Bienen has tried to ‘reach out’

Alexandra Finkel

University President Henry Bienen’s office in the Rebecca Crown Center may have to be cleared out by August, but he will still have a reason to come back to Northwestern. His wife, Leigh Bienen, will continue teaching at the NU School of Law and he will have an office downtown just steps away from the apartment where he is moving.

Bienen has served as University President for 14 years while the average tenure of a university president is about eight years, according to the American Council on Education. In his time at NU, he has increased the endowment, added 15 buildings as well as a satellite campus in Qatar and redefined NU’s place in higher education.

Before arriving at NU, Bienen served at Princeton University as both professor and dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

William Bowen, former Princeton University president, said when the NU search for president was launched, he recommended Bienen for the position.

“I thought it was a great fit,” said Bowen, who stepped down as president in 1988. “His skills, his scholarly strengths, his belief in teaching as well as scholarship and ability to fundraise worked in his favor.”

And when Bienen decided to move from the East Coast to the Midwest, Bowen didn’t offer any guidance.

“He didn’t need advice,” he said. “He understood exactly what the job entailed.”


Bienen took office January 1, 1995 and succeeded Arnold Weber, who had served as university president since 1985.

He was four months in when controversy struck. In April, the Asian American Advisory Board staged a hunger strike as well as numerous rallies and demanded an Asian American studies program. The program was eventually founded, in 1999, when the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences established an Asian American studies minor. Minority issues have continued to be prominent, specifically black enrollment, which has dropped in the past few years, but saw increases for the class of 2013.

“We’ve always tried to reach out in my time and before my time to lots of different communities and constituencies with varying degrees of success,” Bienen said. “But I wouldn’t say it’s always been successful.”

But 1995 was also the year the Wildcats made it to the Rose Bowl; the game was in 1996. Although the Wildcats lost, it was that game that started a conversation with Eugene Sunshine, NU senior vice president for business and finance, Sunshine said.

While Sunshine served a similar post at Johns Hopkins University, Johns Hopkins tried to recruit Bienen for university provost, Sunshine said. He met Bienen several times through meetings, and although Bienen never accepted the position, he did keep in touch with Sunshine.

“I wrote him a letter after the Rose Bowl, and he wrote me back remembering me from the days we met at Hopkins,” Sunshine said. “I told him I was an NU graduate and one thing led to another and he asked me to join him here.”

Sunshine, who arrived in 1997, said he has been most impressed by Bienen’s handling of the budget.

“There are other presidents who have great ideas and can get things accomplished but don’t do it with an eye in preserving the university in a strong financial state,” Sunshine said. “Every day you’re trying to figure out how to move the university forward, almost all of which costs money and the balancing act is figuring out how to do those things, but doing so in a manner that doesn’t jeopardize the financial state of the university whether in the present or in the future.”

Bienen at least doubled the endowment during through heavy fundraising, Sunshine said.

“I worked hard, I raised a lot of money, I broke my butt to do that,” Bienen said. “But I also got lucky with Lyrica, and the markets were great during part of that.”

Such accomplishments were not solely his, Bienen said.

“Running a university is not a one-person show,” he said.

Michael Mills, associate provost for university enrollment, has worked with Bienen for the past four years, during which Bienen has helped admissions “tremendously,” he said.

“Henry has been very generous of his funding for undergraduate research and the fellowships office,” Mills said. “Every year more and more fellowships news makes it front and center to high school students. That’s been really helpful because when we’re trying to be regarded on the same level as Harvard, people want to see evidence, and that’s the best evidence we can offer up.”

Princeton Prof. Jeremiah P. Ostriker, who met Bienen in seventh grade, agreed that he has helped establish NU as one of the premier research universities in the country.

“NU has moved up in the world of higher education,” said the former Princeton provost. “The intellectual standards, the financial capabilities, the quality of the faculty. I could go on and on.”

But NU is a work in progress, Bienen said.

“It’s not fixed. It doesn’t stay, and you always need more, so there’s nothing about the university which I think one can take for granted,” Bienen said. “It’s a great university, but it’s really a relative newcomer to this elite status.”

Bienen said there were decisions he regretted.

“There were opportunities missed,” he said. “There were things that weren’t done quickly enough that should have been if I were more ruthless, maybe.”

Bienen will officially step down Aug. 31, 2009.

And many things are still up in the air. He has yet to announce what he’s doing next. He still can’t decide if he’s going to write a memoir. And he doesn’t know if he’ll ever move into that office downtown.

But he will be back, though he doesn’t plan on giving his two cents to incoming University President Morton Schapiro.

“I don’t want to be in Mr. Schapiro’s hair – I want him to have a completely clean slate,” Bienen said. “But my expectation is that, at some point in the future, I would come back here.”

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Related:Bienen announces retirement 3/4/08Tribute to be held for outgoing Bienen, Ryan 5/19/09