Board of Trustees’ William Osborn a longtime wildcat

Jessica Allen

William Osborn’s connections to Northwestern run deep.

Selected last year to be NU’s chairman of the Board of Trustees, Osborn’s Wildcat ties began with family legacy and continued with two degrees and a long history of involvement on various University boards. Now Osborn is drawing on these experiences to help the transition of a new University president and direct NU in its next planning process.

“Bill Osborn is a very special guy,” University President Morton O. Schapiro told The Daily last week. “He’s an incredible business leader … incredibly knowledgeable person in terms of nonprofits.”

Osborn has served as executive officer of the Northern Trust Corporation, director of Caterpillar Inc., Tribune Company and Abbott Laboratories and chairman of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association.

Throughout his career he has maintained his “deep affection” for NU, Osborn said.

“That’s a real attribute in that when you really care about an organization, you’re not only mentally and strategically involved, your emotions are in it,” he said.

THE MAN BEHIND THE SUIT

Osborn (WCAS ’69, Kellog’73) hails from the small town of Culver, Ind. During his time as an undergraduate student at NU, he studied political science and history.

Rich Dean, a trustee who graduated from NU’s undergraduate business school in 1969, said he met Osborn within the first few days of their freshman year. The two lived in the same dorm and connected through Osborn’s roommate, he said.

“We always saw the leadership qualities of Bill on campus,” Dean said.

They both became involved as officers in fraternities: Dean in Phi Delta Theta and Osborn in Sigma Alpha Epsilon, which were next door to each other, he said.

Dean said he hesitates to label Osborn as a “good old Indiana farm boy, but he does have that background.”

After graduation Osborn entered the reserves as an elite Airborne Army Ranger, a commitment of six years with six months active duty. After completing jump school in January 1970, he returned to Chicago, “the right place to look for a job having gone to NU,” he said.

Still in the reserves, Osborn began his 40-year career at Northern Trust Corporation in February 1970.

After receiving the position at the financial institution, he said he switched his acceptance at the Kellogg School of Management for the evening program and began night school later that year.

During his time as a graduate student, Osborn said he remained involved on campus.

“My biggest connection was through my friend I still had at NU,” he said. “I still went and saw the football and basketball games.”

MOVING UP THE RANKS

Over the years Osborn advanced at Northern Trust, eventually becoming chairman in 1995. It was around this time he was approached to join NU’s Board of Trustees, he said.Although the businessman had a lot on his plate serving on many organizations’ boards, he said he made time for the position.

“It’s not paid-believe me,” he said, laughing.

Osborn said he accepted the position because he’s “always had a great affection to NU.” Both he and his wife attended NU, as did both of his parents, and his father played on NU’s basketball team.

Osborn has also chaired the board’s budget committee, sat on the board for Northwestern Memorial Hospital and became an advisory board member for Kellogg.

Dean said Osborn is “transparent” and “forthcoming;” board members don’t have to worry Osborn might be withholding information.

“Despite all his success, it’s the same Bill I knew as a freshman,” said Dean, who said he has worked with Osborn on the Board of Trustees for about 12 years. “He’s very engaging. He seeks dialogue.”

After a long career at Northern Trust, Osborn announced his retirement from his role as chairman and director. NU’s Board of Trustees asked him to consider being chairman that fall, he said.

“I’ve had a lot of ties into the University, and I was stepping down from Northern Trust,” he said. “I already had a deep understanding of the University, but more importantly, I had a deep affection for the place and wanted to see it continue to prosper.”

But before Osborn’s retirement at Northern Trust became effective in November, controversy struck.

Only a few days after he was elected chairman on Feb. 21, Northern Trust Corporation and its subsidiary The Northern Trust Company, at which Osborn has held the roles of chief executive officer, chairman and director, came under fire by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Financial Services Committee. After receiving federal bailout funds, the corporation allegedly spent lavishly, The Daily reported.

At the time University officials said the bank’s situation was irrelevant to Osborn’s involvement with the University, a position now echoed by University President Schapiro.

With the recession most boards have connections in the business world which might be negatively perceived, he said.

“How do you escape it?” Schapiro told The Daily last Thursday. “I just know him as a very honorable first class guy.”

A NEW PARTNERSHIP IN TOWN

A new “era” began at NU with Schapiro and Osborn, Dean said.

After leading the committee to find a new University president, Osborn assumed his new position at the same time as Schapiro. At NU the trustee who leads the presidential search committee traditionally becomes the next chairman.

While former University President Henry Bienen and former chairman Patrick Ryan are credited for being a power team, Schapiro and Osborn have already demonstrated an ability to work together, Dean said.

“They will be just as good of a team, a different team,” he said.

Now that the infrastructure is in place, the new duo will perhaps build internally, Dean said.Schapiro said he thinks he and Osborn will “develop the same kind of very productive relationship that Pat and Henry had to the great benefit to NU.”

Osborn said he and Schapiro both notice the importance of the undergraduate experience.

“You’re kind of bridging that area between high school and work,” he said. “It’s a very important time in life … The key thing is to give you the best ability and the stimulus to grow and become the best you can.”

He praised Schapiro for having a “real focus on student well-being and engagement,” and cited the president’s noticeable presence on campus, whether it be pacing the football field sidelines or attending student dinners.

“The president and the board are focused on trying to make (the undergraduate experience) the best experience possible,” he said. “He and I talk and communicate around that. We’re constantly talking about what can be done to improve the University.”

Osborn is currently working on an academic strategic plan review, he said. The plan will evaluate how NU has grown and evolved over the years to determine where it can and should go in the future, he said.

Osborn said he wants to “raise the bar” on excellence.

“I’ve enjoyed this moving from business to education because if our country is going to continue to do well, our education needs to continue to be the best in the world,” he said. “And we’re going to be challenged.”[email protected]