Arnold Weber, Northwestern’s fourteenth president, dies at 90


Courtesy of Northwestern University

Arnold Weber. Weber served as Northwestern’s fourteenth president from 1985 to 1994.

Jacob Fulton, Reporter

When family, friends and colleagues remember Arnold Weber, many reminisce on his distinct sense of humor.

To an outsider, Weber may have seemed intimidating. As Northwestern’s fourteenth president from 1985 to 1994, he implemented aggressive budgetary reforms and department reviews during his tenure. But for those close to him, Weber, who passed away on Aug. 20 at 90 years old in his Northbrook home, was known for his ability to make others smile.

Weber’s son, David, described his sense of humor as “disarming,” often catching students and colleagues by surprise. And Marilyn McCoy, NU’s vice president for administration and planning, said this worked to his advantage during his time as president.

“He had this incredibly massive sense of mission, but then he brought that sense of fun and engagement that made people want to be around him,” McCoy said. “They loved working with him.”

In a 1994 article from Northwestern Magazine, Weber said he didn’t just want to be remembered as “the University’s greatest accountant.” He said he wanted to accomplish more.

And he did. His departmental reviews and new programs of study increased academic rigor for NU, all while he worked to build a sense of community on campus. Weber made it a priority to connect with students through monthly breakfasts and frequent walks around campus.

“He mentored other professors and students… and people would trust his opinion,” David said. “He saw things clearly. He saw the world for what it was and tried to improve it based on that reality.”

Weber also put an emphasis on campus beautification as a way to create community during his tenure. Most notably, he oversaw the construction of the Weber Arch, constructed in the last years of his presidency and dedicated in his name in 2011, as a physical marker and gateway to campus.

Weber’s son, Paul, said his father, a labor economist by trade, had wide-ranging academic interests throughout his entire life. Paul said Weber was passionate about writing and supportive of a variety of academic disciplines.

“He was always reading, especially history, and took us on trips to historical sites,” Paul said. “It reflected a deep sense of his interest in the world outside of his own profession.”

Just as his interests were varied, Weber held many significant positions throughout his life — but he always returned to the Midwest. Born in the Bronx in 1930, Weber came to Illinois to pursue journalism at the University of Illinois, but later switched his major to labor economics.

He went on to receive a master’s degree in industrial relations from the University of Illinois before getting his Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was after graduation that he would first come back to Illinois, as he worked as a faculty member in the University of Chicago’s then-named Graduate School of Business from 1958 to 1973

Weber then served in the Office of Management and Budget during the Nixon administration, before stepping into academic administration as dean of the then-named Graduate School of Industrial Administration, and later provost, at Carnegie Mellon University.

After five years as president of the University of Colorado, Weber made his return to Illinois as NU’s new president. At the time, NU’s reputation was nowhere near that of UChicago, but Paul said Weber saw the University’s potential for international renown.

“He woke up and realized Northwestern could be just as good (as UChicago),” Paul said. “UChicago is world class, and Northwestern could be too. The fact that it was in Chicago was a strength, not a weakness.”

Now, 25 years later, Weber has left his mark. NU is recognized across the world as a top research institution and university, most recently coming in ninth in the U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of national universities. In a news release, University President Morton Schapiro said Weber’s tenure prepared NU for “everything good that has followed” as a result of his leadership and reform.

McCoy initially met Weber during his time at the University of Colorado, and came with him when he moved to NU. From 1985 to now, she said she has seen firsthand how Weber changed the path of NU, bringing the school to where it is today.

“He reflected the ambition that both the Board (of Trustees) and the faculty had to make Northwestern a better institution,” McCoy said. “It’s a very different institution, I can tell you, from when I got here in 1985, and that’s all for the better.”

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