Amid it all, Schapiro’s administration has exhibited a unique pattern of making decisions it later regrets—or revises.
"Some people were really angry," Schapiro says, recalling a September conference call with 1,400 parents upset over the university reneging on a plan to fully reopen campus to all students this fall. In late August, just days before undergrads from all over the country were to arrive on the main Evanston campus, Northwestern told freshmen and sophomores not to come, leaving students and their families scrambling to make other plans.
Schapiro says, "I took the blame," explaining he made the best decision he could in light of a rapidly developing local COVID spike, but he knows he lost some parents’ trust. "Mort, you’ve proven your incompetence," he recalls one saying.
With an $11 billion endowment and a No. 9 ranking among national universities, Northwestern will no doubt survive a year that Schapiro, 67, would like to put behind him. "The highly selective schools, like Northwestern, will always maintain their prestigious reputations," says Kevin Krebs, founder of Hello College, an Oakbrook Terrace-based college guidance consultancy. Even so, Northwestern has "gotten a few black eyes this year."
Schapiro’s administration fumbled for the right response to the ongoing student protests. Students, led by the group NU Community Not Cops, have faced off regularly in the past two months with riot-gear-clad suburban police officers in downtown Evanston. Sometimes hundreds of students have been involved.
After protesters targeted Schapiro’s home one night, yelling obscenities at him and his wife, the president lashed out in an Oct. 19 letter, calling students’ behavior "an abomination," condemning their spray-painting and vandalizing, and saying the university had "absolutely no intention" of abolishing campus police.
African American Studies faculty immediately rebuked Schapiro, calling his letter "tone deaf" and saying in their own letter to him that his outrage was sparked only when his quiet suburban world was disturbed and not by "actual violence" against marginalized groups.
A week later, Schapiro issued a more conciliatory letter, saying the university would launch a community safety oversight advisory board and forums to discuss " public safety, well-being and equity." In hindsight, Schapiro acknowledges upsetting a lot of people with the first letter and says he probably should have sent the second letter instead. Despite his efforts, protests reached a crescendo on Halloween, with students reportedly throwing bricks and officers using pepper spray. Injuries and at least one arrest were reported.
"When there’s discord between a president and these kinds of major stakeholders, that’s a red flag," says Tim Westerbeck, president of Chicago higher education consulting firm Eduvantis.
Powerful university brands like Northwestern are difficult to damage, but risks arise if issues aren’t resolved, especially when they can be amplified on social media, he contends. "It can snowball," Westerbeck says. "That’s the challenge that the leadership and the trustees have on their plate."
In another about-face, Northwestern insisted on increasing tuition 3.5 percent this year, despite parents contending it was unjustified in light of keeping classes online. Weeks later, the university discounted fall tuition 10 percent.
Northwestern now expects to post a surplus in its $2.5 billion budget for the fiscal year ended in August, thanks to a revenue decline that Schapiro says was only about half as bad as previously expected. While that would typically be good news, it may not sit well with employees after the university cut 7 percent of its workforce and slashed benefits, including contributions to retirement accounts. While a majority of furloughed employees, like dining hall workers, have returned, those who took buyouts won’t. Salary freezes remain in place, and contributions to retirement accounts that were suspended will be restarted next year, Northwestern spokesman Jon Yates says.
A half-dozen trustees contacted for this piece didn’t want to speak on the record or didn’t return calls. Schapiro, who earns about $2 million annually, says he’s confident he retains their support. Recent events haven’t prompted any emergency board meetings, and he talks weekly with Chairman J. Landis Martin, a Denver-based private-equity executive.
Schapiro, known as "Morty" on campus, took Northwestern’s top post in 2009 after a decade as president of Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and he teaches courses, too. He’s an economist by training with an expertise in university admissions and student demand.
His administrative strong suit is in fundraising, with the university attracting more than $5 billion in its latest multiyear capital campaign. During his tenure, Northwestern has also increased its research grant income to almost $900 million annually, he says. Such fortunes have let him populate the university’s scenic lakeside campus with new buildings, like the Kellogg School of Management Global Hub.
Schapiro also touts the university’s surplus, and another one on the way, as the kind of performance that sets Northwestern apart from its peers. "We’re emerging much more efficient than we were before," he says. He’s unconcerned with the school losing its Moody’s Investors Service AAA rating last year because of "ongoing weak operating performance."
With Northwestern accepting about 9 percent of undergrad applicants this year, Schapiro is also "absolutely not worried" about recent events damaging the school’s brand, he says. Fall enrollment of 8,720 undergraduates and 13,596 graduates was about 1 percent higher than last year. Only about 550 of the usual 3,800 students have been on campus, with a COVID-19 positivity rate of about 1 percent.
"This is one of the most selective institutions in the world, and it’s only going to get more selective," he says.
Many universities, including the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, reported record enrollment this year. Not so at Northwestern. For fall, it logged its smallest freshman class of the past decade, with 1,902 students, despite the tuition break, while the U of C admitted a record class of 1,848 with a 7.3 percent admittance rate.
Schapiro concedes the dramatic cuts this year will undoubtedly affect Northwestern’s educational offering. In one example, product design guru Walter Herbst, 83, says he’ll resign next year as longtime leader of the graduate Product Design & Development Management Program because staffing changes increased his workload too much.
Still, Schapiro is asking parents to let him prove his competency as the university opens up the dorms in January and invites nearly 2,000 more students to campus. "I think we can get it right this time," he says he tells some skeptical parents. "If you trusted me before and I messed it up, sorry, but the best way to do it is to move forward and show this time we can pull it off."
via Crain’s Chicago Business
November 15, 2020 at 02:27PM