Q&A: University President Michael Schill talks student activists, Board of Trustees and transition to NU


Daily file photo by Catherine Buchaniec

University President Michael Schill has an extensive background in higher education, serving as dean of the University of Chicago Law School from 2010 to 2015 and as president of the University of Oregon from 2015 to 2022.

Isabel Funk and Maia Pandey

The Daily sat down with University President Michael Schill earlier this month to discuss his rapid transition into the Northwestern presidency, his relationship with student activists and his general priorities for his first few months in Evanston.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity and brevity.

The Daily: How has your experience been navigating the transition from the University of Oregon, a public university, to NU?

Schill: At Oregon, we were subject to public meetings rules, and we were subject to record public records requests. So all of my emails, all of my communications, were subject to reporters asking for them, and there were limited exceptions. The press had the right to be there at all board meetings. On one hand, it (allows for) transparency, which I believe in, and on the other hand. if someone just wants to say what’s on their mind, just an impression, you have to be very careful if you are in a public meeting.

At our board meeting in a private university, we are not subject to those rules. In addition, I don’t have to worry that each one of my emails could be discovered — well, they can be discovered in legal activities, but they can’t just be requested. When UCLA and USC left for the Big Ten, I just got request after request for my emails, and I’m a pretty blunt person. I like being honest, and so I had to really watch it with email.

Northwestern is different in the sense of who the students are. At Oregon we have, like, an 85% acceptance rate. It’s a small state, we wanted to have a lot of Oregon students. The difference in incomes between our lowest-income person and our highest-income person is much greater at a place like Northwestern than at Oregon.

The Daily: What do you envision for your relationship with NU student activists?

Schill: Student protest — despite the fact that it might make people like me uncomfortable when it occurs — is entirely healthy for the University. I am a huge believer in free speech. I want people to feel that they can say what is on their mind, and that they feel there’s going to be no retribution for doing that. I also want students to understand and learn that just because you have a right to do something doesn’t mean you do it. You take into account other people’s feelings. There’s a level of sensitivity that one should use, in particular on issues of race, on some of the hot-button issues.

With regard to protest, I think that non-violence is important. Property damage is also not acceptable. One of the things that has happened, both here and at other universities, is shouting down other people’s speech. I don’t think there’s any role for that. It’s fine to come in if (there’s) a speaker that you don’t like, protest outside to make your views known — but then don’t try and make it impossible for people to hear what that person has to say.

Organizations that invite people should feel that they don’t bring people to campus solely for the purpose of rubbing it in someone’s eye. I think we saw a lot of that about five years ago — there were people coming around the country just to incite protest. (The speaker) would come, predictably the students would protest and shout them down, and because they were just there to incite, Fox News would cover it. Those groups that were sending the people out got lots of donations, and so it was actually counterproductive with respect to what many students wanted.

In some sense, there’s an organizational need to protest, but I hope (students) understand they don’t need to protest to get my attention and to get my engagement. Every protest we had (in Oregon), I invited students to talk afterward. 

The Daily: Some students and faculty have raised concerns about the diversity of the composition of the Board of Trustees. What are your thoughts on these concerns, and what kind of relationship do you aim to have with the board? 

Schill: I have been to one board meeting in my second week, and my feeling, having been there, is that the trustees are deeply attuned to what is in the student’s best interest. I heard, over and over again, concerns about mental health. We didn’t talk about where the endowments (were being) invested … What I found was a group of people who really cared deeply about Northwestern. I didn’t take this job to just stay in place — I want to move the University forward and they do, too.

The Daily: The University is gaining a new Board of Trustees chair in Peter Barris (McCormick ’74) this year, along with the beginning of your tenure. How has it been navigating these dual turnovers?

Schill: I wouldn’t be here without Peter. We clicked from the beginning, and we could finish each other’s sentences. I think that he really deeply cares about making Northwestern better, he cares deeply about the students here. It’s been a wonderful relationship and he was chair of the (presidential) search committee beforehand, so I think he’s deeply invested in me and vice versa. 

The Daily: What priorities have you worked on implementing since the start of your tenure?

Schill: When you are new as a president, everybody would say, “Do not answer that question.” For me, they would say that more strongly because I’ve had one month to get ready, and then I’ve had a month of just rushing around greeting students, doing the board meeting. What you need to do, if you’re going to be a wise and effective president, is you need to listen to people rather than talk to them. I’m going to sop up knowledge about the aspirations of the various deans and I’m going to learn what the students want. I also deeply want to start developing relationships with our faculty. I’m a faculty member first and a president second. 

Some people say don’t do anything for a year. I don’t think this school can wait a year. I think there’s a lot of pent-up demand (and) pressure for us to be making some bold moves forward. But I want to take the time and the respect, for the institution and the people in it, to not have those come out my first month or my second month. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @isabeldfunk

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @maiapandey

Related Stories:

Q&A: President-elect Michael Schill talks transition to Northwestern, previous experiences

Michael Schill named next president of Northwestern

Faculty Senate welcomes University President Michael Schill, votes on Organization of Women Faculty motion