|NU, MORTON SCHAPIRO: An interview with Northwestern University's affable, engaging new president. By the way, he keeps kosher.|
|By Pauline Dubkin Yearwood (11/20/2009)|
|"Hi, I'm Morty."
That's the unexpected way the affable fellow in the purple sweater greets a visitor. Then he offers to bring coffee. |
None of this would be so unusual if "Morty" were anyone other than who he is: Morton Owen Schapiro, the new president of Northwestern University, fresh off an installation ceremony that featured just slightly less pomp (and probably more purple) than a coronation of a queen of England.
The sweater? He is so enthusiastic about his new job that he wears the omnipresent Northwestern color to work every day, his office receptionist says.
Schapiro has been on the job for just 10 weeks, but already has gained a reputation on campus for being open and accessible, friendly and funny, but also seriously committed to leading the prestigious 160-year-old university roaring into the 21st century. His credentials precede him: He is the former president of Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., a respected economist, the author of seven books on weighty economic topics.
And he is very, very Jewish.
Schapiro leans back in his chair in a conference room that looks out on a row of trees in full fall regalia, framing a Burger King just across Clark Street in Evanston. The proximity to fast food is wasted on him, he confides, since he keeps kosher. At 56, he has close-cropped white hair, a trim build and arresting light blue eyes in a roundish face. He seems relaxed. He is a man who loves his job, he says.
Even though he has been on that job for just over two months, he and his family moved to Evanston in July and spent the summer "shul shopping."
"I went (to a different synagogue) every week," Schapiro says. "I went to several Reform and several Conservative ones. Then I narrowed it down. It was like choosing a school." He ended up at Am Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Glencoe, which he praises. "It's a fabulous temple, beautiful, and the rabbis are fantastic," he says. Am Shalom's Rabbi Steven Stark Lowenstein represented Hebrew Union College at Schapiro's induction, he says.
Schapiro is the third Jewish president of Northwestern. The others, who served consecutively, were Arnold Weber, president from 1984 to 1994, and Henry Bienen, Schapiro's immediate successor, who held the post for the last 15 years. Some might find poetic justice in the fact, since decades ago the university had a reputation for being inhospitable if not downright hostile to Jews, but Schapiro doesn't.
Northwestern, he says, was no less friendly to Jews than most other American universities. "Most institutions, the private (ones), had a pretty sorry history not only with Jews, but with anyone other than white Christians, and not only white Christians because Catholics were discriminated against," he says. "These were institutions that were bastions of privilege. Jews were discriminated against, as were students of color, international students, low-income students, you name it." That changed, at Northwestern and many other universities, around 1960, he says - "that was kind of late, but compared to the Ivies (Ivy League schools) it was early. For them, it was the latter part of the '60s."
Today, "I don't think (having three consecutive Jewish presidents) says anything about Northwestern," he says. "There are a lot of Jews in academe; they are very well represented among university presidents. In my field of economics, there's a very healthy representation of Jews, and a lot of economists seem to be university presidents, so Jews may be over-represented. It's certainly not that people are saying, oh I want a Jew as president. Or, I don't want one."
He adds that even though the old prejudices are gone, along with the quota system, there is still much work to be done, and diversity issues are among his top priorities for the school.
"It's not just about redressing past injustices, but about addressing this increasingly diverse country," he says. "This is a diverse school, but it could be more inclusive. I think the problem with American higher education is that when people came out of the '70s and into the '80s they said, we have to get our numbers up, get a more diverse student body, faculty, staff, and somehow that would create the communities we aspire to create."
That didn't necessarily happen, he contends. "Being diverse is not being inclusive. You have to make sure that (the university) is a community that represents the world in which we're situated, but also that everybody gets their aspirations fulfilled, that it is really a welcoming place."
This, he notes, was one of the themes of his induction speech. "People talk about how higher education should produce tolerance," he says, reprising a line from the speech. "But that's wrong. Tolerance means to tolerate. I don't want people to tolerate me as a Jew. You don't want to be tolerated, you want to be welcomed and included. The word is wrong, and it sets the standard of success too low. We're not teaching tolerance, we're teaching acceptance, and not just acceptance but inclusion. Northwestern, like all schools, has taken some steps, but we have a long way to go."
A recent, much-publicized incident on campus, in which two students in Halloween getup posed in blackface, then posted the pictures on Facebook, "is symptomatic of broader issues," he says. A campus-wide forum in which he participated "was less focused on (the incident) and more on what we can all do to move Northwestern forward."
"Moving Northwestern forward" seems a job that Schapiro is well suited to take on. At Williams, a small, well-respected liberal arts college where he had been president since 2000, he gained a reputation for focusing on energy and sustainability issues and formulating a greenhouse gas reduction plan for the college, issues he'll also make a priority at Northwestern. In addition, his entire career as an economist and administrator has focused on improving higher education in America.
His own education began at Hofstra University, where he received a bachelor's degree in economics, then went on to earn a doctorate in the same subject from the University of Pennsylvania. He taught economics at Williams beginning in 1980, then left to become chair of the economics department at the University of Southern California in 1991, where he later held positions as a dean and vice president for planning. He returned to Williams to take the presidency in 2000, then left to become Northwestern's 16th president this year.
He has written or co-authored seven books, all concerning the economics of higher education, keeping college affordable and related topics.
He also developed a sideline in the field of economic development and, pursuing this interest, spent a month to two months in Africa every year for 10 years, doing development work. He taught and was involved in projects in Kenya and Mauritius, an island off the coast of Madagascar.
Schapiro grew up in New Jersey in a Conservative Jewish home where Judaism was tightly woven into the family's life. His father was president of their synagogue for many years, and even after his bar mitzvah, Schapiro attended classes there.
"Synagogue was always very important growing up, but it's an even more important part of my life now than it was then," he says. "I don't think I always voluntarily went to shul, but I do now. If I miss one (week), it's very painful. I normally go - if I can't go Friday, I go Saturday." He is pondering a decision he has made to miss synagogue on the upcoming Shabbat and instead attend Northwestern's opening basketball game Friday evening.
"I am a sports fanatic and this is our opening game and I am going to go," he declares. "I think this will be only the second Shabbat I've missed" since moving to Evanston, he says.
On Saturdays, he stays for Torah study after the service. "We discuss the parsha of the week. It's something to look forward to, something that gives you energy," he says.
Shabbat has a special meaning for him after the pressures of the week, he says. "I usually start thinking about (going to) temple around Thursday, and I need it, because no matter how bad Friday is, I know I have that to look forward to." He savors the drive from his home in Evanston to Am Shalom, which he likens to "when you go to Israel and you fly on El Al. As soon as you get on the plane, you're there. That's the reason you pay the extra 400 bucks to fly El Al in the first place, right?"
So on Friday night, "Shabbat starts for me when I get in the car. I'm driving along Sheridan Road, and I'm thinking, this is peaceful, it's not like rush hour in New York, and I make that right turn on Sheridan Road and drive all the way up to Tower Road, then up Green Bay Road, and it's so beautiful, and I just feel like the whole week falls away, like aaaahhhh! So by the time I get to temple and Rabbi Lowenstein says it's time to welcome the Sabbath bride, I'm already there. I'm there in my car, I feel like I get an extra 40 minutes. It's serenity, it's so wonderful."
He's usually joined in synagogue by his wife, Mimi, and youngest daughter, Rachel, who is almost 10. Mimi Schapiro is a screenwriter who grew up in Los Angeles in a Hollywood family - her father was a vice president of Universal and her two brothers are both Hollywood agents. (Despite the stereotype, "they're both really good guys," Schapiro says.) She has worked as a manager of dramatic development ("She made more money than I did") and wrote for TV movies on ABC, NBC, CBS and the Hallmark Channel. Since Rachel was born - and reality shows have gained prominence over movies on TV - she has written less, but plans to get back into the field eventually.
Meanwhile, six movies she wrote show up quite often on Lifetime, and "we get checks every week or so - some of them are literally like $2," Schapiro says with a laugh. "She is a wonderful writer and after we settle in a little bit more, I hope she will start writing again." For now, she is helping Rachel settle in at her new school, North Shore Country Day, chosen partly because "it is not full of people who work with me," Schapiro says, and partly because of its proximity to Am Shalom, where Rachel attends Hebrew School.
The Schapiros have two other children, Alissa, 21, a senior at Harvard, and Matt, 22, who - as in so many other families - is temporarily living at home as he works to advance a career in internet advertising.
Schapiro echoed another president-Barack Obama - in promising Rachel a puppy if he got the Northwestern job. Like the more famous dad, he too delivered. The new pup is Tango, a designer breed called a Teddy Bear that's a cross between a shih tzu and bichon frise. The family also has Cha-Cha, a wheaten terrier, who moved to Evanston with them. While his wife grew up with dogs, "I grew up in an apartment outside of New York and never had pets. For me, this is a whole new world, but fun," Schapiro says.
He also willingly describes himself as a sports fanatic, with the greatest amount of fanaticism reserved for the New York Mets. He has "always sort of liked" the Chicago Cubs but is too big a Mets fan to switch allegiances based on his move to the Chicago area, he says. He adds that he is also a New York Yankees fan because of a 20-year friendship with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, a Williams College graduate, and his family. In football, he "has nothing against" the Chicago Bears but swears allegiance to the New England Patriots, whose owners, the Kraft family, are close friends and "wonderful people" with whom the Schapiros often celebrate Jewish holidays.
On campus, Schapiro has made it a priority to meet as many students - particularly undergraduates - as he can. He knows some from the economics class he teaches, which he says he enjoys greatly. He also visits the university's 11 residential colleges and eats in the dorms on a regular basis, because "students like to eat, and they generally relax when they eat. I just go and eat with the students, and then do a fireside chat," he says, noting with an amazed chuckle, that students eat so fast, he can have dinner with five of them in the time it takes him to finish his meal. He has also recently visited several sororities and fraternities. "I go and lead discussions. That's the only way I can figure out how the students are," he says.
Apparently he does a good job of it. A comment posted on a Northwestern Web site was from a woman who has a daughter at Williams and a son at Northwestern. When she met Schapiro and told him her daughter's name, he not only remembered her, but knew what high school she had gone to and her position on the softball team.
Schapiro has visited the Fiedler Hillel on campus several times and impressed students there very favorably, by all accounts. Alex Goldklang, a sophomore theater major and member of Hillel's student staff, thought Schapiro "was fantastic. We met on several occasions and he explained to me how at Williams he and his wife would open up their home for Jewish holidays and Shabbat." (They plan to do the same at Northwestern.) "He won't hesitate to tell you he was on the national Hillel Board. I think he is very genuine. Here is this big guy who was just speaking the truth. He really speaks how he feels, and you are just talking to someone who really cares about the undergraduate for a change."
Rabbi Josh Feigelson, the campus rabbi connected to Hillel, agrees. "We are thrilled he is here, and I'm particularly impressed that he is so comfortable talking about matters of religion and faith," he says. "That is a very significant thing for a university president. Seeing a president of a major secular institution who is as comfortable talking about his own religious identity as he is, that's significant for the Jewish community. That he is openly embracing his Judaism has a very positive effect on Jews on campus."
Feigelson was especially impressed that Schapiro spoke Hebrew words in his inaugural address, where he used the Hebrew for "of blessed memory" and said "may their memory be a blessing" when naming deceased mentors and family members. "I was totally blown away by that," he says.
Another student, sophomore journalism major Coco Keevan, says she is hoping to be among the students invited to the Schapiros' home for Passover next year. "He's a refreshing take on a university president," she says. "He is so open and he kind of exudes his faith in all the things he does. He is very present on campus and especially at Hillel and is getting in touch with the Jewish community."
Freshman Sophie Friedman, who heard Schapiro speak at Hillel's freshman orientation, says that "of all the freshmen I've talked to, everyone is a real fan. Everyone became friends of his on Facebook. He seems like a person you could approach on campus and really get to know him. I think he's great. It is definitely cool that he's Jewish because Northwestern has such a large Jewish population. It's nice to see that he's really open about it and gets involved with the Jewish community on campus."
Schapiro returns the compliments. NU students, he says, "seem even better than I thought they were going to be. This is a generation that I think has been maligned in the sense of (calling it) the selfish generation. It really isn't. We just opened up a center for civic engagement and it's very popular. Student groups are doing things in the community. A lot of these students really care. They care about public service."
He finds that often people of his generation "will say, oh, we cared about saving the world, and after that, people just cared about getting rich. It's not true. I think if people were lucky enough as I am to spend time with people of this generation, they'd be very impressed with them."
He is also pleased that so far he hasn't encountered the anti-Israel sentiment that has been endemic on some campuses. "I think this is a campus that seems to be very civil, and I think civility is a very important thing that we should teach our students," he says, reciting "hamsa hamsa" (which he says is the Israeli equivalent of "kineahora") about the perceived lack of animus toward Israel on campus. "I don't know if it's luck, the kind of students we have, Midwestern values or administrative leadership," he says.
Yet even with this rosy picture, Northwestern, like all institutions of higher learning, faces grave challenges, Schapiro says.
Among them are dealing with globalization. He notes that the university has a campus in Qatar and programs all over the world, including in Tel Aviv. Now, the question is "how do you make a mark out there? How do you make sure you educate all your students to prepare them for a globalized world? What's your responsibility to the world? How do you have a presence there? How do you get your name out there?" he says. "There are a whole bunch of questions out there" that he and others at the school must try to answer, or at least ask intelligently.
Also weighing heavily on his mind are issues of environment and sustainability, which he articulated in his inaugural address in a way that made some people angry, he says. (He spoke of sometimes being embarrassed to face his children because of the environmental degradation his generation "has witnessed and implicitly approved.")
He stands by the statement. While it's true that there have been some changes for the better - such as less polluting smoke from the refineries near where he grew up in New Jersey - he says "there is no refuting, for instance, the destruction of the Amazon, and people aren't going to convince me that we did a great service, that our generation should be proud of our environmental record."
At Northwestern, he will work to save energy, an initiative the university is already engaged in, he says. The school's emphasis on interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship will be important, he says, as the solutions must draw from many areas - chemistry, engineering, the social sciences, journalism, biology, law, economics and more. "We have a real advantage here as we have been taking the issue seriously for some time, both in the behavior at Northwestern and in terms of research as well," he says. "We are going to build on that. It's a great issue, and maybe we'll solve it."
Then there is the challenging economy, and Schapiro doesn't deny that Northwestern has been affected, although possibly less than many other schools. That's because "we have a much more diversified revenue base," he says, with just 18 percent of its $1.6 billion annual budget coming from its endowment. At a number of comparable Eastern schools, that figure is closer to 50 percent, he says.
"We don't have an enormous endowment for students, so we're more diversified," he says. "We get a larger percentage of all our revenues from tuition and a larger percentage from gifts and a larger percentage from sponsored research in the sciences."
As to persistent charges that Northwestern is one of the most expensive American universities, Schapiro disagrees, but still finds some truth in the accusation.
"I think the sticker price, if you can afford it, doesn't vary much between American universities," he says. "The percentage of variance is really very small, but then you have to realize that at most of those schools, somewhere close to half of those students are not paying anywhere near the sticker price. So it really depends on the aid you get. An average student on aid here pays less than half that sticker price."
Yet he says, "I think we have to be more generous with our aid packages. The aid packages "are somewhat less generous than other schools, although more than some." Aid should be need-, not merit-based, he says, and "I think we should have very generous packages and formulas to determine expected family contribution."
How? By "changing the parameters." He adds, "this happens to be what I do - the economics of higher education. I've written seven books on the subject, so I know a lot about exactly what the formula is and how it differs from some other ones."
Yet even with that daunting set of challenges, Schapiro can say about his new life in Evanston, that "when your kids are pretty happy, and your wife is happy, and you love your job and you have a great shul, what more can you ask for in life?"
Besides, Shabbat is just a few days away.