David Zarefsky

David's World
Alumnus and former dean considers his fulfilling life at the university by the lake.

by David Zarefsky

I can accept that Northwestern is 150 years old. What's harder to realize is that I now have been at the University almost one-fourth of that time.

I arrived as a freshman in the fall of 1964. I came because of Northwestern's reputation in my field of study. Especially after my first winter, I was sure I wouldn't stay beyond four years. But I'm still here.

My undergraduate experience exceeded expectations. I could take courses in a major right away while also taking general education and elective courses across all four years. I had some outstanding classes from distinguished faculty such as Richard Ellmann in English, Franklyn Haiman in communication studies, David Minar in political science and Richard Leopold in history. The quarter system, while intense (especially without the pass/no pass option or reading week), widened the array of courses I could take and also allowed me to do practice teaching. Life outside the classroom was stimulating if one made it so, but it took effort. For me, active participation on the debate team gave me a sense of close-knit community within the larger University.

As I approached graduation, I thought seriously about teaching at the secondary level. But Northwestern offered me a unique opportunity to pursue graduate work and teach at the same time. Originally the appointment was to be only for a year, while I worked on my master's degree. It was extended another year, and then I received a regular faculty position and directed the debate team. I completed my doctorate and over time rose through the faculty ranks. I find our students a joy to teach and a constant source of stimulation. I also was able to gain administrative experience as chair of my department, associate dean and then for 12 years as dean of my school.

I've been at Northwestern during years of remarkable change. I came when the north end of the lakefill had just been finished. Kresge Centennial Hall was still considered new, and the south lakefill didn't exist. The most obvious change is all the new buildings. They markedly improved the quality of facilities for a student body that's grown only slightly in size. It's hard to imagine Northwestern today without them.

There have been many other changes as well. The curriculum is richer, with new majors and interdisciplinary programs. There are more opportunities for internships and field studies. There are many more cocurricular options from which to choose. Many living units are coed and women's hours are a relic of the past. The faculty is larger and, on average, stronger. There is far more research activity. The University is much better known and respected around the world.

Of all the changes, the most significant came in the mid-1960s, when Northwestern adopted new admission policies. Now students would be admitted without regard to their families' wealth, and financial aid would be provided to students who otherwise couldn't come. The results were immediate: a student body of higher quality and with more diversity by region, economic status, religion and race. These changes enhanced the student experience and led the University to higher aspirations in every area. So, as I often tell alumni, "Today Northwestern is stronger than it's ever been, except when you were here."

I regard Northwestern as a place that seeks not to imitate any other institution but to achieve its own identity and to build on its own strengths. It does not privilege some subjects of study over others but seeks distinction across the sciences, humanities, arts and professions. It is open to the development of new fields of study and to interdisciplinary initiatives. It regards teaching and research as complementary activities. It enables students to find the materials with which to build their adult selves. It finds that libraries, laboratories and technology support but do not replace human interaction. It values integrity and trust. It respects students, faculty, staff, administrators and alumni as members of one community who share responsibility for its success. And it believes that the world and the human condition are improved through the unfettered pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.

Northwestern does not always live up to these values. I have seen us sometimes fall short. But the University is at its best when they are our guideposts. And they will equip us to face the challenges of the new century and to begin our next 150 years.

As for me, people sometimes ask, "Is it really true that you've been at Northwestern your entire adult life?" My answer is always the same.

"Not yet."

David Zarefsky (S68, GS69, 74) is John Evans Professor of Speech and professor of communication studies. From 1988 to 2000 he was dean of the School of Speech.