Morty Schapiro, former president of the College, formally launched into his role as president of Northwestern University on Oct. 9 in an official ceremony that followed three days of inauguration-related events featuring New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and popular singer John Legend. The University’s Board of Trustees chose Schapiro to succeed Henry S. Bienen as the institution’s 16th president last December.
An informal “LiveWired Conversation” between Schapiro and Northwestern students, a “Celebrate Northwestern Concert,” a symposium on the economics of higher education and a symposium on sustainability preceded the formal inauguration on the afternoon of Oct. 9.
According to Mike McGee, Northwestern’s associate student government president, the inaugural planning committee had been working to create programming appropriate for the occasion since last April. The three-day series of events ranged from the serious, like the symposia, to the entertaining, like the concert Legend gave for the Northwestern community on the evening of Oct. 9.
“I definitely think this [inauguration] was a lot different in terms of its focus. [The committee] definitely wanted this to be very interactive,” McGee said. “We really wanted to engage students.”
Indeed, the selection of Schapiro may mark a new era for Northwestern, one with a new consciousness of undergraduate education. “A lot of people criticized our previous president and thought he was more focused on the graduate students,” said Andrea Rosenkranz, student and Northwestern Class Alliance president.
“He brings energy and focus to the undergraduate student experience,” McGee added.
McGee and Rosenkranz also emphasized both the optimistic atmosphere of inauguration week and the generally positive reception of Schapiro himself. “He’s down to earth, he’s funny and it doesn’t feel like you’re talking to someone way above you,” McGee said.
The inauguration was colored not only by a sense of change for Northwestern students, but also by the evolving role of universities. On the morning of Oct. 9, two symposia with prominent speakers set the tone for Schapiro’s leadership. Schapiro himself moderated the first discussion, on the economics of higher education, and NBC News’ Kelly O’Donnell moderated the second, on sustainability. Friedman served as a panelist for the sustainability symposium.
Schapiro also weaved themes of environmental awareness into his inaugural address. “The range of activities that Northwestern devotes to environmental issues is astounding. But this is an area where it’s impossible to do too much,” Schapiro said to the crowd that afternoon.
Another highlight of the transitional celebration fell earlier in the week, when Schapiro participated in the “LiveWired” chat on Oct. 7 to field questions from Northwestern students. The Northwestern Class Alliance, which works with the alumni association and helps foster unity between the classes at the University, hosted the chat, which was also streamed live online. According to Rosenkranz, the inauguration committee intended the chat to help students get to know Schapiro.
“He was very approachable â€“ I’m sure it came off on the camera, it definitely came off in person,” Rosenkranz said. She added that the current events themes featured throughout the week cropped up in the discussion. “There were a lot of questions in the chat about sustainability â€“ I think people are looking to get a new perspective on things,” Rosenkranz said.
Rosenkranz and McGee also said that Williams has been a part of the conversation in the Northwestern community since Schapiro first visited the University last January. According to McGee, when the student body first heard about Schapiro becoming their president, “automatically we all looked at Williams to see what he had done,” he said.
He cited the Paresky Center as an example of a resource that Northwestern, which lacks a renovated student center, would want Schapiro to think about while leading the University. “Anything that Williams was doing better than Northwestern, we wanted him to work on here,” McGee said.
The College managed a more physical presence during the week too, as 53 members of the College community traveled to Evanston, Ill. for the events. Interim President Bill Wagner, Provost Bill Lenhart, Vice President of Operations Steve Klass and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Institutional Diversity Mike Reed were some of who attended. Admissions Director Dick Nesbitt, Philosophy Professor Will Dudley and English Department Chair Peter Murphy also joined the group as Schapiro’s guests.
“It was a nice blend of the serious, cerebral and ceremonial with celebratory fun,” Nesbitt said. “But mostly fun.”
According to Nesbitt, the inaugural celebration originally included a black-tie event, but that Schapiro decided to allow students to replace the formal program with one of their choosing. The funding then went to the Legend concert on the night of his ceremony. “The students at Northwestern have clearly embraced Morty already,” Nesbitt said. “At the end, Morty got almost as big an ovation as Mr. Legend.”
Murphy also mentioned the football game against Miami University the day after the inaugural ceremony â€“ in which Schapiro served as an honorary captain of the Northwestern team â€“ as a particularly festive part of the week. Murphy described Schapiro as having a great time supporting the team on the sidelines. “He knows that it’s important for his work for his personality to come through,” Murphy said.
In terms of the challenges facing Schapiro and reservations that the Northwestern community might harbor towards him, McGee believed that it was too early for the students to form a solid idea. “Definitely there will be decisions he makes or things he’ll say that we won’t agree with . . . I think as of right now there are no major concerns,” McGee said. “Northwestern is a bigger institution than Williams â€“ it’s up to students to make sure we keep him engaged in issues we care about . . . that whatever next big change he makes, students are at the top of that priority list.”