahead.
"A president," he said, "has to have the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of an athlete, the cunning of Machiavelli, the courage of a lion and ..." he paused, "the stomach of a goat."
It was a great line (which he attributes to a former president of Indiana University), and it got expected laughs. But why a goat? The answer would reveal itself by the fall.
Schapiro began his Northwestern career when he arrived on campus in July and hit the ground running. He met with trustees, administrators, faculty and then-President Henry S. Bienen (H09). He attended alumni events in Chicago and on both coasts. He toured every residence hall on campus. By the time students arrived in mid-September for the fall quarter, his datebook was filling up so fast that he had something scheduled for every day for the rest of the year.
Which explains something about the goat, a hardy creature tolerant of rough terrain and varied diet. The president's life is rigorous, like at Homecoming this year: On Thursday, after teaching his undergraduate economics class, he participated at the Alumnae of Northwestern Award ceremony, followed by a reception on campus, then dinner with a donor in Chicago and lastly an appearance for men's basketball at the Fast Break Club Tip-Off Dinner at Harry Caray's downtown Chicago restaurant. On Friday he had a luncheon at Norris University Center, an alumni panel discussion, a pep rally and the Homecoming parade, in which he rode in a convertible with his wife, Mimi, and daughter Rachel (and their new puppy, Tango). On Saturday he watched the Northwestern-Indiana University football game from the sidelines and made several trips up to the stadium club skybox to bring VIPs down for the sideline view. (The Wildcats staged a thrilling comeback to top the Hoosiers 29-28. See "Sporty Morty," page 19.) That night he and Mimi attended seven reunion class parties.
On Sunday he was scheduled to rest but couldn't. So he found his way to Lakeside Field, where the men's soccer team was playing. After an overtime win against Indiana, Schapiro tailgated with the team and their families, including his friend Joel Rosenthal, father of goalie Misha Rosenthal. In a few minutes he had a parking lot full of new friends. They ate. Hungry or not, the president breaks bread with students, faculty, alumni, parents. And he loves it.
Now 56, Schapiro has enjoyed a career characterized by tenaciousness and not flash. He went to college at Hofstra University on Long Island, where he entered as a freshman from New Jersey in 1971. He took Econ 1 that year, a class taught by a team of professors including Herman Berliner, now Hofstra's provost, who is only too happy to talk about Northwestern's new president.
Beyond obvious energy and ambition, Schapiro also has "smarts and a personality that works very well with people," Berliner says. By his sophomore year Schapiro had announced that he was going to go on in economics, and Berliner enjoyed taking the young man to scholarly conferences. "He was someone who, as an undergrad, you could bring along. His social skills were always at a high level," Berliner explains.
After Hofstra, Schapiro went directly to graduate school, choosing the University of Pennsylvania, home to one of the leading economics departments in the nation. Within a month or so he walked into the office of one of his professors, Richard Easterlin, and asked to be his research assistant. "My basic reaction was that there must be something wrong with this guy," Easterlin says. "No one wanted to be my research assistant!" The professor, widely acknowledged as one of the most innovative and important economists of his generation, studied demographics and was working on the long-term relationship between economic conditions and population change in the United States.
Easterlin, now a close friend of Schapiro's who attended his Northwestern inauguration in early October, says he never quite knew why the grad student chose demographics. Perhaps it was because it was more concrete and less theoretical than other areas. Perhaps it was because it was outside the discipline's mainstream and provided a wider choice of research topics. In any case, Schapiro's dissertation at Penn, an "economic-demographic model of population growth and distribution in the 19th century U.S.," was well received, and he was awarded his doctorate in 1979. After a year teaching full time at Penn, he joined the faculty at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.
For someone being asked to impart the wisdom of Solomon, Schapiro spends a fair amount of time talking about his own shortcomings. Often he does it with humor, as when he mentions his height, which is like his manner — down to earth. Other times Schapiro can be circumspect, as at an inauguration-day symposium titled "The Economics of Higher Education." On a panel of economists that included several current or former college presidents, he said, "I sometimes worry that so many of us being named to presidencies are economists. Maybe the days of philosophers and art historians as college presidents are ending," he lamented.
Panel member William Bowen, former president of Princeton University, countered that economics makes perfect sense for the job of running a university. "It teaches you to look at trade-offs," which is what running a university or anything else these days is about.
It could not escape notice that three of the four presidents on the dais, including Northwestern's, had been members of the Williams College economics department. It was at Williams in the 1970s that Michael McPherson pioneered the economics of education. McPherson, former president of Macalester College, urged then-associate professor Schapiro to get into it, too.
It was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration, initially on a book that McPherson asked Schapiro to co-author. Keeping College Affordable (The Brookings Institution, 1991) applied econometric tools to examine the complex influences that government aid has on higher education. The authors described the positive effect of federal dollars on access to higher education for low-income students. They also looked at the effect of aid on the "supply side," or the college's economic behavior, which is more complicated: Econometric analysis suggested that while aid gets more low- and middle-income kids into all types of colleges and universities, it also puts more enrollment pressure on public, state-supported institutions.
The co-authors' subsequent books, including The Student Aid Game (Princeton University Press, 1998), refined previous arguments and analyzed the choices that parents, students and the government face in financing college education. In an Atlantic Monthly review, Donald Kennedy, president emeritus of Stanford University, said the maze-like college aid industry often drives families into the clutches of financial aid counselors. "They would be well advised to save their money and consult McPherson and Schapiro instead," Kennedy wrote.
In 1991 Schapiro became chair of the economics department at the University of Southern California. The politics were messy when he got there, explains professor Jeffrey Nugent, an economist at USC. The department had a stark divide between the theoretical and applied sides, and growing bitterness led to departmental stagnation. When the faculty couldn't agree on new appointments, university administrators were happy to put resources elsewhere.
Schapiro came in and fixed the situation.
"Morty did it on the basis of optimism," Nugent says. He built consensus. "The early hires were in the applied direction," Nugent explains. "But they were ones who built bridges to other departments, interdisciplinary people and so on." Nugent also notes that Schapiro was strong on affirmative action, bringing women and minorities on board.
After Schapiro turned around the economics department, USC tapped him for a much bigger job in 1994 — dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. "People just came to know how much Morty knew about education and budgets," says Easterlin, who had himself migrated from Penn to USC in the 1980s. Knowledge gave Schapiro power among fellow academics who didn't know a budget from a box score, and he went on to streamline a system of associate deans and petty fiefdoms. He evidently took no prisoners. "The amazing thing was that he had more enthusiastic support when he left than when he arrived," Nugent says.
After having run a college, as dean, with 7,500 undergraduate and graduate students, Schapiro was named president of Williams in 2000. He didn't think the move would be too jarring, but he found things are different where the buck absolutely stops.
"I had never been a president before, and I didn't realize the pressures," he says in a recent interview. In previous jobs, "I never got the friendly and often unfriendly advice you get when you are president. ... People want to get you in a conversation about why you don't have a Great Books curriculum. ‘Why don't you have a queer theory major? Why are you being so politically correct?' ... It comes from the right and the left."
If Schapiro wasn't instantly clear about what was in store, Williams seemed to know precisely what it was getting. "I was thrilled when I heard he was the choice," says Ralph Bradburd, a former colleague from the economics department at Williams. Bradburd described the president as a leader so "politically adept" that he rarely had a scrape.
One example involved a lingering imbroglio when he got there, about a large performing arts center planned for the edge of the tiny Williamstown business district. The design was too big for the site and promised town-gown issues galore. Yet the pledge to fund it must have seemed fragile, and the previous president was entangled in the dilemma. When Schapiro came in, he moved the location without a second thought.
"He has a good sense of space and architecture," says Nancy Roseman, dean of the college for most of Schapiro's tenure at Williams. Beyond that early show of leadership, Schapiro ushered in many other changes with similar lack of drama: He insisted on higher admission standards for recruited athletes. He advanced cultural diversity at Williams — emphatically in 2004 with a set of diversity initiatives. While these encountered little resistance, need-blind admission (and guaranteed scholarships for accepted students who need them) was also extended to international students in Schapiro's tenure. This was a harder sell, especially to alumni, but again, it was no problem for Schapiro.
"He has a great gift for recalling facts and data related to any policy issue," says Bradburd. "Whenever someone was foolish enough to challenge Morty on the facts, they inevitably regretted it."
There were many candidates for the Northwestern presidency, but one sign that Schapiro was a serious one was the introduction: a dinner in New York with Patrick Ryan (EB59, H09), then Northwestern's Board of Trustees chair, and Ryan's successor, William Osborn (WCAS69, KSM73), who was heading the committee to search for a new president.
"It was clear at the first meeting that Morty had not made up his mind what his next career step should be," Ryan recalls. Schapiro had reached what most observers regard as a successful term for a college president, about a decade. Ryan "read between the lines that Morty might be interested in foundation work of some kind."
But both Ryan and Osborn saw in Schapiro the multifaceted person they wanted to succeed Henry Bienen's successful presidency. "He hits to all fields," is how Ryan describes Schapiro's skills as a fundraiser, an administrator and a scholar. "We also wanted someone a little edgy," Osborn says. "We needed someone with the drive and edginess to push Northwestern higher." Five months after that dinner, and several selection committee interviews later, Schapiro was the committee's, and later the trustees', unanimous choice.
Now as president, Schapiro talks frequently about universities being great at planning, less good at measuring results. Outcome assessment is something like an obsession with him. Sometimes it's econometric, naturally. Other times it's simply asking questions. He talks about writing skills and improving them across the board. He worries about advising. "Students are always dissatisfied with their advisers," he says. Course requirements? "For someone who is basically a free market economist, I like people to make their own decisions." But laissez-faire he is not. "I want people to know what the Northwestern credential means."
Schapiro became president last September and made his presence felt instantly. He attended firesides at residential colleges, fraternities and sororities. He hosted the opening of the Great Room dining hall wearing a chef's toque.
"The students already adore him," says Laurie Zoloth, director of the Center for Bioethics, Science and Society and professor of medical ethics and humanities and of religion and also a member of the selection committee. This wasn't unexpected because "undergraduate education was very, very important to the committee," Zoloth says. "People see how enthusiastic he is. They're excited about his scholarship. They see his passion for teaching. He's a model for the best characteristics of a faculty member."
Schapiro continues to teach at Northwestern, as he did at USC and Williams. In his first quarter in Evanston he taught The Economics of Higher Education, mostly for senior econ majors. His students were impressed, not least with his "tutorial" approach. In this system each student paper is critiqued in a private meeting, not just with the professor but also with two classmates who have also read it. Schapiro expanded tutorial courses greatly at Williams, to strong approval.
"He's very animated, very excited about what we're learning," says Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences senior Ethan Geiling, one of Schapiro's students.
Outside the classroom, Schapiro and his family host dinners for students, just as they did at Williams. His fall quarter economics class was one of the first groups to be invited.
Last November Northwestern called a student forum to address the so-called "blackface" incidents that occurred at Halloween. A couple of students blackened their faces to impersonate African American celebrities and then posted photos on the web. The images caused understandable outrage.
Before 700 students in the Louis Room at Norris University Center, African American studies professor Sandra Richards opened the meeting by recounting the history of blackface in America, traced to the 1830s when white entertainers got laughs for exaggerating the ethnic difference. Nearly 180 years later, Richards said, "blackface continues to wound. It continues to say, ‘You don't belong.' "
Barnor Hesse, associate professor of African American studies, political science and sociology, then moderated a discussion during which some 30 students took the microphone and spoke. The unmistakable message was that racial wounds are still close to the surface. Insults, even if not malicious, have a deleterious effect on a community.
Finally at the end, President Schapiro got up and spoke, saying he was impressed that so many people cared about discussing the subject and was fascinated by the stories that some told. He said he would make changes, specifically with University Police procedures and minority representation on campus. "You hold me accountable," he said. "If I can't solve some of these things, Northwestern deserves someone who can."
But then in conclusion he added, "I already said, ‘Hold me accountable,' ... but I'm going to hold you accountable too. ... We have to work on this together. ... Don't just sit with your friends. Go out with other people, and put yourself in uncomfortable situations, and be honest, and work for inclusion at this great university. ... We have a lot of work to do, but this is a good beginning."
The words came with the flourish of someone who gives a lot of talks and knows how to wind up. Naturally, some started to applaud.
But Morty held up his hand. "Don't clap," he said. He'd been president just a couple of months. He hadn't done anything yet. He was here to listen and learn about Northwestern.
Jay Pridmore is a freelance writer in Lake Forest, Ill.
Photos by Tom Maday (G95)
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