Northwestern President Stepping Down After Years Of Growth And Amid Activist Criticism

During Morton Schapiro’s tenure Northwestern’s stature has grown, but student activists have denounced his handling of racial issues.

Morton Schapiro
Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro. Courtesy of Northwestern University
Morton Schapiro
Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro. Courtesy of Northwestern University

Northwestern President Stepping Down After Years Of Growth And Amid Activist Criticism

During Morton Schapiro’s tenure Northwestern’s stature has grown, but student activists have denounced his handling of racial issues.

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Northwestern University’s president, who led the school during a period of extraordinary growth but faced withering criticism from student activists and some faculty, plans to step down from his post, the university announced on Thursday afternoon.

Morton Schapiro, who has overseen the university since 2009, will leave when his third contract expires in August 2022. The search for his successor will begin soon. Schapiro, formerly the president of WIlliams College, has no immediate plans after his departure from Northwestern.

During Schapiro’s tenure, Northwestern catapulted to among the top ten highest ranked universities in the country, with its applications nearly doubling and its acceptance rate dropping to 7%. At the same time, the university more than doubled its endowment to $12.2 billion, embarked on a building spree and grew funding for sponsored research by 86%.

The university also points to a doubling of underrepresented student groups and to new programs to help students in underserved communities attend college as accomplishments during Schapiro’s terms.

But Schapiro has clashed with student activists and some faculty on campus, most recently over his response to concerns about racial injustice on campus after a summer of unrest.

Last fall, student activists called for his resignation, accusing Shapiro of stifling dissent after a campus flare up about the abolition of university police. He stands by the need for on-campus police. Schapiro says his departure date was scheduled “long ago.”

Schapiro, a labor economist who has continued to teach throughout his time at Northwestern, spoke with WBEZ’s Adriana Cardona-Maguigad about leading a university through a pandemic. He also spoke about activism and diversity on campus and what skills today’s graduates need.

What has the pandemic taught you about managing change and dealing with the unexpected?

I am asked a lot by parents and others about what are the attributes you want imbued in your graduates. And I always say that resilience is one of them and flexibility and being able to look at the evidence and the hard data — that’s what we’ve written books about actually — about actually, not being overcome by rhetoric, but looking at objective evidence.

And as a president you have to do it too, right? You have to realize that, you have to admit when you make a mistake and say ‘I was wrong’ and try something new. We tried to open fully in the fall and then it turned out at the last minute we just couldn’t do it. … You know, some people were literally in their cars driving here, and I felt awful about that. But we didn’t make that same mistake in winter. We opened up in the winter, and it’s gone very well.

How is the pandemic affecting admissions and enrollment at Northwestern and other schools?

There are 4,000 colleges and universities [in the U.S.]. … It is the case that probably for 3,800 of them, they are really worried about enrollment. But for the 200 [like Northwestern, that are highly selective] we are in a very different group [and not worried about enrollment], particularly 10 or 20 of us. … In fact, the last couple of days, we’ve been meeting and reading files, and we’re in a situation here in the spring, believe it or not, that for every student we admit, we have to turn down 24. And if you think that’s the sort of the dream you all have, I can tell you, it’s a nightmare. Because of the 25 kids, there’s probably, at least 10 would probably do well here, and five who are really close, and you can only take one of those five.

My worry is that going forward, there’s been a shake out in higher education that’s been going on … for three decades. If anything, those trends have accelerated during COVID-19 — a lot of great schools with empty spaces. And then there’s a small handful of us who, in our situation, that to take one [applicant], you have to turn down 24.

Students pass through Weber Arch on Northwestern's Evanston campus
Students pass through Weber Arch on Northwestern’s Evanston campus. Courtesy of Northwestern University

What have you done to increase diversity at Northwestern, and what challenges have you encountered in trying to recruit and retain those students?

The challenge is to make sure that everyone who comes here feels like it’s their institution. And that’s been a challenge. Doubling the percentage of the entering undergrads who are members of underrepresented minority groups isn’t all that hard, not when you have a selectivity number like ours. We’ve been able to do that, and we also more than doubled the percentage of first generation [students], from families with income low enough to be eligible for Pell Grants, and our graduation rates are 98%. … So it’s not about admitting or matriculating or graduating; it’s making sure they have the same experience, and they quite frankly don’t.

So you’re saying you need to help these students feel like they’re part of the institution?

I think that’s part of it. … So when we started admitting many more low-income students, we didn’t have all the summer bridge programs like what we have now. So, a number of them just showed up and they were like, ‘Oh, I’m premed and I never took calculus.’ [So, it was like] good luck with that, right? So you need to do a lot of things. Otherwise it’s sort of unfair to just bring them in.

So we have diversified the student body by any metric pretty aggressively over 12 years and will continue for the rest of my term. And I know my successor will build on the progress that we’ve made. But there are a lot of corollary things that one has to do … because a public high school in an underserved area [doesn’t] have the same expenditures per student as schools in wealthier neighborhoods. [You can’t] expect them to make up the difference, particularly when many of them are still helping support families and their younger siblings. And it’s not simply enough to say, ‘OK, you’re coming for free.’ ”

I mean there’s more to feeling that you belong than being able to afford. There’s a lot of other things, and we’ve learned that and we continue to work on.

There’s been a push by some students to disband campus police that you have rejected and disagreed with. You’ve been heavily criticized for your response.

If we didn’t have Northwestern police, then our campus down in Chicago would be controlled obviously by the Chicago Police Department, and I don’t think our students, faculty, staff, want that. And the same here in Evanston, with Evanston Police Department … but you probably want your university police.

But I’ll tell you what we’ve done: So, if somebody was not feeling well or something, we would send a police officer to the dorm. That can be very intimidating. We don’t do that anymore. Now we send somebody from Student Affairs. We don’t send police cars anymore, with somebody with a gun. … A lot of police are put in situations for which they weren’t trained.

A lot of what the Northwestern University Police have done are not things that police need to do, and they’re not going to do them going forward. So that’s what I learned.

Is there anything you learned about better communicating with students who don’t feel safe?

We have community dialogues. We have another one coming next week. I have regular office hours. … I’m always learning, and I always love as an educator to learn more. I read a magnificent book by Bettina Love recently that has a very extreme view from where I was coming from, but she made some great points. I read Angela Davis’ famous book on abolishing the police. … I’m in conversations with students almost every day, and I’m always learning from them. I hope they learn from me, too.

For the first time, we have a chief diversity officer, Robin Means Coleman. That was never the case before. I wish it had been. If it had been earlier, things probably would have gone better. It’s great to have her there, but I don’t want to put everything on her shoulders, even though she’s brilliant. It’s on everybody’s shoulders if you’re going to move forward.

What qualities do you hope Northwestern graduates leave with?

I think what’s most important when they graduate is you want them to realize that their education is not over. You want to equip them with the tools to educate themselves for a lifetime, but also with the humility that goes along with realizing you’re not fully educated.

And we want them to be happy and to be nice. One of the things I love about Northwestern — my wife and I spent our whole lives on the coasts — and we decided, back in ‘09 to come to the Midwest, Part of it was that we had heard that these Midwestern values of civility and humility and respect were really important, and they are. We get so many of our undergrads and other students who come from the coast, and then come here and they see Midwest — there’s something nice about the Midwest

They might return back to New York City and or LA, but they might take a bit of the Midwest with them, and that makes me proud.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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