The Bienen Years

President Henry Bienen has transformed Northwestern University, from academic programs to new buildings to its interdisciplinary and international outlook and reputation.

by Jay Pridmore

When Henry Bienen was selected as the 15th president of Northwestern, in 1994, people all over the University began discussing priorities for the new administration. Trustees hoped, among other things, for an enthusiastic fundraiser. Academic departments revived their wish lists for expanded programs and new buildings. Alumni were eager to see Northwestern's profile and prestige continue their upward rise.

The president-elect, for his part, played it close to the vest. "To make a great university work, you have to be aware of all the changes around you," he told the Daily Northwestern. The quote came and went without incident. Platitudes, one could say, often come with new engagements.

But things changed quickly after he took Northwestern's reins. From the moment he arrived, Jan. 1, 1995, Bienen showed obvious ambition, and in his inaugural address to the University that spring, his list of priorities looked long and very detailed.

"We are going to raise and preserve funds for the future," Bienen said, and he used hard figures as benchmarks. Shortly thereafter, he was heading a major capital campaign.

He also stressed the importance of research at Northwestern and didn't shy away from listing other schools that were doing better. He was soon on course to increase research-grant dollars — nearly 200 percent in his 15 years as president. Nor did he ever mind mentioning that college and university rankings had placed Northwestern increasingly alongside the nation's oldest and most elite universities. No one denied that his leadership was key.

But if you want to analyze the Bienen years, you might look elsewhere, to quieter efforts the president put his personal stamp on and tireless work into a remarkable range of programs. These include his commitment to visionary biomedical research and new frontiers (often technological) in the humanities. His leadership also spawned interdisciplinary research centers to address (and even help invent) entirely new fields. And the president's interests in world affairs have driven Northwestern to engage the world beyond U.S. borders, most emphatically with a new campus in Doha, Qatar.

Every one of Northwestern's presidents has left office with a list of accomplishments. But some lists are longer than others, and when the next major history of the University is written, as it may be for its Bicentennial in 2051, Bienen stands to take his place among Northwestern's most transformative leaders ever. Others include Henry Wade Rogers, who became president in 1890 and established a progressive university with a prominent role in the burgeoning city of Chicago, and J. Roscoe Miller, who oversaw the expansion of the Evanston lakeside campus and built a research institution of national stature to occupy it in the 1960s.

Now in the 21st century, Bienen has succeeded in doing what many trustees said they hired him to do: to "internationalize" Northwestern with scholarship addressing universal issues at a world-class level. Some elements of Northwestern's global reach came naturally to Bienen due to his academic background in international politics. Yet the swift advance of technical research has surprised some trustees and faculty. And the president's leadership of Campaign Northwestern, which raised $1.55 billion over five years, was nothing short of astonishing to trustees and alumni alike.

"He was definitely what we needed at the time," says Patrick G. Ryan, head of the search committee that hired Bienen and now chair of the University's Board of Trustees.

"He saw the importance of striving for excellence in everything you do," says Ryan (EB59), who retired from his post as executive chairman of the Aon Corp. in August. "In Henry, we saw not just a world-class scholar but a very, very successful CEO."

A panegyric to Bienen's success must not neglect the contributions of his predecessor Arnold Weber, who inherited deteriorating finances in 1985 and "put the house in order," as Ryan explains. Weber's retirement in 1994 left a balanced budget throughout the University and widespread ambitions that Northwestern could take its place among the nation's — and the world's — elite institutions.

It was a sign of those ambitions that the trustees largely bypassed the conventional means of finding a successor. Instead of using an outside consultant or headhunter to line up candidates, they entrusted the process to an 18-member search committee. These trustees, faculty and two students solicited nominations, vetted candidates and met multiple times with the strongest contenders.

Most finalists came from the usual pool of current college presidents and provosts. Bienen did not. He was dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, a position he had assumed in 1991. He had been recommended by distinguished Northwestern military sociologist Charles Moskos, who knew Bienen as a fellow academic with ties to the public policy establishment. (Bienen had consulted frequently with the State Department, the National Security Council and the CIA.)

Bienen's name rose quickly to the top. What the search committee saw was not just a first-rate scholar but someone whom Ryan described as a multitalented "line manager" who could oversee diverse functions of the institution simultaneously. Others have called Bienen "entrepreneurial," which is another way of describing an ability to innovate, motivate and "set his ego aside and just get things done," as Ryan puts it.

In some ways the clincher in hiring Bienen came from William G. Bowen, former Princeton president and later president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Ryan telephoned Bowen, knowing he had written widely on the elements of successful leadership, especially for nonprofit institutions.

"Henry is a leap-forward person," Bowen said in a recent interview. When Ryan explained their hopes for the next Northwestern president, Bowen insisted Bienen was tailor-made for the position. "Some institutions don't welcome aggressiveness," Bowen said. "But at Northwestern the table was set."

• • •

"Northwestern was just a great match for me," says Bienen, in a matter-of-fact way that is both modest and acutely self-aware. He quickly lists the elements of that match, starting with an active Board of Trustees. "Anybody who looks at Northwestern's board would say it's one of the best boards in the country, with motivated, thoughtful people," Bienen says.

He also points out that Chicago turned out to be an excellent environment for him and his wife, Leigh Buchanan Bienen (see "Leigh Buchanan Bienen: Lawyer, Teacher, Writer"), whose career as a distinguished writer and legal scholar continued at the School of Law. Both Bienens have enjoyed roles as board members of leading local theaters (Henry with the Steppenwolf and Leigh with the Lookingglass).

But he's most voluble when he talks about his interaction with the faculty and particularly his relationship with Larry Dumas, who was provost for most of the Bienen presidency. "I had a great partnership with the provost," Bienen says. Organizationally they succeeded in building a decentralized system, with strong budget and appointment control, as Bienen describes it. Academically they created undisputed excellence in some fields and sought improvement University-wide, with no department left behind.

This is easier said than done, and one discerns the touch of Dumas, who retired from the provost's post in 2007 due to health reasons. (Dumas died Nov. 17 after battling a brain tumor. He was 67. Visit NewsCenter to read his obituary and hear an audio tribute.) Dumas had been at Northwestern since 1970, when he was hired as an assistant professor of biochemistry. He understood Northwestern's academic terrain with rare clarity and valued its broad interdisciplinary culture. "Students and faculty have always jumped back and forth across low barriers between disciplines," Dumas said in an interview a few years ago.

Bienen had lived in such a culture at Princeton. "You came to know people across the disciplines," he says, "and some of my really close friends were scientists." Yet Northwestern had a range of schools and subjects substantially broader than Princeton, which has no medical school, no law school, no business school. With broader horizons in mind, one of the first things Bienen did when he was offered the Northwestern job was drive to Philadelphia to visit with friends at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

What he learned in a few meetings at Penn made him familiar with a variety of issues, from clinical teaching to research. When he arrived at Northwestern, he studied the subject of medicine intensely, so that come fall, when he met with the medical deans, he could say, "I can't possibly know as little about medical schools as you think I do." Beyond this disarming humor, Bienen saw that historic advances in biomedical science were on the horizon. He quickly articulated a strategy to develop more centers and institutes to assemble clinical and scientific resources on medical frontiers. Areas of excellence have evolved — in reproductive biology, for example, and neurodegenerative disease — where resources come broadly from the medical school and departments in the life and physical sciences.

"I've really enjoyed getting into the complexity of the place," Bienen says of the University, acknowledging that his interest in the sciences has been mildly counterintuitive. "I guess one plays against oneself," he says, explaining how a political scientist can guide a world-class program in the life sciences. "It's like Nixon going to China."

He has gotten deeply behind other technical and scientific areas, including the creation of Northwestern's Institute for Nanotechnology (now the International Institute for Nanotechnology). The field draws chemists, physicists, engineers and others dedicated to working with materials on the level of a nanometer, or one-billionth of a meter. Objectives include remarkable materials for health applications and electronics, made possible by manipulating matter in a "staggeringly small world," as the late Nobel physicist Richard Feynman described nanotechnology when it was young. (See "Small Is Big.")

The creation of this institute was the extraordinary result of a routine meeting between the president and the chemistry department. The interdisciplinary nature of the plan to grow chemistry and science and engineering in general at Northwestern through the development of a worldwide presence in nanotechnology was naturally impressive. So was Professor Chad Mirkin's assertion that applications in nanotechnology could make Chicago, in partnership with Northwestern, a world center for nano applications — and a hotbed of enterprise along the lines of Silicon Valley in California.

Bienen's belief in this version of the future resulted in the $34 million Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Hall (formerly the Center for Nanofabrication and Molecular Self-Assembly). But Bienen's engagement in the subject went deeper than greenlighting it or even finding the money. It extended to recruiting, and among distinguished researchers brought to Northwestern was Sam Stupp (GMcC77), a materials scientist then at the University of Illinois who was developing nanotechnology for cutting-edge biomedical applications.

"Henry was instrumental in my final decision [to come to Northwestern]," says Stupp. He tells the story that when he was deciding, he was sitting in a Washington, D.C., hotel bar during a scientific conference. There was a call, and a bartender handed him a telephone. It was Bienen, making the case once again for Northwestern. "My colleagues sitting with me at the time — one of them was a Nobel laureate — were very impressed."

Despite his propensity to collect talented people around him and despite his seemingly magic touch on other people's ideas, Bienen began his academic career traditionally as a scholar and professor. He showed versatility, however, as a graduate student at the University of Chicago when he switched from Soviet to African studies, largely because families could not accompany scholars to Russia. He used his knowledge of the Soviet Union to write about Tanganyika (now Tanzania), which was widely marked as a would-be Leninist state but which lacked, Bienen wrote, anything like an infrastructure that could become sovietized.

By 1972 he was the chair of the politics department at Princeton. "He sort of backed into administration," says his wife, Leigh. "But he discovered that he likes to run things, and he always likes new challenges."

Friends and colleagues say Bienen is a natural leader. "There was always this leadership dimension to Henry. He always liked to be put to the test," says Fouad Ajami, now director of the Middle East Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University. Ajami was a first-year professor under Bienen when they met at Princeton. But throughout Ajami's career — he won the National Humanities Medal in 1996 — he has maintained Bienen as a role model.

Admiration for Bienen comes largely from scholars who have been amazed by a career equally successful in different arenas. "He had done so brilliantly as an academic, and the choice of going into academic administration tapped another dimension of him," Ajami says, but it came naturally. "There are people who run away from decisions. There are people who run toward decisions." Bienen is the latter, according to Ajami.

At Northwestern the president has done what others expected of him, which is to balance opposing forces, a job that many say he has done with remarkable aplomb. Trustee Tim Krauskopf (WCAS84, KSM99), who built a fortune as a software entrepreneur, says universities often choose between someone who can run a billion-dollar business decisively and someone who can advance academic goals with a light touch. "You see in Henry's incredible success someone who can do both," Krauskopf observes. "Henry was able to make financial decisions that were decisive, but at the same time he understood that his role was to influence and not control."

Yet the Bienen presidency has not been crisis-free. There was the Northwestern University Dental School closing in 1998, which was difficult for the University and a crushing blow to the loyal alumni dentists who still lament the decision. In retrospect it was a clean and rumor-free outcome explained in the most reasonable terms: The economics of dental education did not favor long-term excellence.

And then there was tenure and a quick tightening of standards. In fact Bienen and Dumas had the active support of the Board of Trustees when they rejected a number of tenure requests early on. "We used to joke that we needed food tasters," says the president about his and the provost's popularity at the time.

Nevertheless, Bienen did not deflect the anger that came when they raised the tenure bar. One of the most rancorous flare-ups came in Bienen's own field, political science, when a well-regarded faculty member was denied. Bienen's involvement in the decision became public, and the press coverage made the situation awkward. In fact its effect was probably positive. "After some are turned down, everybody is more careful about what they submit," says Donald Perkins, a member of the Northwestern Board of Trustees.

You could call him the "Teflon president" (though no one has) for the way he sheds controversy. He explains his ability to move ahead without getting bogged down in rancor with deadpan modesty: "I have one voice," he says. "I think people appreciate that."

Ajami explains it more lyrically. "His life has always had this supreme clarity," he says. It applies to Bienen's own career path. And it applies to the decisions he makes that affect others. Ajami states what may be a leitmotif. "Henry has an innate optimism," which Ajami (who was born in Lebanon) relates to Bienen's being "thoroughly American in the best sense of the word."

"Being American in the best sense" may also make Bienen an international person in the best sense. Indeed, this characteristic and his being the international affairs dean at Princeton were prominent in his hiring. "We were looking for someone who could internationalize Northwestern," recalls Perkins. "And he's done a lot to bring international students and viewpoints to Evanston and to have Northwestern reach out with operations, such as the new campus in Qatar."

Internationalization is hardly Northwestern's trend alone, as travel and communications have closed the distances between nations and universities. Yet Bienen's priorities were evident from the outset.

"The very first thing I heard about him was that he was an international scholar," notes Lee Huebner (WCAS62), director of the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune.

Huebner, who had a joint appointment at the Medill School and the School of Communication, quickly organized study abroad programs and courses on international journalism and media. "This was always with the sense that this was in line with what the president wanted to happen," he says. "It went more smoothly and there was more enthusiasm as a result."

In fact, there's been a geometric rise in foreign study by undergraduates, especially among engineering and science students who typically didn't consider leaving campus in the past. The president has been directly involved in many programs, suggesting partners in other countries and also proposing useful collaborations within the University. "When you have a president so involved in international issues, it is very easy for someone like me to work," says Dévora Grynspan (WCAS76, G83), assistant to the president for international programs and director of international program development. "He understands what you're talking about."

Bienen's many interests — and willingness to engage them — was proved with surprising power to Professor Sarah Fraser, who arrived in 1996 to teach in the art history department (see "Art for All"). "He is definitely behind the idea of a more international environment and a more interdisciplinary environment," she notes. Fraser got to know Bienen as few young professors can expect to get to know presidents — on a trip to China. Fraser was there to inspect cave shrines in Western China; Bienen was there with his wife and daughter (who speaks Chinese) and with trustee Ann Lurie, who flew the group from Chicago to Western China in her private jet. Bienen quickly showed a knack for the cave paintings, even the subtleties in their style. "The part that blew me away was that his interest was just unparalleled," Fraser says.

Once again Bienen's influence on the professor did not end with a pat on the back. He actively facilitated Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences' development of the Asian and Middle Eastern studies umbrella program with new faculty, an undergraduate major and course work for graduate students in history, art history, language and other departments. "It takes imagination to develop the humanities," Fraser says, largely because the interdisciplinary impulse is not as strong as it is in the sciences.

"One Northwestern" is another example of the interdisciplinary approach led by Bienen. This key initiative, now under way, is an effort to link more closely the life sciences programs on the Evanston campus with the medical programs on the Chicago campus.

All of Bienen's energy, curiosity and passion would be academic without money to fund initiatives. The sterling quality of his administration is that he has undertaken duties as fundraiser in chief with the same energy, curiosity and passion. In fact, from outside the University, Bienen may be best known for presiding over Campaign Northwestern, the five-year fundraising effort that brought $1.55 billion into the University coffers.

In some ways the trustees knew they were getting a fundraiser in chief when they hired Bienen. One of the first questions Patrick Ryan asked all serious candidates was how they liked asking people for money. Most responses ranged from ambivalence to active dislike. Only Bienen said he loved it. It would not take much time for Ryan to learn how much and why.

An early indication came in the first year of his administration when Bienen joined a development representative on a trip to upstate New York to meet alumnus Leonard B. Thomas (WCAS37), who had suggested he might like to make a substantial gift. Thomas was elderly, not in the prime of life (he died in 2003). And it required some sustained work by development to even schedule a visit. But when the president flew (economy class) out to see Thomas in Aurora, N.Y., the two connected almost instantly.

Jennifer Keller, then a Northwestern development officer who also made the trip, saw a master at work. "He has an uncanny ability to discuss the needs of the University while also talking about the donor's interests," recalls Keller, now with another university. The president began by talking about his undergraduate years at nearby Cornell University. By the end of the afternoon he had a promise of a major gift, earmarked partly for athletics, partly unrestricted. (Completed in 1997, the $3.7 million Leonard B. Thomas Athletic Complex is home to the Wildcat field hockey, women's lacrosse and men's and women's soccer teams.)

Gideon Searle (KSM83), a trustee (as were his father and grandfather), sees Bienen as a president who treats the University in entrepreneurial terms. "Henry has a vision for the whole enterprise," says Searle. "He's able to conceptualize, and he sees how the many pieces of a new program go together." It's an impressive quality to have in fundraising and easily discernible by donors, who hear pitches of all kinds from different institutions.

"Fundraising is about building relationships," says Sarah Pearson, vice president for alumni relations and development. What comes through again and again is that the president can create relationships, not just between donors and himself but between donors and the University. He knows the University well enough — understanding the scholarship and knowing the budgets — to explain with knife-like precision where a donor's dollars will go.

"He has clear intellectual knowledge and a vision of the direction and objectives of the various schools," notes Lurie, primary donor for The Robert H. Lurie Medical Research Center. "He sets benchmarks and follows through in a hands-on, timely fashion."

If these are standard qualities of a good college president, Lurie recalls that on their trip to China, "Henry stepped up to the plate and, in order not to insult our hosts, ate a camel paw. … I would describe him as a Renaissance man."

In these ways Bienen met the challenge the board entrusted him with, which was to leave Northwestern, as his predecessor Weber did, stronger than he found it. Finding a new president is not part of the current president's job, but future challenges are as clear to him as they are to anyone. Among them is financial aid to middle-class families. New policies are needed, Bienen says, but not in the form of extending scholarships to families most would consider rich, as some elite institutions are proposing. "The question is how far do you go? Do you want free tuition for everybody?" he says. "We couldn't do it financially."

Asked about the biggest problems for his successor, he quickly cites "undergraduate teaching and undergraduate life." He says he remains a big believer in research and tenure decisions based largely on research. But more and more, faculty don't have time to do both research and teaching. "That doesn't mean that you don't work at it," he says. "But it does take working at it. If you leave it to the market, you might not get the result you want. Markets might force you to offer less and less undergraduate teaching and lighter loads."

In this and other questions Bienen leaves one with the sense that any problem can be resolved with a deliberate mix of patience and purpose. And he tells a story that may illustrate his approach to long-term growth. After he earned his doctorate in 1966, the one place where he applied for a job but got no offer was Northwestern. He went to Princeton instead, where he spent 28 years.

The president admits that old colleagues sometimes mention the irony: that he's now in the corner office at the Rebecca Crown Center. Yet Bienen reveals no particular delight in it. He insists, instead, that the professor who got the faculty job was an excellent choice. The result was that Northwestern got a great political scientist at the time and three decades later a president who was historically well-matched for the institution as a whole.

The lesson is that a dynamic career takes many turns, as his has in moving from the classroom to administration to the presidency of a major university. There's also a lesson in the way it's told: that to honor the achievements of others, and minimize those attributable to oneself, is always a good idea.

A third lesson, or another way of stating all good counsel, is how Bienen's friend Fouad Ajami puts it: "It's that if you do the right thing, and live by it, it will work out."

This could be the plainspoken motto of Henry Bienen's presidency. And for anyone moving forward, it's not a bad way to explain the remarkable growth the University has enjoyed while in his care.

Jay Pridmore, a writer who lives in Lake Forest, Ill., wrote Northwestern University: Celebrating 150 Years (Northwestern University Press, 2000). He is also author of Northwestern University: The Campus Guide (Princeton Architectural Press, 2009), an architectural tour.

For more on the presidency of Henry S. Bienen, including photos and a timeline of his years in office, visit

Tell us what you think. If you have any questions or comments, please e-mail the editors at