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Henry Bienen to Retire as Northwestern University President

President Henry S. Bienen plans to retire from his position effective Aug. 31, 2009, announced Patrick G. Ryan, chair of the University's board of trustees. Read President Bienen's letter to the community.

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March 3, 2008 | by Alan K. Cubbage
For a copy of President Bienen's letter to the Northwestern community, a downloadable photograph and additional information, go to www.northwestern.edu/Bienenpresidency.

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University President Henry S. Bienen, who has led the University to increased academic prominence, financial strength and athletic success, plans to retire from his position effective Aug. 31, 2009, announced Patrick G. Ryan, chair of the University's board of trustees.

Bienen, 68, was elected the 15th president of Northwestern on June 13, 1994, and took office on Jan. 1, 1995. During his tenure, Northwestern faculty and students received numerous academic awards, the endowment quintupled, applications for admission skyrocketed and the University's reputation grew both nationally and internationally.

"Henry Bienen has had an extraordinary impact on Northwestern University," Ryan said. "His academic leadership has helped attract outstanding scholars and students to the University and his enthusiasm for fundraising and financial acumen have provided the foundation for this institution's remarkable success."

In a letter to the Northwestern community, Bienen said, "I continue to enjoy my job immensely, but I truly believe that it is important for institutions to be refreshed regularly with new leadership.

"I have been privileged to work with many, many outstanding Northwestern faculty, students, staff, alumni and trustees," Bienen added. "It has been an honor to serve as Northwestern's president – and a great experience."

Highlights of Bienen's presidency include:
  • Applications for admission to Northwestern skyrocketed. Undergraduate applications for fall 1995, the year before Bienen came, totaled just fewer than 13,000. Northwestern this year received more than 25,000 applications, or almost double that of 12 years ago.
  • Average SAT scores for entering freshmen improved from 1272 (fall 1996) to 1422 (fall 2007), a gain of 150 points.
  • The number of National Merit Scholars increased substantially. This year's freshman class had 249 Merit Scholars – the third highest in the nation and a record number for Northwestern.
  • The University has placed a major emphasis on creating opportunities for undergraduate research, as well as expanded programs in the schools and faculty labs. At the annual undergraduate research symposium this year, 135 students presented their work.
  • Research funding from outside sources has grown from $173 million to approximately $416 million.
  • Northwestern's endowment has more than quintupled from $1.4 billion in 1995 to more than $7 billion.
  • The University has built major new scientific research buildings on both campuses, new classroom and faculty office buildings, and two undergraduate residence halls; has completely revamped and upgraded Northwestern's athletic facilities; and has undertaken significant improvements to many other academic buildings.
  • Northwestern students have received one Rhodes scholarship, 10 Marshall Scholarships, nine Gates Cambridge Scholarships and numerous other competitive awards.
  • In 1997 only 4 percent of undergraduates studied abroad. Today 30 percent go abroad.
  • A total of 17 athletic teams have won Big Ten championships, including three in football and an unprecedented nine straight in women's tennis. In addition, Northwestern has captured three straight NCAA national championships in women's lacrosse. During his tenure, Northwestern's football team has gone to five post-season bowl games.
  • The University successfully completed a $1.55 billion fundraising campaign.
"Northwestern has been extremely fortunate to have Henry Bienen as its president for more than a decade," said Alan Wolfson, president of the Northwestern Alumni Association and a 1980 graduate of Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. "The University has gained stature both nationally and internationally, and a Northwestern degree has become more valuable, thanks to his leadership. The entire Northwestern alumni family wishes Henry and his wife Leigh all the best in their future endeavors."

In 2005 Bienen was one of the first three university presidents awarded the Carnegie Corporation Academic Leadership Award for innovative leadership in higher education. The honor carries a $500,000 award for the institution and recognizes leaders of institutions of higher education who have demonstrated an abiding commitment to liberal arts and who have initiated and supported curricular innovations, including development of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary programs that aim to bridge the gulf between the theoretical and the practical.

"Henry Bienen has been a magnificent president of Northwestern. Henry's intelligence, capacity to see the large picture, entrepreneurial gifts, enthusiasm and ability to rally the troops have all served him – and Northwestern – remarkably well," said William Bowen, former president of the Mellon Foundation and former president of Princeton University.

"The progress Northwestern has made during Henry's term in office speaks for itself, and no one can doubt that he deserves a great deal of the credit for what has been accomplished," Bowen added. "Henry's integrity, directness and candor are, to my way of thinking, a model for leaders of higher education. He has believed strongly in pursuing both excellence in all of its dimensions and greater inclusiveness. The challenge now for Northwestern is to build on what he has done – and on what he has done in partnership with Leigh, who is an equally remarkable person."

Prior to taking the helm at Northwestern, Bienen was the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor and dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. He began his academic career as an assistant professor at Princeton in 1966.

If he completes his term as planned, Bienen will have held the office for more than 14 years, making him the third-longest-serving president in Northwestern's 157-year history. That longevity is unusual in higher education, where the average tenure of university presidents is approximately eight years, according to the American Council on Education.

Bienen's wife, Leigh Bienen, a senior lecturer at Northwestern's School of Law, also has been highly involved in both the University community and arts and culture in the Chicago area. She serves on the Illinois death penalty commission and is vice president of the board of directors of Lookingglass Theatre Company and is a board member of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern's law school.

"Leigh has been a crucial partner with me and has made her own terrific contributions to the University and the Chicago area through her involvement in a variety of activities," Bienen said.

In his letter to the community, Bienen noted that he planned to continue to work on several key initiatives. "There is still a great deal to accomplish and I intend to be quite busy in the next 15 months. We will finalize plans for the new School of Music building, we will implement our enhanced financial aid program for students and we will continue our efforts in several curricular initiatives, including intensifying the internationalization of the University. I will be working with many of you to move these programs forward," he said.

Within the University, Bienen is known as a tireless fundraiser, a keen recruiter of faculty and a devoted fan of Northwestern athletics. He never misses a football game, either home or away. His frequent attendance at tennis matches, lacrosse games and other sports, as well as his often-vocal support of the men's basketball team, have made him a familiar figure at campus athletic events. In addition, as a competitive squash player, Bienen has played against several generations of the University's club squash team, "who seem to be getting faster each year," he noted.

"One of the great benefits of being president of Northwestern has been the opportunity to get to know students, faculty members, staff and alumni in a variety of different ways. I've enjoyed my interactions with almost all of them, even when I'm chasing one of them around the squash court."

Bienen also serves on the board of directors of the Bear Stearns Companies Inc. He is a member of the board of directors of the Council on Foreign Relations, serving on the executive committee and chairing the nominating and governance committee. He is a member of the board of directors of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and serves on its executive committee. A member of the Argonne National Laboratory's Board of Governors, Bienen serves on the board's executive and nominating committees.

Other board and trustee memberships include JSTOR, Rasmussen College and Steppenwolf Theatre. Bienen is past chair of the executive committee of the Association of American Universities and is a member the American Political Science Association and the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

Ryan said that he will appoint a search committee, which will include trustees, faculty, students, staff and alumni. The committee will be chaired by William Osborn, a 1969 graduate of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a 1973 graduate of the Kellogg School of Management, chair of the Board of Trustees budget committee and chairman of the Northern Trust Corp., Chicago.