The Power of Education: Morton Schapiro

Morton Schapiro knows a bit about power, though he’s reluctant to talk about it.

As president of Northwestern University, consistently ranked among the best undergraduate and research institutions in the nation, Schapiro (known as Morty to students) wields influence over the nation’s future best and brightest. And, in his five-year tenure at the university, he’s only strengthened its reputation and grown its reach in the community. For the eighth year in a row, NU was a top-10 producer of U.S. Fulbright grant recipients, with 23 seniors, graduate students and recent alumni awarded the prestigious scholarships for international research exchange.

And as the university continues to gain prominence, its admissions becomes increasingly selective—for 2013-2014, the admission rate fell to an all-time low of less than 14 percent—and Schapiro remains the man at the helm. It’s an awful lot of power, but he’s certainly using it for good.

How did you get your start in education?

I got a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. I decided when I was an undergrad that I wanted to be an academic, and I never left the field. I started teaching at UPenn full-time in 1979.

My first real administrative job was in 1994, when I became dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences at the University of Southern California. I didn’t want to go over into “The Dark Side,” as we call academic leadership. Taking that administrative job was predicated on my being able to continue to teach and to write, and every job subsequent to that, it’s been something I’ve insisted on. I didn’t set out to be a college or university president, but to be an administrator while I continued to do the things that brought me to academia in the first place.

What brought you to Northwestern?

I’d been at Williams College for a total of 20 years. I was president for nine, and I finally felt like it was about time to do something else. We mostly moved for my family. My wife, she’s a screenwriter from Los Angeles, said, “Let’s go to the Midwest. We’ve never been. We hear people are friendly.”

What do you love most about what you do?

I love spending quality time with the undergrads, who are just amazingly intellectually engaged. They’re fixated on serving society, but they lack that kind of entitlement many young men and women have when they’re told they’re the best and the brightest.

How would you define power?

I would say the ability to do good. You might be in a position where people look at you as a role model; the whole key is how you exercise that privilege.

How do you think you’re wielding your power?

There is a certain amount of influence that comes with being the president of Northwestern, and I try to exercise that well, through community outreach, educating our students, or research. I’m also a professor of economics, and I hope what I do continues to impact policy. A few weeks ago, I was at the White House talking about my research.

How is Northwestern reaching out into the community?

As an educational institution, we’re reaching out to make sure the high schools in Evanston and Chicago are as well resourced as possible.

We try to raise the sights of everyone. We’re trying to get people to work hard and focus on getting into the best four-year college or university that they’re capable of being admitted to. We’re held in the public trust as a not-for-profit, and we take that seriously.

How else is Northwestern expanding?

We’re investing in an infrastructure in the humanities and performing arts. A lot of institutions are so obsessed with STEM—science, engineering, technology and math—but there’s more to a great university than that. We’re making a statement that we’re not turning our backs on the humanists or performing-arts faculty. The liberal-arts core of the university is alive and well, and we’re supporting that with major infrastructure projects.

What are you most proud of?

What we’re really trying to do here is provide the kind of really good community-based undergraduate education, in the context of one of the world’s great research universities. We’re not sacrificing research. In fact, we’re doubling down on it, even as a lot of people step back. We’re continuing to do everything we can to attract the best scholars of the world, but, at the same time, we’re focusing on the undergraduate experience.

We just shattered our record for early admission. It’s early admission, not early action, so they’re bound to come here. A lot of kids used to play the Ivy market to see how they did, and then they’d come to us in the spring. Our admit rate was less than 14 percent; we’re only taking one out of eight. This was always a place that got great students, but we had an admit rate around 30 percent when I came here. That’s really gratifying. It says people really understand what we’re trying to do here.

When you were starting out, who mentored you?

I’ve had a series of really good role models. There was William Bowen, who was president of Princeton for decades and head of the Mellon Foundation; the whole time, he taught as an economist published. He is a great role model.

Who are you excited about mentoring now?

I try to be a positive role model to students, to inspire. Every night, I’m doing a talk at a sorority or a fraternity or a dorm. Students cook me dinner. As president, you talk to students, you show them that you’re normal. I’ve been inspired by a lot of people, so if I can ever inspire anyone, it’s like giving back.

How do you juggle it all?

You know, when you’re president, you can do it. People say, “Oh, if I had more time, I would teach.” You’re the president; you set your schedule. I travel a lot, but not when I am teaching. I never miss a class, of course, and I continue to publish.

You take control of your schedule, and you do the things that keep you sane and keep you productive. It’s a little harder when you’re a dean or a vice president because you’re at the beck and call of the president. When you’re the president, you can do whatever you want.


Find the rest of our power players here.