NU Declassified: University President Morton Schapiro talks with The Daily

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: The Daily Northwestern recently sat down with Northwestern President Morton Schapiro, affectionately known as Morty. We talked about legacy admissions:

MORTON SCHAPIRO: I’m happy with the way we do Undergraduate Admissions.


MORTON SCHAPIRO: If you go back to The Daily a number of years ago, you might find something about me talking a little bit to the board about investments.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: And plastic ice skating rinks.

MORTON SCHAPIRO: I’d go there on the weekends and I don’t skate. And there was hot chocolate, I don’t drink that stuff. It’ll kill you, right. But I sit there, and I watched the people go around and around, and it seemed like they’re having so much fun, or getting exercise.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Heena Srivastava. You’re listening to NU Declassified, a look into how Wildcats thrive and survive on Northwestern’s campus. This episode, we’ll walk you through our conversation with President Schapiro.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: When we spoke with Schapiro last spring, he said he reads the applications of some legacy and donor students. This time around, he told us the University is unlikely to phase out legacy admissions.

MORTON SCHAPIRO: Everybody has a different definition, but even if you asked me what percentage legacy, it depends if you count skip generation(s) — like the grandparents came but not the parents, if you’re counting Kellogg, that raises you automatically several percentage points.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Depending on how it’s defined, Schapiro said legacy admission falls somewhere around 8 and 12.5 percent of undergraduates. Northwestern doesn’t make this data readily available on its website. Even though other top-tier universities have decided to stop considering legacy status in their admissions, he doesn’t think Northwestern has a problem.

MORTON SCHAPIRO: CalTech is legacy blind. You know, they give no thumb on the scale to break ties. MIT doesn’t, and now Hopkins doesn’t. I applaud that they’ve diversified their undergraduate student body. But, you know, it depends on what you do with legacies. You know, we’ve diversified the student body. We have about the same, roughly the same. And again, they said they were 12.5 percent legacy down to 3.5. As they went from 9 percent Pell to 19 percent Pell. We went from 9 percent Pell to 21 percent Pell.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Students who are eligible for the Pell Grant program must demonstrate exceptional financial need. Schapiro focuses on Pell Grant percentage as Northwestern’s indicator for socioeconomic diversity. But beyond socioeconomic status, Northwestern’s racial and ethnic diversity fails to meet the diversity of other top-tier universities that phased out legacy admissions. While Northwestern’s 2023 class was (around) 56 percent white, MIT’s entering class was 42 percent and Johns Hopkins’ was 21 percent.

MORTON SCHAPIRO: I’m kind of happy. I’m not kind of happy. I’m happy with what we’re doing. By any measure over my 11 years, the diversity of the undergraduate student body is skyrocketing. Finally, you have a diverse alumni body, providing kids for whom legacy advantage would increase the possibility of getting in. Wouldn’t it be ironic now that we have a substantially more diverse student body, if the kids of those graduates all of a sudden didn’t get the legacy advantage that the rest of the people in their dorms did when they were there. As long as I’m here, I don’t see us doing anything different, unless the courts make it illegal.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: In January 2018, Provost Jonathan Holloway first warned Faculty Senate about an upcoming budget deficit. That announcement set the stage for staff layoffs and cuts to student groups. Last October, after nearly two years in deficit, Schapiro announced the University was finally in the clear, with several million dollars in surplus. However, some students took issue with the University’s communication throughout the crisis. In 2018, then-ASG President Sky Patterson told The Daily there was not enough transparency around budget cuts to the students.

MORTON SCHAPIRO: Well, when the budget deficit hit, nobody was in the loop. I mean, it came up at the end of August in 2017, right? And if you had asked me the week before, I would have told you we were running about $80 million dollar surpluses every one of my years, and all of a sudden, we were negative, it turned out we were negative 64. Everybody was in the dark, nobody had any idea. It just hit. The trustees said you have four years to get it back into black. Fiscal 19 was supposed to be $50 million in the red. And this year, Fiscal 20 is supposed to be $25 million in the red. But we got out of it in two years, not four years. Always, everywhere I go I talk about the deficit. And how we got out of it or before we got out of it. But, I’m happy to do even more of it.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Schapiro’s last annual address to the University was in April of 2019. He spoke about the University’s rankings and graduation rate for Pell Grant recipients. He apologized to those affected by the budget, talked about painful staff layoffs and reassured that the University had a good handle on it. The year before, his annual address barely touched on the topic.

MORTY SCHAPIRO: But now we have some money and it’s coming out nicely. This year is shaping up very nicely. Every year we’ll be able to reintroduce certain things and try new things. I don’t know if you want the skating thing back but we’re investigating. Just a little aside there. What I don’t like about the skating, so we had it for a number of years without refrigeration or anything. I mean, look at it, you needed it to be 28 degrees colder for five days in a row to freeze ice. I said OK, forget it, we’ll put it in a generator, we’ll put in coils and we’ll freeze it. But, you know, I’m really into environmental issues, as you probably know.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: This is the part where President Schapiro points to his purple water bottle.

MORTY SCHAPIRO: And you know, to watch that black smoke coming out of the generator and everything. I’m just thinking, what are we doing our carbon footprint, and I just, I can’t stand it. So now we have this idea. Because I read in The New York Times business section two or three weeks ago, that there’s something called Glice.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Glice. That’s spelled G-L-I-C-E. It’s a type of environmentally-friendly, synthetic, plastic ice for ice rinks.

MORTY SCHAPIRO: And we can put up a big thing and have the skating rink back, but without paying a price on the environment. So that’s what I want to do. So we’re investigating this Glice phenomenon.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: While Schapiro is eager to reduce our carbon footprint with the power of Glice, he is less aggressive on divesting from fossil fuel companies. On Thursday, Feb. 20, the Investment Committee of the Board of Trustees rejected Fossil Free Northwestern’s proposal calling for the University to divest from the top 100 coal, oil and gas companies. The decision came days after Fossil Free Northwestern participated in Global Divestment Day by holding a die-in protest and an environmental justice teach-in. Schapiro said he had no part in the decision.

MORTON SCHAPIRO: We have, in higher education, shared governance, so the board is not going to tell us who the students should be, who the faculty should be, what we should teach or how we should teach it. Those are the four fundamental freedoms of education from the Supreme Court. And we don’t tell them what the overall size of the budget should be. We don’t tell them how they should invest the endowment.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Among other responsibilities, the Board of Trustees is in charge of the protection and enhancement of Northwestern’s assets, and according to the University’s statutes, one of the president’s responsibilities is “to make recommendations to the Board of Trustees.”

MORTON SCHAPIRO: I don’t particularly see much of a call for me – asking me to advise them on how to invest the endowment. It’s not my field. I don’t play any role. If people ask me my opinion, I’m happy to give it, but I don’t want the Board to tell me who gets tenure.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Even though Georgetown University, decided to divest from fossil fuels, the Board of Trustees’ Investment Committee chose not to because it didn’t “believe the proposed divestment would generate tangible and positive change toward Fossil Free Northwestern’s goals related to climate change.”

MORTON SCHAPIRO: I don’t guess that the presidents of Georgetown – I assume that was 100 percent the board who made those decisions. But I mean, I could be wrong. But that’s certainly the way things are here. We have a very clear delineation between who decides what.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Schapiro and Chief Investment Officer William McLean created the Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility to listen to concerns from the Northwestern community and guide ethical investments of the University’s endowment. At Schapiro’s former employer, Williams College, there was a similar committee.

MORTON SCHAPIRO: We have some version of it here, it isn’t clear if it works as well as it did at Williams. It’s new. I hope that really takes off and it becomes an important way for not just students but alums and faculty and staff to get their own views out there. You know, if you go back to The Daily a number of years ago, you might find something about me talking a little bit to the board about investments. I don’t even usually attend those meetings.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: He also deferred to Student Affairs for specifics around the response to November’s Jeff Sessions protests.

MORTON SCHAPIRO: Well, there’s always a wall between Student Affairs and the President and the Provost. You know, Julie fills me in every week about the conduct hearings and what’s going on. But you’d really have to talk to her.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Northwestern University College Republicans invited Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to speak at Lutkin Hall on Nov. 6. Over 150 students and community members protested. Schapiro clarified in a Family Weekend address that protestors do not have amnesty. Over 40 alumni went on to sign a letter condemning Schapiro’s and University Police Chief Bruce Lewis’s handling of the protests. About a month later, University Police issued citations to five student protestors.

MORTON SCHAPIRO: The citations were issued by the city of Evanston. Evanston Police gave the citation. We don’t give the citation. Since that process isn’t under me, I don’t think I have anything to do with it at all. And then they decided not to prosecute.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: To clarify, the citations were issued by University Police for Evanston ordinance violations, each carrying a maximum civil fine of $125. The charges were dismissed in Evanston court earlier this year, but students are still going through a separate process associated with the Office of Student Conduct.

MORTON SCHAPIRO: We’re always looking at lessons. Always trying to do a better job. You really don’t want the President or the Provost to get involved in this. There are experts over there who do disciplinary hearings all the time. I know as a faculty member, because I’ve seen some plagiarism, some other things, over my career. You know, you just turn it over to them, and they deal with it.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Schapiro once again deferred to Interim Vice President for Student Affairs Julie Payne-Kirchmeier about the University’s programming for Black History Month. This year, Northwestern had about 10 events listed on its Black History Month page, many of which were led by student groups. The University of Chicago regularly puts on 3 to 5 events every week of February and the University of Illinois at Chicago had over 15.

MORTON SCHAPIRO: I have no idea how many events we have, or who sponsored them, and how they compare to anyone else. So there is no institution run? Maybe for next year? I do walk by the Black House a couple of times a day, and I’m always kind of looking, “That looks nice. Looks like it’s getting better.” That’s a separate question.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Mounting complaints from students at Northwestern University in Qatar claim that faculty members and Dean Everette Dennis have “mistreated, misspoken to, disrespected and ritually discriminated” against students. That is according to NU-Q Senior Farah Al Sharif. Last fall, more than 100 students and alumni at Northwestern University in Qatar held a silent protest in response to comments made by Dennis saying “to hell with our students” when they voiced concern that graduation was set during Ramadan fasting. The protest also addressed students’ concerns over a history of inadequate responses to Title IX dismissals. Provost Jonathan Holloway said all claims are handled through the Office of Equity in Evanston.

MORTON SCHAPIRO: They generally have an infrastructure that’s at least as good as we have, in terms of the quality of studios. We only do media there. But it’s tough, the different values and, you know, 7,000 miles away. And it’s always a challenge. That’s why I’ve always been skeptical about international campuses.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Schapiro has hosted town halls to learn more about what can be done to improve NU-Q’s campus.

MORTON SCHAPIRO: You know, if anybody has any ideas, how we can support them better, I’d like to know it. I just wanted to make sure that if they’re getting Northwestern degrees and sending them out into the world, you want to make sure that all those students are every bit as good as those of you who study here in the States.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Dennis stepped down from his role as dean at the beginning of this year for a family health leave. Craig LaMay replaced him as the interim dean. LaMay was previously an NU-Q professor in residence.

MORTON SCHAPIRO: I have a number of friends in the faculty and staff there, I don’t know students, but I have faculty who are really happy to have him there.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Still, there are issues that come up. Earlier this month, NU-Q canceled an event that would have featured a prominent Lebanese band whose lead singer is openly gay. The band also has songs addressing homophobia and gender equality. The cancellation came after online backlash to their appearance. One Twitter account posted, “This is against our cultural standards and societal norms.” The event’s cancellation led some NU-Q students and faculty members to express their disappointment on social media. After Northwestern’s statement came out explaining that it relocated the band to Evanston’s campus for safety concerns, the Qatar Foundation contradicted their reasoning, saying that they didn’t have any safety concerns. The Qatar Foundation founded NU-Q in partnership with the University.

MORTON SCHAPIRO: They’re supposed to be an unbelievably good indie rock band from Lebanon. But that was, as you said, you know, what did you report that the foundation said, “No, it wasn’t safety things.” Well, it was safety things. Did you see some of the blogs? Some of the things that people wrote? We had to protect the safety not just of the performers, but of the audience that was going to be in our campus. You better make sure you can protect it, so it was a good idea to have them. I hope to have them on campus and broadcast it back.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: That’s all we have for this episode of NU Declassified. Check back in for our conversation with Provost Jonathan Holloway.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: This episode was reported by me, Heena Srivastava. It was produced by me, Dan Hu and Kalen Luciano. It was edited by Marissa Martinez. The editor in chief of The Daily Northwestern is Troy Closson.

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Twitter: @heena_06, @kalenluciano, @thisisdanhu