“We’re going to have to make this quick. I have a phone call I have to take.”
Those were the first words I heard Northwestern University President Henry Bienen speak since the President’s Convocation more than three years ago. He rushed into his conference room, a surprisingly tall and imposing figure in his tailored suit. He looked tired, worn from another day of his 13 year tenure as university president, but beneath the wrinkles and thinning grey hair there’s an energy that likely hasn’t diminished since he started at Northwestern on Jan. 1, 1995. This was the first time I had even seen the president since that day he taught my freshman class the fight song in 2005. Throughout my college career, Bienen has been out of sight and, mostly, out of mind.
But with Bienen announcing his retirement last March, effective at the start of the 2009-2010 school year, it’s time to give the man his due. Even if many undergrads can’t recognize the 69-year-old’s face, they should be able to recognize his achievements: our school’s consistent placement in the top 15 of national college rankings, a competitive football team, a steadily growing endowment and even an expansion into Qatar.
Coming into his last year, you might expect Bienen to make like George W. and ease off to reflect on the ways he helped the university. But he’s too modest—not to mention busy—for that. You get the sense that he’ll keep on working until his last day in office. And he’s certainly not ready to talk about his legacy.
“Other people are more suited for that,” he said. “The idea was to make the university better and stronger, and that’s always a work in progress.”
Bienen’s most defining step towards strengthening the university was Campaign Northwestern, a five-year fundraiser that garnered the school $1.55 billion. To Bienen, the motive behind the campaign was simple: The whole school could improve if the whole school raised money. He tried to establish personal relationships with alumni and donors, making them feel like partners in a university expansion project — not just names on checks.
“I’m not the first person to ever try to raise a lot of money, but we hadn’t been doing these big comprehensive campaigns,” he says. “We set a goal of $1.11 billion and we ended up raising $1.55 [billion], so it was successful. No doubt about that.”
Successful is a modest word to use for the campaign which helped in the construction or expansion of 18 buildings including Crowe Hall and Pancoe, and the creation of more than a hundred new scholarships. It also helped bolster the university’s admittedly weak fundraising institutions, allowing the school to solicit donations more efficiently than ever before. Still, Bienen tempered the enthusiasm.
“I know people think [Campaign Northwestern] is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but there’s still more to be done,” he says. “I’d give myself reasonably high marks in fundraising, but not off the wall.”
Bienen has a simple philosophy: excellence should be expected at a great university like Northwestern, and any work that helps achieve excellence is fine. That philosophy was what got him hired. Campaign Northwestern was about doing what was necessary to make the school great across the board, whether in biomedical research or in journalism.
It helps that Bienen is in love with Northwestern.
Anybody that’s seen him cheering at a football game or sporting a purple tie to a meeting can see that. Sarah Pearson, the Vice President of Alumni Relations and Development, says that Bienen’s enthusiasm for the school helped motivate him and encourage donors to buy into his plans.
“He is very passionate about NU, which comes through in everything he does,” Pearson says. “He’s at athletic events, he’s at business forums. People think of him as the face of NU, carrying the heart of the institution around with him.”
But achieving widespread success at a major university requires a special skill set, not just a drive to get things done. Timothy Krauskopf, who first joined Northwestern’s board of trustees in 1996, says that Bienen was able to succeed because he understood all aspects of running a school.
“He understands that it’s a billion-dollar corporation, and it’s an academic treasure,” Krauskopf says. “It has to run like a business and you have to hire people capable of making sure the heating bill is paid, that energy comes at the best rate and that your investments are handled in the best responsible way. But he’s a PhD, a respected author and teacher and he has an understanding of what being a professor is all about.”
That combination meant that the school grew not just financially, but academically too, especially in research. Bienen broke down barriers between schools and encouraged cross-discipline research. And despite being a politics wonk, he saw the value in scientific research, a topic that Krauskopf says Bienen was fond of talking about. Northwestern’s sponsored research has increased to $439 million from $169 million in 1994.
The academic growth was also matched by a rise in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, including the school’s first (and only) Top 10 appearance, a No. 9 ranking in 1997. Still, Bienen said he didn’t put much stock in those numbers.
“My aim is not to have us go up in these summary rankings, but to have us grow stronger,” he says. “What do other university presidents think of Northwestern? If you poll the presidents in the AAU [Association of American Universities], they would tell you it’s gone up as much as any other university in the country. Those are the people who count for me. Or the people who are deciding to come to Northwestern.”
Bienen’s philosophy of excellence extends beyond the classroom. The unabashed sports fan took a limp Wildcats sports program and tried to strengthen it, improving facilities and expanding sports scholarships.
“You shouldn’t consign yourself to failure or less than excellence, whether it’s a particular program or athletics,” Bienen said. “[Athletics] was something I cared about improving on and spending time and effort doing it.”
When talking about sports, Bienen grins for the first time and seems to really be enjoying the interview, still basking in the previous night’s basketball win against Florida State. But he has good reason to smile – Bienen has seen the ‘Cats go from Big Ten doormat to winning three conference titles in football and a Rose Bowl berth. Not to mention the success in diverse sports like women’s lacrosse, swimming, soccer and wrestling.
“The one relative disappointment I had was basketball, but it looks like we might finally have a good team,” he said. “I hope that in my last year.”
By now, it seems like that hope may not come true: the basketball team’s season turned disappointing with the arrival of 2009. But that’s the way things are, and Bienen’s aware that his tenure hasn’t been all Rose Bowls and fundraising blowouts. Yet, just as quickly as he refuses to praise his own triumphs, he can brush off the controversies.
There was the ugly dispute over the creation of an Asian-American studies department in 1995, where students held a 21-day hunger strike at the Rock. Bienen just dismissed the matter as a problem for Weinberg administrators, not for himself. There’s the well-documented drop-off in African-American students and, worse, the accusations that Bienen doesn’t care about it. In a Daily Northwestern column last March, Jordan Weissman recalled a “tense” conversation with Bienen being during an interview about the dip in black enrollment.
“That’s been a huge disappointment,” Bienen says genuinely, with barely a hint of the “knee-jerk defensiveness” that Weissman wrote about. He says the problem hasn’t been on applications, but on yield—the percentage of accepted students who decide to matriculate. One reason for the low numbers may be Northwestern’s unwillingness to award merit scholarships based on race. Bienen said he hopes the new policy of giving grants instead of loans to needy students will help the minority enrollment.
“Is [the no-loan policy] something I wish we had done earlier? Not necessarily,” he said. “I wish we had had better numbers earlier, but I’m not sure we had the financial wherewithal to do what we did last year. I’m going to try very hard to sustain it.”
And, of course there’s been the constant criticism that Bienen is absent from campus. A 2006 Daily column accused him of not talking to students and warned him about locking himself “in an ivory tower within an ivory tower.”
Hearing those accusations, Bienen bristled.
“I make a distinction between being visible on campus and being available,” he said. “It was rare that I didn’t answer an email. If I was invited someplace, I tried to go. I don’t think it’s accurate to say I wasn’t accessible.”
Still, Bienen couldn’t deny that he wasn’t always around. It’s clear that this was a personal regret. He lamented the fact that his office in the Rebecca Crown Center was so far away from the center of campus, because he wasn’t able to walk around as much as he liked. And even though he said he used “brute force” on his schedule, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for him to be everywhere.
“It’s true to some extent that I didn’t appear at every single event,” he says. “You’re traveling a lot, you have a million different meetings about the budget, you’re doing twenty different things at once and every once in a great while you want some time with your wife and family, which you don’t get much.”
It’s that last point that reveals Bienen’s biggest regrets. He already works overtime for the school – he says he only gets five or six hours of sleep a night – and I get the impression he’d work longer if the hours were there. But that, plus his place on boards for the Steppenwolf Theatre or the Council on Foreign Relations, doesn’t leave him much free time to reflect.
“I think I just said yes to too much in hindsight,” he said. “Every president gives the incoming president advice that nobody pays attention to. When I left Princeton, Harold Shapiro, who was the president, said you have to budget time and don’t make appointments on Sunday, and then I didn’t pay any attention to him. But he was right.”
But the president still found time to teach, leading small classes in topics like foreign policy and managing the monetary fund. On the one hand, it was a way to reach out to students, to show that he was all about academics and that he actually, occasionally, left the office. But more than that, Bienen enjoyed the opportunity to carry on his successful academic work. And, of course, he finds time for the occasional squash match, often with members of the school’s varsity club.
In the end, although Bienen won’t admit it, he will be remembered as one of the school’s most successful presidents. He took what was already considered a good university and catapulted it onto the national stage, quintupling the endowment while he was at it.
His name has already been cemented on campus at the Leigh and Henry Bienen School of Music. Krauskopf said the board didn’t take long to decide to name the school after Bienen.
Bienen let out a little smile when I mentioned the honor.
“It’s great. I’m driving somewhere and I hear ‘Bienen School of Music’ on the radio and I’m particularly pleased because I think it’s a good music school and I’ll be associated with it long after I’m gone,” he says. “Sure, you’ll be forgotten, but that’s life. I have no illusions about that.”
But the real heritage he’d like to leave behind is the strength of the school, which, finally, the modest president would admit to enjoying.
“I think the sense that the university has done well gives me great gratification,” he said. “I feel good when our students win Rhodes and Marshall [scholarships] and I feel good when the basketball team blasts Florida State.”
But, being Bienen, he can’t just let it be at that praise. He has to temper it.
“There have been many more pluses than minuses in my term,” he says, before rushing off to take his phone call. He doesn’t want to bask in his achievements. And even if he did, he wouldn’t have the time.