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Q & A With President Henry S. Bienen

October 4, 2005
Henry S. Bienen

Henry S. Bienen. Photo by Andrew Campbell


President Henry S. Bienen came to Northwestern in 1995 after nearly 30 years at Princeton University, where he was dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Now in his 11th year at the helm, President Bienen is the fourth-longest-serving president in Northwestern’s history. He talked recently about a number of issues, including the University’s goals, what impresses him about the University and his recent teaching experiences.

On the job of University president

This job is always a work in progress. With the help of colleagues and friends, it’s my responsibility to keep moving Northwestern forward. This university is an organic institution, continually aspiring and reaching.

On Northwestern’s goals

Our goals are easy to state and hard to achieve. Basically, we want to get better vis-à-vis our past and creep up on our peers, which is not so easy, of course, because they’re very good too. But it’s not a bad benchmark to try to improve relative to yourself, in this case to be the best Northwestern University we can be.

On a specific goal

We want to continue to do more in research, specifically, in technology transfer. Technology transfer is important because governmental officials at all levels, who have helped secure funds for Northwestern, expect that part of the deal is that we make an impact on the state, region and nation through employment and economic development. What we do in our labs radiates out to society. A university today -- if it ever was -- can no longer be an isolated element. Society is saying to the university, “You get many privileges, including tax exemptions and government funding. But what are you going to do for it? What's the giveback?”

On the expansion of undergraduate research

I think it's important to have an undergraduate student body that’s engaged in research, in one-on-one work with faculty. That doesn’t mean every student will be doing a research project. But we have a number of opportunities: consortia with other local universities, the undergraduate research symposium and undergraduate research journals. This is something Northwestern really cares about, pedagogically because we think it's a good way to teach, but also because we have very good students here who can do high quality research. I’m confident that they can be doing things that are of value to the outside world. And I have no doubt that some are already doing work in the sciences that is worthy of publication.

On what impresses him about Northwestern

What strikes me is the huge menu of things that goes on here, both in teaching and research. For a relatively small place, it’s amazing. And maybe this is because I spent almost 30 years at Princeton, the quintessential arts and sciences college that became a great university. It does what it does very well, but it’s much more homogenous. It doesn’t have schools of law, medicine, business, education, communication, journalism and continuing studies. We have all these things. And were not a Michigan or UCLA -- with 40,000 students -- but a relatively compact place. Yet we still have a broad range of academic opportunities. It’s the great glory of Northwestern.

On teaching

I'm teaching a class in American Studies for the first time this fall. Since I’ve been here, I’ve taught all but maybe two years, mainly in political science and management. I enjoy it because it keeps me in touch with undergraduates in a way different than I otherwise do as president. When I teach – it’s interesting -- students address me as Professor Bienen. I want that. But teaching can also be humbling; I have a Kellogg story. When I decided to teach a particular course, then-Dean Don Jacobs told me they’d use a chit system like they did for Oprah Winfrey. The chit system enables students to assign a certain number of points in order to get in to popular classes. I told him I wanted a class of about 20 students and he could work out whatever registration system he wanted. But on the first night, I walked into class and saw only 15 students sitting there. So I asked the Dean, “What happened to the chits? Where was the demand?” And he said, “What can I tell you?”

On something he’s learned about leadership

To be president of a great university, you must know yourself. And you have to be true to yourself. If you do things that run against the grain of who you are, not only will you be uncomfortable, but you'll also ring false. You have to stake out your strengths and weaknesses and work within those boundaries.

On time pressures

It’s not that every minute of every day is scheduled. But there’s a funny kind of time demand. The more I work on the job, the better my performance. I can spend an infinite amount of time on development. The more people I see, the better. And the more accessible I am to faculty and students, the better. I'll learn more. I'll make better decisions. And yet there are set priorities like program review and the budget cycle, which are very time-consuming. I have in mind some things that I'd like to focus on during my remaining years here. I don’t know how much longer I'll be here. Or maybe I do but I won’t say. I've been here 11 years and I know it won't be another 11, but it’ll be a few more. So I’m time-bound in a sense that I want to accomplish some of the things that I think are most important in moving Northwestern forward from this point.

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