Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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NU President Michael Schill discusses Pat Fitzgerald termination, football program

Daily file photo by Alyce Brown
University President Michael Schill.

University President Michael Schill sat down with The Daily to discuss Northwestern’s football program Monday. 

NU’s football team has been the focus of the national spotlight after several former players came forward with allegations of hazing in recent weeks. The University had conducted an investigation into some of these claims, and found evidence hazing occurred. 

After the investigation concluded, Schill placed former Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald on an unpaid two-week suspension on July 7. 

The Daily reported on the details of the hazing, which included coerced sexual acts, on July 8.  Subsequently, several additional players came forward corroborating the initial claims and describing a racist team environment. Schill announced that he had fired Fitzgerald on July 10, and, in the weeks since, multiple players have filed lawsuits against the University.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The Daily: Why did you initially think two weeks was the right  suspension for Fitzgerald?

Schill: I believe individual culpability and knowledge matters in these things. The report concluded that there was insufficient evidence to indicate that Coach Pat Fitzgerald knew about what was going on, even though there were some opportunities to find out. That was what I weighed too heavily. 

The Daily: Less than 12 hours after The Daily’s initial report, you sent out an email saying “you may have erred” in your decision making process. What changed?

Schill: I don’t just make decisions and just sort of move on to the next thing, I think about what I’ve done, and I decided after further reflection that I might’ve made a mistake in coming up with the two weeks. 

I was affected by reading your coverage, I was affected by additional allegations we received, I was affected by the impact it was having on our community. I came to the realization that I had over-weighted the individual knowledge. The coach had been the leader of a small entity for over 15 years, and he was charged with responsibility for our student athletes and the culture. He owns that culture, and when you own a culture, that means you should take whatever steps are prudent to make sure the culture is a good culture. I came to the conclusion that he had failed, and he didn’t try to find out what was happening and he had to bear responsibility for that. 

I think a lot about leadership. Not to make this too self-referential, but I think that if a leader messes up, they should own up to it, they should take responsibility. The worst thing you can do is just pretend it didn’t happen. You realize you made a mistake and you fix it and you make the right decision, because that’s what a standup leader does. And that’s what I hope I did. 

The Daily: In The Daily’s report, there were mentions that Fitzgerald may have known about specific things that were occurring, including things like the Shrek clap. Were those things that you were aware of in the initial report?

Schill: Yes, the investigative report did mention the Shrek clap, but then said that they did not find that that was reflective of (Fitzgerald’s) knowledge. 

The Daily: At what point over the weekend did you decide to fire Fitzgerald? Were there specific things that changed over the course of the weekend?

Schill: I recognized that I wanted to rethink it. I wanted to signal to the community that there was going to be something more in all likelihood. I spent Sunday reading and rereading the report. I also met with the executive committee of the Board of Trustees, and we discussed this. 

In addition, on Monday morning, I met with the investigator and her associate, and what I did there was I asked them to provide me with details from the raw testimony of each person they spoke with. So we went person by person. I wanted to make the right decision with as much information as I could, and the report was a summary of the raw material. 

But when you hear it, one by one, one instance of bad behavior after another, the magnitude of it hit me even more. I decided that the only choice, the only moral choice, was to terminate our relationship.

The Daily: On Monday, The Daily also released a report alleging racism was a part of the football culture. Was the University aware of that, and did that factor into any decision making that happened Monday?

Schill: I was aware of it, so I can’t say that it didn’t affect my thinking. It (allegations of racism) didn’t go through the investigative process, but I’m a human being, so all of these things enter into the decision making process. So was it (allegations of racism) the deciding piece of information? No. Was it in the mix? Absolutely.

The Daily: So far, the only member of the coaching staff who has left the University is Fitzgerald. Is the rest of the current coaching staff going to remain with the team? 

Schill: We do not have any allegations that have named any of the staff other than one coach, who is named in litigation in one of the complaints. When we hear an allegation about an individual, what we do is we have a process. Everybody is entitled to due process, and so we will do an investigation of each person who is specifically named by someone with credible information. We have an entity, the Office of Title IX and Civil Rights Compliance, and they will do the investigations. I don’t feel I should comment on an individual, but that will be what happens as additional names come forward that haven’t already been investigated. 

We don’t think it’s appropriate to sweep up everybody in an allegation unless we can somehow substantiate the allegation. In this case, so far, we haven’t been able to tie individuals (to this), but we’re going to investigate if people come forward with names. 

The Daily: A lot of community members have expressed disappointment in the relative silence from administrators, especially Combe Family Vice President for Athletics and Recreation Derrick Gragg. Why would you say they have not spoken much? 

Schill: I can’t speak for why individuals don’t speak out. I have perhaps written too much, rather than too little, but that’s how I process things and communicate. I can’t state why some people are putting out statements, it may be that (Gragg) is also trying to ascertain more facts. I think this week, you’re going to hear quite a bit from him because we have (Big Ten) media days coming up later in the week. As you know, we are faced with pending litigation, and we need to balance the long-term interests of the University in that litigation with just getting on a podium and talking.

The Daily: To be clear then, it hasn’t been administrative guidance to certain administrators not to speak to the media?

Schill: I have not issued a gag order on anybody.

The Daily: We’ve received a lot of feedback from readers who say that Gragg should no longer be at the University for his handling of this situation. How are decisions being made about which administrators should stay?

Schill: Dr. Gragg is relatively new to the University. Most of the activity that has been churned up happened before he came here. The decision will be my decision in the end, informed by conversations with our trustees and our attorneys.

There’s no conversation ongoing about his employment. I am supporting him, I am meeting with him about the prospective steps, but there is no process, conversation or discussion of his employment status. He is the athletic director. If there should be allegations, just like anybody else involved, we will investigate that. 

The Daily: Do you feel as though your job is in jeopardy, and do you have any plans to evaluate your position at the University?

Schill: Not in the slightest. I have been in communication with tons of members of the board, and the vast majority are supportive of my decision to terminate the coach. They know that it was the right thing, they know that it was the only moral decision that could be made at that time, and they’re fully supportive of me. 

The Daily: Do you anticipate these week’s events having any influence on the anticipated Ryan Field rebuild?

Schill: In my view, Ryan Field and the hazing situation are two different issues, and I don’t think they should be linked. I received a petition from 250 faculty members who would like me to pause Ryan Field and who do see that linkage. I respect their views and I know many of them, and one of the great things about universities is that not everyone has to agree on everything. Ryan Field needs to be resolved on its own merits and based upon the benefits that it will create for the community versus the costs that will occur.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @nicolejmarkus

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Twitter: @charcole27

Related Stories: 

Former NU football player details hazing allegations after coach suspension

University president Michael Schill says he “may have erred” in determining Pat Fitzgerald suspension

Northwestern parts ways with football coach Pat Fitzgerald

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