At an opportunity to to engage in “Conversations with the President” on Tuesday morning, nearly every seat in the McCormick Foundation Center was occupied, but not by students.
Morty’s seventh annual version of a “State of the Union” address was well-received and attended by university staff, but less so by students. In fact, in a crowd of over two hundred people, not one undergraduate was in attendance.
Tracey Gibson-Jackson, chair of the Staff Advisory Council (NUSAC) and moderator of the forum, said she expected this. While the event was open to everyone, Gibson-Jackson said it is essentially “geared toward staff.”
“We talk about student issues,” she said. “But they’re not really issues that students care about… because they don’t directly impact them.”
The “student issues” discussed ranged from campus unrest to Northwestern’s enormous endowment and infrastructural focus. Schapiro began with the state of the University, focusing mainly on what it currently excels at – having enough money, to name one – but also noting areas of improvement – like diversity and inclusion – and then invited members of the administration to the stage for a panel regarding issues of note.
In his address, Schapiro took the opportunity to address the increase in “unrest” in the form of protests on campuses nationwide including racial protests at Mizzou and Yale, and those on our campus such as demonstrations for the Black House and NU Divest, and emphasized that he does not see protests as a bad thing.
For Schapiro, addressing protests and unrest at Northwestern is a “chance to separate ourselves from other universities and do the right thing.”
“It became evident [in talking to other presidents] that campus unrest wasn’t a problem but an opportunity,” he said.
However, Schapiro said that there are challenges in maintaining free speech while creating acceptable rules in how one engages in protests, and acknowledged that the administration may have some “uncomfortable learning” to do in this field.
Later during the panel, Executive Vice President Nim Chinniah and Vice President of Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin echoed Schapiro’s thoughts on activism.
Telles-Irvin said that protests could be “somewhat refreshing.”
“For us, it really means that it’s mostly because they care about our campus and society as a whole,” she said.
“We’re trying to create a campus climate that is respectful in terms of the ability to engage with one another and to talk about issues that we have,” said Chinniah. “We’re trying hard as a leadership team not to react to the delivery but to really understand the issues that people are trying to communicate.”
To nobody’s great surprise Northwestern continues to excel in increasing its endowment. Schapiro emphasized the need to start spending it more on student programs, justifying the continued construction all over campus.
“It’s what happens in the buildings,” said Schapiro, “but you need the right buildings.”
Perhaps less obvious was Schapiro’s confidence in the improvement of socioeconomic, geographic and racial diversity from a numerical standpoint. The school continues to increase its numbers of minority students and those coming from Chicago Public Schools and Evanston Township High School, as well as develop its relationship with CPS. However, he added that it is important to look at the experience after students arrive on campus.
“It’s one thing to be need blind in admissions, but it’s another to be need blind in experience,” said Schapiro. “We want everyone here to feel like Northwestern is their school.”
Provost Daniel Linzer said students sometimes feel uncomfortable due to microaggressions committed by faculty members, and solving this requires education from the top down, he said.
“Faculty want to do the right thing all the time,” he said. “We often think we’re going about [creating dialogue] in the right way, but we might not be.”
Telles-Irvin said that a change would require work from everyone. “It’s going to take all of us,” she said. “It’s not just one or two individuals.”
Philip Harris, vice president and general council, noted that this issue “starts at the top.”
“We want the leaders, the people who speak for the school, to be diverse,” said Harris.
In the hour and a half of discussion including Schapiro’s SOTU, there was a panel and brief question and answer opportunity. The majority of conversation was positive; many staff members in the audience received appreciation and commendation and efforts made by the university were praised. All in all, Northwestern appeared to be in a good place.
However, toward the end of the forum, Linzer told the room what Northwestern students fight to remind administration, most recently at President Schapiro’s own house to protest the some of the school’s investments.
“There’s still more work to be done,” Linzer said.