Talking leadership 14: Morton Schapiro on enjoying controversy

“So this is Boris’s last week?”

Morton Shapiro begins the interview with Times Higher Education like an old friend in a pub. Many university executives participating in the Talking Leadership series have a media companion or at least have a sleek Zoom background with a decorated logo. The president of Northwestern University, ranked 24th in the World Ranking of Universities, sits alone in front of his fridge and begins a casual discussion of UK policy.

Shapiro has headed Northwestern, a private research university with 19,000 students on Lake Michigan since 2009, before which he was president of Williams College in Massachusetts.

“Do you think it was naivety or arrogance?” He asks Johnson. “The guy thinks almost like Trump.” As a higher education economist who has met and advised many U.S. presidents and politicians for four decades, he may know.

Barack Obama has done the most to get a higher education by expanding access, he says, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell was one of the smartest people he has ever met. He was less impressed by Ronald Reagan’s attempt to “gut the Pell Grant,” which helps many low-income Americans study at universities.

In general, he believes that politicians are smarter than you think.

“I don’t know any of them in this for ego and benefit other than Trump,” he says. “They are performers. I guess we’re all such performers. But they are just better than us. “

He is a supporter of President Biden, but he has one concern.

“I really respect the guy. The simple question is: can you be effective in a nasty world if you are not nasty by nature? ” This may be a telling question, given that Shapiro for 22 years has been the one most describe as an effective university president.


Shapiro is not so much settling the dispute as accepting it as an old friend. He angered the right by defending safe places, and Fox News called him “the king of snowflakes” (“at least they mention me”). Meanwhile his latest book, Minds are closed, laments the growing rigid confidence in politics and preaches a sensible discussion. “If people on the far left read this, they would hate it,” he says.

Shapiro is a fan of commentary – “I’ve written about everything I’ve ever thought, for better or worse” – and demonstrates a deep understanding of the machinations of the media world.

“If you’re going to write articles about how we should get more money for research, well, that’s nice,” he says in a manner when someone strokes your head. But “you’re not going to publish this in Wall Street Journal or FT or New York Times”He adds. “They’re not going to publish it unless some people make an exception.”

Every time he writes one, he gets a letter of hatred; often senders say they will never donate to the university again.

“Usually they never gave the first time, to be honest. Sometimes I watch them, ”he says with a smile. Although he admits that his openness cost them gifts.

In addition to being extremely knowledgeable in the media (he researches the work and experiences of the journalists who are in his interviews), is it possible that he likes controversy? His first answer is no. But then he stops and smiles.

“As an economist, we believe that you do not ask people questions about their preferences. You look at their behaviors, which show benefits, ”he says. Wrote more than 100 articles.

One of Shapiro’s biggest mysteries may be how he stayed at work given this propensity for controversy. “My theory is that I’m short, so people feel sorry for me. If I had been higher, I probably would have been fired years ago, ”he jokes.

More seriously, he believes other presidents are not so open because they “live in fear of returning to faculty. They did not teach or publish [in] forever. “

“I never lived in fear of it. Okay, fire me. I am an experienced professor of economics; there is a much worse life than that, “he says.” Yes, my salary would be reduced by 60 percent. But it would still be a really good salary. I’m not a low-paid professor of literature. I’m a professor of economics very good. “

He admits that it protects many years of work. “I have been on the dark side of the administration since 1994. It’s much harder now. “

However, there are some situations he avoids. He will no longer testify to the government because of the conflict between the higher education economist and the head of the university. In 2001, sitting on a panel with Ivy League presidents, they were asked if the government should invest more in higher education. Not surprisingly, others said so, and his response was “against what? Unlike the K-12? No. ” He told them that they should allocate money wisely, and the profits from early interventions are higher than anything else.

“I’m not going to testify as an economist because they’ll think I’m on the dark side as president. I’m not going to testify as president and just say something that is not true. “

Extending access

One of his main hobbies at Northwestern was expanding access to poor students. He became a pioneer of the Northwestern Academy of Chicago Public Schools, which targets students who applied to elective colleges and universities but were not accepted. The program guides them on tours of good universities, teaches them standardized tests, and conducts improvisation workshops to improve their public speaking and increase self-confidence.

What does he think of people who say you can’t expand access and improve quality?

“It’s just not true. The data in this regard is clear, ”he says. “Are you expanding your views on who can succeed and guess what? They succeed. “

Northwestern takes into account the school she attended along with the grades she received. “If you go to a low-service school and get a score that would be humiliating if you went to one of those fancy schools, but it’s the highest score anyone has had in years at your school, you take that child. You absolutely accept this child, ”he says.

Under Shapiro, Northwestern’s financial aid rose from $ 80 million (£ 58.8 million) to about $ 205 million. In 2016, he announced an initiative to exclude loans from financial aid packages to help students complete their studies without debt. He announced a goal to admit by 2020 to an elementary class consisting of at least 20 percent of students with Pell Grant grants (low-income) that they achieved in 2018.

Ethnic diversity has also increased; the share of black students increased from 7 to 12 percent and Hispanic students from 9 to 17 percent. The percentage of students from the surrounding low-income areas has doubled, from 3 to 6 percent.

His passion is fueled by his own origins.

“I went to high school with very little service, and most of my friends didn’t go to college,” he says.

“I had a decent career as a professor and administrator, but I was far from the most talented person I knew when I was in high school. I was not a hidden gem; I was one of the many potential gems when people didn’t care about them. ”

He is also motivated by his Jewish faith – “I believe we are here in this world only to cure it, to repair it” – and is not afraid to call for anti-Semitism.

In October 2020, students protesting against police on the Northwest Campus stood near his home in the morning and shouted “pig.” He responded with a strong open letter in which he wrote: “I ask you to look carefully in the mirror for a long time and understand that this is not really” tell the truth to the authorities “and does not contribute to your cause. It’s an abomination, and you should be ashamed of yourself. “

Protesters also chanted “river to sea,” a phrase condemning Israel’s existence, and he received emails calling him a “dirty Jew.” However, he does not believe that anti-Semitism is growing; he doesn’t think it’s ever gone.

“I was born eight years after the liberation of Auschwitz; a quarter of my family burned in the furnaces. Was I surprised in Charlottesville when white supremacists chanted, “Jews will not replace us”? Not at all, ”he says. “There are a lot of victims, it’s not just Jews, but they seem to be focusing on Jews.”

Career change

Shapiro will step down as president this summer and end his fortieth-year teaching career. Maybe with his political connections and media savvy he will go into politics himself? In fact, he is following in the footsteps of many of his students. “I’m really obsessed with climate change. As an economist, it drives me crazy how we evaluate sustainable energy alternatives, ”he says.

His plan is to “declare victory after 43 years of consistent undergraduate study and move into the world of business” by investing in sustainable energy. No doubt he will write a few comments along the way.

Quick facts

Born: New Jersey, 1953

Academic qualifications: Bachelor of Economics at Hofstra University; PhD in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania

Lives with: His wife; they have three adult children

Academic hero: Economist Richard Easterlin

This is part of our “Speech Leadership” series of 50 50-week interviews with people who run the world’s leading universities, about how they address common strategic challenges and bring about change. Follow the series here.

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