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President Says 'Sky is the Limit'

President Schapiro says strategic focus will make a truly great university even better

May 25, 2011 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel
Produced by Matt Paolelli

Listen to the complete conversation with President Morton Schapiro

EVANSTON, Ill. --- In a world beset by so much uncertainty, President Morton Schapiro shared an enthusiastic and optimistic glimpse of the state of the University today in his second public dialogue with the entire Northwestern community this year.

Seated on stage in the McCormick Tribune Center Forum on the Evanston campus, President Schapiro led off the casual conversation with the progress that has been made drafting a strategic plan that will be the basis for a capital campaign and serve as a blueprint for enhancing Northwestern’s comparative advantages.

The strategic process, he stressed throughout the conversation, amplified Northwestern’s extraordinary advantages. “The more I learn as I complete almost now two years as president of Northwestern, I'm prouder to have that role,” he said. “I think absolutely the sky is the limit.“

On a dark and stormy day, he delivered introductory remarks before answering audience and online questions as part of the Conversation with the President, the sixth since he began his presidency. About 80 people were in the audience, while more than 200 watched on the web.

The Northwestern advantages President Schapiro enumerated included a record number of applications, with a record number of highly academically accomplished students admitted this year; one of the most diverse incoming classes, socioeconomically, ethnically and racially; researchers whose pace doesn’t slow after tenure is reached; an institution set apart by faculty who excel both in teaching and research; an "obsession with undergraduate education"; a healthy endowment; being the recipient of an increasing number of coveted research dollars; increasing financial aid; and Northwestern’s undersold “location, location, location,” both in Chicago and Evanston. 

The strategic plan, President Schapiro said, will capitalize on such advantages, and Northwestern largely will continue to do what it does well, rather than heading down a brand new path. Why? “It’s simply because I don’t know a single measure that would indicate that we’re on the wrong path,” President Schapiro said. “We’re doing better against our peers in virtually every measure of anything we do at Northwestern University.”

The strategic plan, he said, is designed to be specific, yet flexible, and realistic, “not a dusty tome on somebody’s shelf.“

“We’re going to make sure that we can sell it,” President Schapiro said. “We’re proud of what we’ve done and are redoubling some of our bets. By virtually any measure, we’re pretty happy with where we are.”

That doesn’t mean complacency, especially when it comes to diversity. Schapiro, who called diversity one of his top priorities during his inauguration, said it will be a major emphasis of the strategic plan.

“The myth that you have to sacrifice academic excellence to get a more diverse student body is just that, a myth,” Schapiro said. “And when diverse faculty, students and staff get to Northwestern, “you have to make sure we have a truly inclusive environment where everyone can thrive,” he said. “That’s much harder to do. It’s much easier to get your numbers up, check off those boxes.” Everybody truly needs to feel ownership, and his commitment to making that happen, he said, is unequivocal.

More highlights from Conversation with the President:

Keeping the strategic plan specific but flexible

Nine areas not unique to a particular school are the focus of the strategic plan. “We were looking for things that transcend beyond individual schools,” President Schapiro said. That includes, for example, design, being done at Feinberg, McCormick and Weinberg, and global health. “We looked at areas that are not particular to a school but are strategic bets that we can make for the University over the next 10 years,” he said.

Maintaining status as leading research institution while focusing on undergraduate education

Northwestern, President Schapiro, said is among a very small group of elite research institutions that truly are focused on undergraduate education. “I think we, along with Princeton and a few others, are going to define that space,” he said.

Great researchers, great teachers

President Schapiro talked about reading files of 13 faculty members who were just promoted. “It’s amazing how research active they are immediately after getting tenure,” he said. But what amazed him most “was the vast majority of them are very serious undergraduate teachers.”

Strategic plan emphasis on Northwestern’s location in Chicago and Evanston

“Evanston is one of the great college and university towns in America,” President Schapiro said. I would take Evanston -- this wonderful town on the lake -- over any other [peer] schools that I mentioned earlier.” When I think about what a great city Evanston is – you can go out of this building and you can see downtown Chicago -- I love that. We can capitalize on that more.”

Undergraduate admission as a metric of success

“This is a school that five years ago had 16,000 applicants,” President Schapiro said. “We had 31,000 this year.” He pointed to “the number of brilliant young men and women from the best public and private high schools in the world who want to come to Northwestern, as demonstrated by the fact that they take themselves off the market and apply early. And we’re not early action where you can shop the market in the spring, we’re early decision.” The number of students deemed as “academic ones,” who have close to perfect SATs and ACTs, “kids who not only could get into a range of Ivies, but have a real good shot at the big four, Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Stanford, said, ‘No, I want to go to Northwestern. I’m taking myself off the market.’” By any measure, he said, “We’re a very hot school.”

Living wage campaign

In response to a question from the audience, President Schapiro said Northwestern is willing to work with subcontractors to try to ensure better conditions and wages for workers. “We are after better wages and living conditions and work conditions for our workers whether they are the 6,000 who work directly for us or the 600 or so in Evanston who work for subcontractors,” he said. “Even though they are not technically our workers, they look like our workers, they act like our workers, and we should treat them as much as possible as our workers.” However, he said the University did not plan to create a committee to implement a living wage, as a recent faculty senate resolution requested.

Provost Daniel Linzer also responded to a question about diversity

“First of all, we’re an academic institution,” Linzer said. “So how do we embed principles of diversity in what we do in our mission? Well, one, we create new academic programs that focus on diversity.” He talked about the expansion of African American studies and Latino studies and the doctoral program in African American studies, from which the first students are graduating this year. To address research issues, he said, “We created the Center on the Science of Diversity and the Center for African American History. He also mentioned a new program for the study of human sexuality and sexual identity being led by two new faculty members, Steve Epstein and Hector Carrillo. They are putting together a broad, multi-department, multi-school approach to issues about sexual identity.

Linzer also talked about efforts to focus on community in addressing diversity. “Police Chief Lewis, who is standing in the back, has put together a group that meets with students, faculty and staff to think about how we create an inclusive culture where people feel welcome at spots anywhere across the campus,” he said. Linzer also talked about the reinvigoration of multicultural student affairs. And he mentioned the $2.5 million he put aside this year as an endowed fund to ensure ongoing, recurrent support for diversity initiatives.

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