What would it be like if Northwestern’s president was oft seen at student meetings and social events? The idea of a president among the students is more than intriguing; it is simply enthralling. This is what the incoming University President Morton Schapiro offers Northwestern undergraduates: a real presence within the undergraduate community.
As President of Williams College, Schapiro quickly became a favorite among students. He had numerous student groups over for dinner, attended the Williams version of “Munchies” (an informal, student meeting time) and immersed himself in discussions with students about how the college should be run. But can he do the same thing at a major research university with quadruple the undergraduate population and as well as a graduate school in a time of economic crisis? In essence, despite all the odds, can “Morty” be as good a friend to NU undergrads as he currently is to Williams undergrads? Over the course of what was a colorful and sometimes light-hearted question and answer session at Shepard Residential College, Schapiro proved that he has the charm, the wit and the want to create a legitimate relationship with Northwestern’s underclassmen.
Schapiro arrived on time at Shepard that night, sans trumpet fanfare and lacking eleven lords-a-leaping. Appearing spry and bright-eyed, he spoke briefly about his experience as President of Williams College and as Dean of The College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences at the University of Southern California. Perhaps he was playing to his audience, but Schapiro placed a heavy emphasis on the importance of his relationship with undergraduate students.
A question fired from the audience: Can Schapiro truly bond with Northwestern’s 8,000 youngest tuition-payers? With a certain abrupt frankness he admitted that it was “going to be a challenge.” And how could it not? With an undergraduate population more than four times the size of Williams augmented with a graduate student population, a need for research funding and increased fundraising responsibilities, one can hardly expect Morty to have the time to invite everyone over for bratwurst. Still, the idea is pleasantly palatable (and not just because there might be brown mustard involved). While Northwestern has always had a purported bent of being an undergrad-friendly research university, it is hard to buy into the idea when school administrators seem so distant. What Schapiro may be able to provide NU is that seemingly intangible missing link that could make Northwestern undergrads feel all the more at home.
But is being sociable good enough? Is it possible that what Schapiro has stated is nothing more than a charade, a perspective to be lost amidst the numerous duties of a president of a larger university? Perhaps Schapiro’s pro-undergrad leanings are simply the product of a lack of prolonged exposure to graduate students and research institutions. In a time when many may feel disenfranchised by the leaders that surround them, some fairly argue that this could all be a lot of talk – the kind that doesn’t translate into walk.
But Schapiro should be given the benefit of the doubt. While he was notably optimistic about undergraduate issues, he was also quietly realistic about others. Schapiro explained that the cost of providing financial aid to international students would be mind-boggling, and that efforts to make NU a “greener” campus would be slowed by the economic downturn.
Unlike Senators John McCain and Barack Obama in the lead up to the presidential election, Schapiro was able to name specific items in his “platform” that honestly could not be dealt with to the extent that he would like. Granted, the man was already picked for the job when he delivered this realism, but the existence of said realism gives legitimacy to the claims that he can actually accomplish the specific items he says he can.
So what sort of policies can he undertake for the benefit of undergrads? Schapiro is no slouch when it comes to the essential economic aspects of the presidency. Considered one of the nation’s most prominent figures in the economics of higher education, especially after having cultivated a powerful alum network at Williams, Schapiro expects that Northwestern’s endowment will remain healthy in the coming years.
Yet, regardless of Schapiro’s expertise, numerous undergraduates with financial aid packages are duly worried about how these packages will be affected by the economic downturn. Schapiro insisted that packages, as per the formula that creates them, will remain fair, citing how key needs-blind admission is to keeping a college population economically diverse. Empirically, this checks out: Williams College has not reverted, nor does it plan to revert from its current package plan nor its needs-blind admissions policy.
Student groups can expect favorable treatment amidst the downturn as well. In an interview with The Williams Record, when asked if student organization and club budgets at Williams would be cut for the following years, Schapiro waxed Obama: “It’s going to be a scalpel, not a blunt instrument. I think we know enough about priorities at Williams College not to cut the important things.” While this seems rather ambiguous, Schapiro was not so optimistic about other aspects of the budget: campus improvements, keeping all staff, etc.
Ultimately, Schapiro’s ability to befriend Northwestern’s underclassmen through both exposure and policy will be limited by economic strain and the sheer size of the university.
But on paper, he looks like a good pick. Widely rumored to have been chosen by the board unanimously, it is clear that he meets the basic requirements: renowned fundraiser and skilled network builder/maintainer. The kicker is that he appears to exceed the basic requirements in ways that look especially beneficial for the college population. Namely, he wants to talk with undergrads on a regular basis, plans to maintain financial aid packages and will probably keep cuts in student organization/club budgets to a minimum.
But one pressing question remains: Does all this mean he’s going to get a Facebook?