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Conversation Starters

President Morton Schapiro leads first campus dialogue on state of the University

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April 15, 2010 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel
Video produced by Matt Paolelli

Listen to President Schapiro's opening remarks

The much-awaited conversations with President Morton Schapiro about the state of the University got off to a great start April 15 in the McCormick Tribune Center Forum and April 16 at The Great Room on the Evanston campus.

In the first two of four informal conversations with the Northwestern community, the president shared what was on his mind: Northwestern’s strategic plan, the University’s finances, growth opportunities, admissions, financial aid and diversity.

As promised, he also listened. Most of the 90-minute forums were devoted to questions from faculty, staff and students. Some were submitted ahead of time and read by members of NUSAC (Northwestern University Staff Advisory Council), the organizer of the event, and others were asked by those in attendance. 

The relaxed back-and-forth forums showcased President Schapiro’s signature warmth and wit as well as his seriousness about higher education issues, especially as they relate to Northwestern. He is an author or editor of numerous books on higher education economics.

The questions ran the gamut, from the quality of student advising to staff employment, to treatment of non-tenure track faculty to diversity issues.

Strategic Plan 
"I feel very optimistic that we are going to come up with a compelling strategic plan that we can sell, that you all feel you have some ownership over, and that is going to propel us over the next decade. The plan from the last decade served this place extraordinarily well.”

(Focusing on areas inside and outside the classroom -- research, teaching, globalization, diversity, University culture, civic participation, strategic partnerships -- the strategic plan is expected to be completed by the end of the calendar year.)

Warming up Town/Gown Relations
“The good news is that Liz Tisdahl, the fabulous town mayor, Wally Bobkiewicz, the town manager, and I have been working very closely together with law enforcement and Eugene Sunshine and others at Northwestern,” President Schapiro said. “In a short period of time, we have really worked hard to build bridges to great success.”

“I always remind everybody that we are really lucky to be in Evanston,” he said. “I love this community, the diversity of the community, the entertainment and culinary options, on and on and on. But I also remind people that Evanston is lucky to have Northwestern. We are the engine of growth and prosperity for the economy.”

(President Schapiro’s success in breaking the ice was showcased in a recent Chicago Tribune article titled “Evanston, Northwestern tensions crumble after cookie gambit.” As a welcoming gift Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl and her grandchildren baked cookies for President Schapiro and his family. And the president returned Tisdahl’s Tupperware in a bag placed outside her office one morning before anyone had arrived.)

Diversity
President Schapiro emphasized the need to make the necessary institutional commitment to attract those from underrepresented groups to Northwestern – and make them feel welcome.

“As the president I wouldn’t want to just be held to the numbers,” he said. “The numbers are getting better, and I think over the next couple of years we’re going to be a leader among our peer institutions. But that’s the easy thing.”

What is tough, he said, is making everyone feel they have the same stake in the Northwestern family. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said. “I know the numbers will be better, but I think the sense of community is going to grow as well.”

Transgender issues
One of the more interesting things in President Schapiro’s eight months at Northwestern, he said, was spending an afternoon in Safe Space training on sexuality.

“It was absolutely fascinating,” he said. “I thought I knew a lot about that area, but I’ll tell you I learned… It just opened my eyes to a part of the world that I was embarrassed to have been so, retroactively, I think, insensitive to. But not anymore…I highly recommend that training to everybody. It was beautifully run.”

What sets Northwestern apart
“We have aspects of the best of a whole range of different institutions, and I think that’s perhaps what makes us special,” President Schapiro said. He mentioned interdisciplinary teaching and research, the diverse offerings of Chicago and Evanston and the University’s size, which is big enough to do almost everything but small enough that Northwestern interacts more as a community.” 

What sets Northwestern apart, according to a McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science student who spoke at the forum, is its incredible connections -- between people, cultures, the academy, industry and so on.

Growing percentage of non-tenure-track faculty
“When you have a larger and larger share of all your full-time teaching taught by people outside the tenure system, you have a real obligation to them to make sure they are supported and listened to. This is a very important question for the future of Northwestern.”

Interaction with staff
President Schapiro acknowledged that he has a much better sense of what it’s like to be a faculty member and even a student, adding that he eats in the student dorms four nights a week.

“I love to meet with staff groups,” he said. He asked NUSAC to figure out ways for him to meet more frequently with staff.

University finances
Unlike most of our peer institutions, and much of private industry, Northwestern is in great shape financially, President Schapiro said. “We’re better positioned than virtually anyone.” Few peer institutions, he said, take as little as 18 percent of all their operating revenue from the endowment.

Growth opportunities
"Given that we only get 18 percent of all of our operating revenue from the endowment, given that we’re really aggressive, I think this is the time for us to make moves, and in many areas we are making moves,” he said. “We’ve been pretty opportunistic in hiring and holding on to faculty that might otherwise be bitten off by rival institutions. We’re selectively investing in excellence, and I think it’s going to serve us extremely well."

Selectivity
The desirability of a Northwestern degree is higher than ever, he said, with a record number of applications for undergraduate admissions topping 27,000 this year. Because of the current economic conditions, a key challenge is making Northwestern accessible to students from all income levels.

Community
In response to a question from an undergraduate student about building a more cohesive Northwestern community, President Schapiro said that he felt it was important to try to reduce those divisions. He cited the John Legend concert that occurred last fall as an example of something that attracted students from across the campus. “We need more events that bring everyone together,” he said.

Aid for international students
President Schapiro said that he would like Northwestern to increase the number of international students but noted that it was not feasible to provide need-blind financial aid to international students, as the University does for U.S. students. “We want to attract the best students in the world and we may want to do more in terms of financial aid for international students,” he said.

At the end of the April 15 talk, a librarian caused a chuckle by saying that typically in a forum like this you hardly ever hear the word “library.” President Schapiro quickly said “library,” and then got serious. 

“I think libraries are more important now in this era where it is so hard to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong, when everybody Googles, and there’s no person out there who validates the truth of anything,” he said. “The role of information technology, particularly libraries, is greater now than it has ever been.

Two more conversations with the president are scheduled. The remaining events take place on the Chicago campus, at 2 p.m. April 27 in Wieboldt Hall, Room 147, and at 9:30 a.m. April 28 in Thorne Auditorium.