Northwestern President Schapiro says he reads applications of some legacy, donor students


Evan Robinson-Johnson/Daily Senior Staffer

Segal Visitors Center. A select pool of about 550 applicants had their files read and their admissions decisions made by President Morton Schapiro.

Alan Perez and Gabby Birenbaum

Of the over 40,000 applications Northwestern receives for undergraduate admissions, the vast majority are read by Christopher Watson, the dean of undergraduate admissions, and his staff. This year, a select pool of about 550 applicants had their files read and their admissions decisions made by University President Morton Schapiro.

Schapiro said in an interview with The Daily last week that he is not entirely sure how the application files that arrive at his desk are chosen, but the breakdown among applicants is not random. The group includes legacy students, children whose family members have donated to NU and connections of his who ask him to read their child’s or relative’s application.

“They’re suggested by all sorts of people,” Schapiro said. “Politicians to famous alums to trustee members. Many, many people.”

The revelation comes as the admission practices of elite schools across the country — which are often kept highly confidential — are being placed under intense scrutiny. The college admissions scandal exposed the bribing of college officials and coaches, and the trial against Harvard University exposed the advantage of applicants whose parents donated to the school, a problem persistent in many elite institutions.

The news is a rare disclosure for Northwestern, which is often tight-lipped about its admission practices. It paints a clearer picture of a decision process that only admits about 9 percent of its applicants — including a system of deliberations that looks different for some.

“Northwestern has reviewed our admission processes, as we are constantly reviewing those processes, and we are confident in the measures we take,” University spokeswoman Jeri Ward said in an email.

Watson declined an interview for this article.

As an admissions officer, Schapiro considers himself to have high standards. For every student accepted to the University, 11 are rejected, he said, so he has to consider whether each student he admits is worth rejecting 11 others for. He did not say how the acceptance rate for the select pool of applicants he considers compares to the overall acceptance rate.

He said his level of involvement in admissions is unusual for university presidents, and means he has to take accountability for rejected students, whereas other presidents can obfuscate or deny knowledge. But he said he believes his participation and his strictness are his responsibility as president.

“I’m pretty tough on those decisions,” Schapiro said. “But, at the end of the day, I’m the one who should make them.”

To maintain separation, the admission office does not communicate with the Office of Alumni Relations and Development, whose responsibilities include coordinating and courting donors, as well as alumni outreach and running “We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern.” Admission staff is “not aware of potential donors when they’re reviewing applications,” Ward said.

In creating a wall between those two offices, admission staff can’t take a family’s donor potential into account. But with President Schapiro, that wall does not exist — he reads applications and interacts with high-level donors to the University.

Source: Northwestern Now
President Schapiro at a Welsh-Ryan Arena opening ceremony. Patrick and Shirley Ryan, center, have contributed major funds to projects at Northwestern, including Welsh-Ryan Arena, Ryan Fieldhouse and the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Center for the Musical Arts.

“President Schapiro is frequently involved in dealing with principal donors to the University, but not always,” Ward said in the email.

Robert McQuinn, the vice president of alumni relations and development, forwarded a request for comment to NU’s media relations office but did not respond to an interview request.

Though donors are kept secret from admissions officers, parents’ education background — including alumni status — are not. “While we like to know if an applicant had a parent attend Northwestern, our goal is to determine if the applicant will be the first in their family to graduate from college,” Ward said.

Schapiro said that when reading applications, he considers what a student can add to the Northwestern community rather than the potential for their parents to contribute to the University’s budget. However, he is unique as an admissions officer in that he, unlike Watson and the rest of the admissions staff, has access to donation information.

In addition to reading applications, Schapiro also interviews 50 or 60 prospective students per year, he said. The interviews often vary: Some students are eager to express genuine enthusiasm for the University, some don’t have the GPA or test scores to get in and others, Schapiro can tell, are “just there ’cause (of) their grandma or something,” he said.

While he said interviewees often assume they have an admissions advantage because they spoke to the president, he said if they don’t impress him, they’ve seriously hurt their chances.

“Some people think if they get (into my office) and spend an hour with me, that somehow gets them a leg up,” Schapiro said. “But if I really don’t like them,” he said, pausing to laugh, “It doesn’t. It really doesn’t.”

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