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President Schapiro's Inaugural Address

October 9, 2009 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel
When he took the podium, President Morton Schapiro talked about higher education and environmental sustainability, two topics for which he has great passion. Photo by Peter Barreras

Listen to President Morton Schapiro's inaugural address

Inaugural Address

By Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro

October 9, 2009

Thank you so much for those kind words.  They leave me excited and inspired.  I pledge to do whatever I can to justify the faith you have placed in me.

Inaugurations only seem to honor an individual; they actually celebrate institutions.  I'll begin with some personal remarks and then turn to Northwestern and the opportunities that lie ahead.

At commencement ceremonies I always remind the graduates that they are very fortunate to be where they are at that moment, and that they should be sure to take the time to thank their teachers, their friends and especially, their family.  Without the help of so many, there's no way they would be there on that glorious day.

The same is very true for me.  I have been blessed.  My wife Mimi, and my children Matt, Alissa and Rachel have kept me well grounded whenever my head might swell with success, and, when I mess up, they remind me that there's more to life than my day job.  My parents and Mimi's parents have been an unending source of support for us both, as has the rest of our family.  It's fitting at a university to make special mention of having been taught and encouraged by some marvelous mentors, colleagues, and friends, during my undergraduate education at Hofstra, to my graduate years at Penn, to my later life as a professor.  In particular, Dick Easterlin, my thesis advisor more than thirty years ago, has been a constant presence in my life ever since.  A brilliantly innovative economist, he personifies to me the model of a scholar/teacher.  Bill Bowen has shown that one can employ transforming administrative skill, as he did as president of Princeton and later the Mellon Foundation, while being an amazingly productive and influential scholar in his "spare" time.  And Mike McPherson, my long-time friend and co-author, demonstrates the truth in the advice I often give faculty members at the beginning of their academic careers - "find a co-author who's a lot smarter than you are."  Dick, Bill and Mike have set a standard that I can't hope to achieve, but one to which I continue to aspire.

I recognize too so many of the people with whom I have worked during a decade at USC and two decades at Williams -- faculty, staff, trustees, and most of all, students.  What a gift it is to learn alongside some of our nation's most talented young men and women.  And it means the world to me to look out in the audience and see so many dear friends who took the time to be here today.

On this joyous day, I naturally also think about extraordinary people who have touched me throughout my life, but who have passed on.  My grandparents.  Mimi's grandmother, who set us up on a blind date 26 years ago next month.  So far so good.  My father-in-law, a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law with a remarkable sense of humor.  He used to sign his letters, Edward Rothman, Harvard 45, Yale nothing.  Henry Antosciewetz, a USC mathematician who was the epitome of a European gentleman.  Peter Lipton, the dearest of friends, a spectacular philosopher at Cambridge University, a role model for me in his deep commitment to his faith, and the best teacher I have ever seen in my life.  I wish they were with us today.

Zikhronam livrakhah -- May their memory be a blessing.

And now this new chapter in my life, Northwestern.  I'm honored to follow Henry Bienen as president.  I had the pleasure of introducing him at a session held at the Aspen Institute this past June.  I pointed out that when I heard that Henry had decided to step down as president, I thought to myself, "I pity the poor fool who is going to try to fill his giant shoes."  I'm also excited to share a stage with Tom Friedman, a person of tremendous courage and vision.  You are such an inspiration to me.

I don't view inauguration speeches as the place to lay out grand strategic plans, especially since I've been part of this community for all of six weeks.  I've mainly been listening rather than talking, and I'll continue to do so for some time before I feel qualified to present my thoughts about the Northwestern of the future.  I do, however, have strong feelings about higher education in general that are based on my research and on my thirty years as a faculty member, including fifteen as an administrator.

I know that with the ample resources afforded to those of us at Northwestern and at similar institutions - resources that are financial, reputational, and most of all human - we must always remember the adage that with privilege comes responsibility.

While Northwestern is one of those schools often associated with the word "elite", this doesn't have to mean that we are "elitist" as well.  As a student of the history of American higher education, I am sobered to recall how the most prestigious colleges and universities have been far from immune from the popular prejudices of the day.  Religion, race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation and class have until quite recently been criteria to exclude talented potential students from the economic and social benefits of an education at many of our institutions.  In a world where myriad forces push society toward stratification, higher education must always provide opportunity.  Recent efforts aimed at opening our campuses to students from a wider range of backgrounds must be encouraged.  To do less is to fail in our public mission.

And while we properly applaud any success in attracting students, faculty, and staff who previously would have been excluded, let's not fool ourselves - once they arrive on campus, the hardest work begins.  We have a long way to go before our institutions can be considered truly inclusive.  I'm not talking about tolerance.  People don't want to be tolerated; they want to be full members of the community.  All of us deserve to be at an institution that's sensitive to our needs and to our aspirations.

The values of a university are revealed not in its words but in its actions.  It's no coincidence that Tom Friedman is up here today, and that our new undergraduates were given his most recent book.   The range of activities that Northwestern devotes to environmental issues is astounding.  But this is an area where it's impossible to do too much.  I've lived in this country all of my life and the environmental degradation that my generation has witnessed and implicitly approved sometimes makes me embarrassed to face my three children.  I've also spent a good deal of time in Africa and Asia, where the pursuit of economic gain has too often relegated environmental concerns to an afterthought.  Once developing countries are rich enough, the story goes, they can afford to care more about the environment.  But I am one of many economists who doesn't find that argument to be very compelling.  There's a moral and an economic imperative not to delay.  And Northwestern needs to help lead those efforts.

Why should the academy be at the forefront?  One lesson from the recent economic turmoil is that our institutions are even more important than we had thought.  Great companies come and go.  But great colleges and universities are here to stay.  Our missions differ in many ways, but academe is linked by a common thread.  Our non-profit status mandates that we promote the public good.  That we must do, and do well.  Whether through providing opportunity, fostering global development, increasing environmental awareness, or through our many scholarly and artistic achievements, we must be explicit in the tradeoffs we make, and efficient in our use of resources.  At Northwestern, we should always ask whether anything we do can be done at the highest level.  If not, we must think long and hard about whether to do it at all, or to instead reallocate resources to areas with greater promise.

We can applaud all about Northwestern that makes us so proud, but we must never, never, be complacent.  We provide an excellent undergraduate education within the context of a complex research university, but we owe it to our students to be obsessed with their experience, both inside the classroom, and also where so much of their education takes place -- in the dorms and at the student center, on the stages and on the playing fields.  We justifiably celebrate artistic expression, scientific achievement, community outreach, and so much more, but we must be careful whenever possible to identify our desired outcomes and to hold ourselves accountable in our progress toward meeting them.

In this place of learning, we rejoice in the range and excellence of our programs:  in the arts and sciences, business, communication, education and social policy, engineering, journalism, law, medicine, and music.  We are a community of faculty and staff; undergraduates, graduate and professional students, and post-docs; actors and scientists; world-class athletes and world-class musicians;  recent high school graduates beginning their college careers and older continuing studies students returning to theirs; and 240,000 alumni out there changing the world.  From right here in Evanston to distant Qatar.  And with Chicago at our doorstep, we benefit from and contribute to that great city's increasing prominence.  In all we do, we are united in our core values of deep intellectual curiosity, commitment to achievement in teaching, research and service, and most of all, immutable integrity. 

Many fabulous opportunities lie ahead.  As we celebrate the centennial of Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago with our exhibit right here in Deering Library, I remind us of his words:  "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood...Make big plans...aim high in hope and work."  I see a community working as one to reach ever greater heights.  I see a university that reflects the loftiest of all ideals.  May Northwestern help lead the way in creating a safer, more just, more enlightened world -- one that we can pass along with pride to future generations.

I am absolutely thrilled to join you on this journey.

Thank you.

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