After a whirlwind transition, University President Michael Schill looks to make his mark on NU


Daily file illustration by Olivia Abeyta

University President Michael Schill previously served as president of the University of Oregon from 2015 to 2022.

Jacob Fulton, Editor in Chief

His appointment and arrival was unlike that of any of his predecessors. But Michael Schill, Northwestern’s 17th University president, is taking everything in stride. 

Schill, a New York native, came to NU from the University of Oregon, where he served as president for seven years after stints as the law school dean at the University of Chicago and University of California, Los Angeles. His return to Chicago was much faster than a typical onboarding process.

Rebecca Blank, who the presidential search committee initially selected to succeed former University President Morton Schapiro, stepped down from her role as president-elect due to health concerns in July. Schill was announced as her replacement exactly one month later — just weeks before the start of Wildcat Welcome.

As a result, Schill had to speed through the transition process to start on Sept. 12, with Schapiro staying on due to the extenuating circumstances. While universities often fill high-level administrative roles months ahead of a transition date, with a period built in for new leaders to acclimate to the environment, Schill had very little time. 

“Usually you come, you’re prepared and then you take another six months of just listening to people before you do anything,” Schill said. “Well, I had a month, and I had to move, get my dog here, finish up what I was doing in Oregon and also try to understand this place.”

Schill credits a wide range of NU staff and administrators with providing him support as he transitioned into the new role. 

Part of that process has also included conversations with Schapiro, who led the University for 13 years. While Schill said he is grateful for Schapiro’s advice and friendship, he differs from his predecessor on at least one important practice. 

Each year, Schapiro read the applications of about 500 prospective students — including some with personal connections to him — and gave recommendations about acceptances. Schill told The Daily he does not intend to continue this practice.

“We hire admissions professionals — my job is not to read student applications,” he said. “It’s every president’s prerogative to decide what they want to do, but it would be something that I would rather leave to the experts.”

Schill also discussed the role with another former University president he already knew: NU’s 15th president, Henry Bienen. Bienen taught Schill as an undergraduate at Princeton University, where he taught and served as the dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs for years. 

Through these conversations, Schill said he has been able to get a sense of NU’s culture and community. Both Schapiro and Bienen informed his approach as he intends to leave his own mark at the University. 

“Both of them have the right attitude in giving you advice, but expecting you to make your own decision,” Schill said. “I’ll make my own recipe, but they’ve both done incredible things to move this University forward.”

Though he may have expected to embark on a storied law career when he was a student, Schill said it was retrospectively clear that he was meant to work in education. 

Reflecting on his childhood, Schill said he was different from many of the kids with whom he grew up — instead of shooting basketballs for fun, he was constructing curricula. 

“I was a terrible athlete, but one of the things I did was, I always played teaching,” Schill said. “I always knew that I wanted to teach at some level.”

After initially pursuing law, Schill returned to education, first as a professor and eventually as an administrator. Leading an institution is a far cry from teaching in the classroom, but Schill said he also plans to serve as a professor at NU in future years. 

The practice will keep him connected with the needs of students and faculty while reminding him of the “magic” of undergraduate instruction, he said. In doing so, he said he also plans to take cues from NU staff and faculty as he shapes the direction of the University. 

“That’s what higher education is for — to create knowledge and then transmit knowledge to the next generation,” Schill said. “I believe that teaching is the highest form of that endeavor … I want the faculty to think that I’m one of them, to listen, learn, see what they’re doing.”

As he looks to the University’s future, Schill remains grounded by his friendship with Blank. Thrust into an unusual situation, Schill said he wants to pay his respects to her as she navigates cancer treatment.  

“I think that the best way I can honor Becky is to be a great president,” he said. 

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Twitter: @jacobnfulton