The Weekly: University President Morton Schapiro reveals role in admissions process

CASSIDY JACKSON: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Cassidy Jackson. Welcome to The Weekly. In this podcast, we’ll fill you in on current news and give you a behind-the-scenes look at how The Daily reported on a recent revelation from University President Morton Schapiro.

JACKSON: Here’s what you need to know this week. Take Back the Night held events on campus last week. The movement denounces sexual violence and provides support for survivors. Last Thursday’s Take Back the Night march started at the Rock and continued down Sheridan Road. Activists held up posters condemning rape culture.

JACKSON: The University will implement a new review process for the deans of schools. In an email sent to the Northwestern community, Provost Jonathan Holloway explained that the University is planning to review each dean’s qualifications on the fourth year of their five-year terms. Holloway said this new process is meant to assure the strategies and initiatives of each school are well-aligned with the University as a whole. Adrian Randolph, the dean of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, will be the first dean to go through this process.

JACKSON: The Simpson Querrey Biomedical Research Center is set to open in June at the Feinberg School of Medicine Chicago campus. The center took seven years of planning, four years of construction costing $455 million, and a planned investment of $1 billion. The center is expected to create 2,000 jobs and generate $1.5 billion in federal funding. Schapiro hopes the center will cement Northwestern’s legacy as a strong research institution. This new pressure on the Office for Sponsored Research, however, has caused a backlog in the processing of grant applications. This backlog may inhibit the research community from contributing to Northwestern’s grand enterprise.

JACKSON: And in city news, Evanston Township High School ranked 27th in Illinois and 526th nationally in the 2019 U.S. News rankings of the Best High Schools in America. Twenty-one percent of students exceeded expectations in math proficiency and 31 percent exceeded expectations in reading proficiency, according to U.S. News. 56 percent of the students are minorities and 40 percent are economically disadvantaged. More than 3,000 students were enrolled in ETHS when this data was collected by U.S. News.

JACKSON: The organization Housing Opportunities for Women celebrated their first affordable housing development in the city with their event Welcome Home to Evanston on April 27. The new development would be located at the corner of Pitner Avenue and Dempster Street.. Mayor Steve Hagerty attended the event, and emphasized the city’s focus on affordable housing initiatives.

JACKSON: Now, here’s a story The Daily has been following especially closely. Last week, The Daily released a report detailing Schapiro’s involvement in NU’s admissions process. In the article, it was revealed that Schapiro personally reads around 550 applications from legacy students, donor students, and families with personal connections to him. It was also learned Schapiro hosts one-on-one interviews with a select number of applicants — both uncommon practices for university presidents. To get a deeper look at the article, I sat down with the two people behind it. Can you guys introduce yourselves?

ALAN PEREZ: I’m Alan Perez. I’m the Editor in Chief.

GABBY BIRENBAUM: And I’m Gabby Birenbaum, I’m the campus editor.

BIRENBAUM: Every quarter we, some members of the edit board meet with President Schapiro to talk about anything that’s on our minds. And so we got into the topic of college admissions with him, mostly from the angle of the college admissions scandal, but it ended up, we talked about his own involvement in the admissions process at Northwestern.

PEREZ: We actually tried to get an interview with the dean of admissions, and then he declined an interview. So we came in with a list of questions, hoping that President Schapiro would give us some stuff about how the admissions process at Northwestern works, because they’re usually very quiet about it, as are other schools, quiet about how their admissions processes work. And I think the question that I asked, was “What protections does Northwestern have to protect against the vulnerabilities that were exposed from the college admissions scandal?” And then that’s when he gave us that answer.

BIRENBAUM: It’s also interesting, because a lot of people have asked me about the article, have asked, “How did you get that information? How did you find that out?” But he was really forthcoming, and he just kind of said it.

JACKSON: And were you guys surprised by that//

PEREZ: It took me a little bit to actually realize that, “Oh, wait, he’s telling us that he personally reads and makes the decisions of applications?”

BIRENBAUM: Yeah, Alan just kept asking follow ups, and I think it also took me a minute to realize the gravity of what he was saying. But then I think I was just trying to not betray my surprise, to make it seem like this was something that was definitely going to be in the story or things like that. And then after the interview, we sort of debriefed and were like, “All right, that’s the story.”

JACKSON: I guess I’m interested to know, you guys said that the interview itself was that challenging to get Schapiro to speak about the admissions process and what he gave you guys. What would you say was the most challenging part of covering this?

BIRENBAUM: I think it was writing it and thinking about who we’re accountable to, because I think we both expected there to be an university response or some sort of pushback. And trying to write the story as maybe objectively and truthfully as we could in a way that we weren’t trying to protect ourselves from university response. But we also wanted to make sure that we got every single detail right for our readers, for ourselves and for sort of everybody involved.

JACKSON: What have been reactions you’ve got after the article coming out, from professors, students, administration?

BIRENBAUM: Both of us write very often, and a lot of times, you write an article and you move on. But people were like, “Wow, this is a huge story. How’d you find this out?” Things like that. People I like barely even knew actually, like friends of friends. So I think it got a much bigger reception than probably anything I’ve written for The Daily.

PEREZ: I don’t think it was really a surprise for a lot of people. The details about how it works were kind of surprising, because we, you know, we typically don’t know, like the details of the process. And the fact that the President of the University personally reads that many applications was also surprising, and he even pointed out that it was kind of unusual for president to to take up that that work. But it’s definitely not only something that surprised a lot of people in the Northwestern community but a lot of people inside like, the higher education community too have been kind of picking up on it too. Because again, it is it is pretty rare for colleges to, or an elite schools to be that forthcoming about details.

JACKSON: Taking off your journalist hat, like, as a student, how did this news affect you?

PEREZ: Yeah, just the idea that there’s a separate admissions process for some people. There’s been a lot of discussion with the recent, you know, revelations about the college admissions scandal, about how the process of admissions getting into a university really isn’t based on merit. There is influence in whether your parents have donated, whether you’re an alum – whether your parents are an alum. You want to think that every single application is, you know, looked at the same way, but I think it kind of showed that it isn’t.

BIRENBAUM: I kind of came at it from a different perspective. The high school I went to and sort of the community I’m from is a pretty affluent community. I’ve heard of things like people getting a call from the president like the day before they get in saying like, “Oh, you have good news coming.” Or, you know, I know people whose parents donate buildings. These stories go around, but I’m always like, “Are they just kind of inflating their own sense of importance?” So I think, as a student this showed me no, that these are not just like stories or rumors, like, these kind of things are very real as I think the story showed.

JACKSON: Where do you think the story goes from here, as well?

PEREZ: I think two important things to remember is that in the interview, he also told us that he tries to work with the Dean of Admissions Christopher Watson, as much as he can. He brought up an example that if they both disagreed on an applicant that they try to work it out. But what that process really looks like we don’t know. And then another thing is that today, Inside Higher Ed came out with an article, you know, about the process that we reported on, and a university spokesperson told them that the admissions rate is comparable to the general admissions rate. We should also remember that we’re not entirely sure that select group is representative of the entire applicant pool.

BIRENBAUM: It’s hard because admissions is so tight-lipped. Like the Dean of Admissions Chris Watson, Alan emailed him to request an interview and he denied that. So I think it’s hard to know where to go from here knowing that the people we would need to talk to probably are not going to be willing to talk to us about it.

JACKSON: Overall, what do you hope students, alumni, professors, anyone got from reading the article?

PEREZ: I got a few emails from parents over the weekend. After the article was published, one of them was disappointed that their daughter didn’t get into Northwestern and asked me, “We were denied admissions? What can we do to try to get into Northwestern?” I had to tell them that I’m not part of the admissions office. But I think it gives some perspective to especially high school students who are looking to apply to elite schools. Sometimes your application isn’t denied just because you weren’t the best student. It’s not necessarily always just the best students getting into elite schools. There are other factors as well.


JACKSON: In conjunction with the previous segment of this podcast, audio reporter Heena Srivastava asked students whether or not privilege had impacted their admission to Northwestern. Here is their responses.

UNSUN LEE: I’m Unsun Lee, freshman at Northwestern, majoring in biomedical engineering.

LINK NARDUCCI: My name is Link Narducci.

JOSHUA MILES: My name is Joshua Miles. I’m a first year PhD student here at Northwestern. I study media technology and society. I went to Marquette University for undergrad in Wisconsin, which is a private Jesuit Catholic university.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: So my question I’m asking everyone is how do you think privilege or a lack thereof has affected your college admissions process?

LEE: I am a Quest scholar. So I think I would like consider myself not, I guess not, as privileged, or I just had to, like, kind of look for my own resources to get the like, financial support or, just resources in general to kind of like reach out to school like Northwestern. I feel like that’s something that I personally went through.

NARDUCCI: I know, they had a big thing about wanting to have 20 percent of like, low income students. I have the Pell scholarship, so I don’t know if they just wanted more low income students. They had 20 percent by 2020, or something like that. I don’t know if they’ve reached it. That might have something to do with it.

MILES: As a student of color, I felt like I needed to do 120% to make sure that a.) I gained admission into the college that I wanted to go to, but also that I got certain scholarships or opportunities that may have not been afforded to me based off of other things. So I think it really depends on, I mean, obviously, depends on your identities. The perception of the college admissions experience for me was really like, you have to do as best as you can and literally everything to make sure that you get a fair shot. But that obviously, based off of the current admissions scandal that’s in the news right now, we know that that’s not true for everyone.

SRIVASTAVA: Do you feel like Northwestern is supporting you?

LEE: Yeah, I think that through programs like SES, like student enrichment services and like support from like, the Quest scholars like community, I feel like Northwestern has been definitely like providing to a point that I can have a comfortable sort of life.

SRIVASTAVA: During the process itself, did you feel like there were certain things that you felt was holding you back from being able to be like a star applicant? Or did you feel like pretty sure that you would be able to get into Northwestern?

NARDUCCI: Oh I didn’t feel sure at all. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to get in. And it ironically ended up being the only school I applied to because I was just — I did it so early. So, I figured I wasn’t going to get in and I’d be able to worry about other applications later, because like application fees are kind of big. So it’s like oh, apply for one and then I’ll get the “no” and then I’ll apply to others and then spend that money. And then I got in and I was like, “Sweet I don’t have to pay for more applications.” And then I was like, “Hold on, that’s 60k tuition though.” I’ve got financial aid, so it’s not super bad.

MILES: I would hope that anyone in administration would, you know, try to be as fair as possible in the admissions process, no matter if they’re friends with the president or whoever. So, hopefully, that’s not what’s going on. But if it is, and that’s something that we should probably be talking about a little bit more or a lot more.

JACKSON: This is Cassidy Jackson. Thanks for listening to The Weekly, and I’ll see you next time.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @cassidykjackson

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @heenasriv

Related stories:
Northwestern President Schapiro says he reads applications of some legacy, donor students
Take Back The Night march highlights student activism, denounces sexual violence
Northwestern to implement new review process for Deans of schools