In January 2014, Morton Schapiro, the president of Northwestern University, was in a meeting at the White House. And like most everything in Washington, the meeting was running late. Schapiro, who’s better known for his enthusiasm than his patience, was particularly restless that morning – there was somewhere important he needed to be that day. He kept checking his watch, waiting for the appropriate moment to leave. Finally, it came: The president and first lady entered the room, and in the commotion, Schapiro slipped out the door.
Although he didn’t want to come across as rude, he’d already made his statement and he figured they didn’t need him. “It was awkward, but I think it was the right decision,” he says.
Schapiro’s important appointment was in Harris Hall L07. Inside this basement classroom on the southern end of NU’s Evanston campus, Schapiro was teaching a class with Professor Gary Saul Morson called Humanities 260, which explores the ideas about alternatives and choices from a variety of disciplines. Depending on the year, students can expect lively debate and discussion on everything from the development of the fork to the economics of love and marriage. While the content of the course has changed dramatically in the last six years, one thing remains constant: Schapiro never misses class.
In fact, Schapiro says he’s missed class just three times in his 38 years of teaching: to see the birth of his son, to recover from pneumonia and to testify at a Senate committee hearing on Pell Grants, one of his areas of expertise as an economist. He has never taken a sabbatical because he enjoys teaching so much.
Schapiro credits his professors at Hofstra University, a small and relatively unknown college on Long Island, for his punctuality and passion for teaching. At Hofstra, he took a class on the Romantic poets – Keats, Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth and Blake – with Graham Frost, a professor who he described as “absolutely brilliant,” someone who made the material feel alive. Schapiro decided he wanted to be one of those great teachers, and since his professors never missed class or ignored their obligations, he tries his best to do the same.
The way Schapiro tells it, he fell in love with the idea of teaching before economics. For a while, he considered going to graduate school for art history. He even knew what he wanted to write a thesis about: the transition from neoclassical painters like Jacques-Louis David to French Romantics like Gericault and Delacroix. But it was the mid ‘70s, and the recession was only getting worse. He worried he wouldn’t find a job teaching art history in the unstable market. Eventually, he decided to pursue economics, another subject he enjoyed studying at Hofstra. And since finishing his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, Schapiro has taught eager students everything from the principles of rational choice theory to the intricacies of higher education policy, without fail.
“I fortunately love being with students, otherwise I wouldn’t do it the way I do it. It’s not really part of my job.”
- Morty Schapiro
Outside the classroom, Morty – almost nobody calls him President Schapiro – is a beloved campus figure. Students ogle as he treks down Orrington Avenue on his way to work, a morning ritual he continues through the frigid winter. They cheer “Morty! Morty! Morty!” as he stalks the sidelines at home football games in his aviator sunglasses and Northwestern® zip-up, his short silver hair a beacon amid a sea of Northwestern Purple football helmets (a proprietary color, of course). Open Tinder, and you’ll eventually bump into parody profiles of Morty with bios like “On Game Day I go Cats. / On weekdays I go down on you.”
Most evenings, Morty also entertains students, faculty, staff and distinguished guests at his home a few blocks from campus. The tradition, which Morty started as the president of Williams College in 2000, has become a rite of passage for students. Keli Gail, who was Morty’s assistant at Williams, jokes his house was “the most popular B&B in town.”
Morty’s focus on undergraduate students distinguishes him from many of his predecessors at Northwestern. Former president Henry Bienen taught a single course during his 13 years as president, and undergraduates frequently said he was inaccessible. And while Bienen arrived at Northwestern after a long career at Princeton, another elite research university, Morty had spent 20 years at Williams, a liberal arts college renowned for its undergraduate education.
But some students, particularly those from the underrepresented communities Morty and Northwestern’s administration frequently reference in speeches, op-eds and task force reports, question how much he has done to create a diverse and inclusive community. Many suggest he’s disengaged, and in some cases, even obstructionist. Still more suggest he’s disingenuous.
On the other hand, Morty’s eight years years at Northwestern would be a source of pride for any university president: Since he took the reins in 2009, only two research universities in the United States (the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford) have seen larger percentage growths in their endowment; this year, Northwestern participated in the Big Dance for the first time and claimed victory in the Pinstripe Bowl; the class of 2021 will have more than 20 percent Pell-eligible students, and to improve affordability Northwestern has instituted a debt cap program that will ensure no current student on financial aid graduates with more than $20,000 in loans.
Financially speaking, though, undergrads aren’t terribly important to Northwestern. Only 10 percent of the school’s annual operating budget comes from their tuition, and Morty says it will soon be closer to five percent. These trends hold true at other elite universities like Princeton, Yale and the University of Chicago. As a result, most university presidents pay little attention to the youngest members of their campuses. Morty’s evaluated based on his effectiveness in improving the university’s reputation, raising money, managing donor relations, and keeping Northwestern’s $2.6 billion annual operation chugging along, not how many dinners he holds at his house.
Yet, between teaching, attending student performances, watching athletic events, hosting dinners, giving presentations and meeting with students, Morty spends far more than 10 percent of his time with undergrads, a choice he says is purposeful. Since taking his first full-time administrative position in 1994 as Dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences at the University of Southern California, Morty has made sure he has the opportunity to teach each year. But he recognizes that while he loves working with undergraduate students, it doesn’t necessarily make him better at his “day job” of being president.
“I fortunately love being with students, otherwise I wouldn’t do it the way I do it,” he says. “It’s not really part of my job.”
In the press, Morty has also become a controversial defender of safe spaces, a position that puts him at odds with many. At the convocation for Northwestern’s Class of 2020 last September, Morty characterized those who didn’t believe in safe spaces as “lunatics” and called people who deny microaggressions “idiots.” While his remarks drew applause from many students, David Bernstein wrote in The Washington Post that Morty had “utterly failed to meet even the minimum standard of appropriate discourse” and concluded that “a resignation would not be disproportionate.”
Nearly a month later, Schapiro walked back parts of his earlier remarks. In a statement, he said he hoped his speech emphasized the fact that all people had safe spaces, noting that the Institute for Policy Research and golf courses were safe spaces for him.
While Morty advocated for safe spaces, though, Northwestern’s provost had cut student counseling services at the Women’s Center. His rousing defense also came less than a year after a series of emotional protests responded to a proposal from the administration which would have moved offices into the historic Black House, taking away space and resources from the many student groups who used the building. And as many students pointed out, they were not focused on safe spaces. They were just trying to hold on to the services they had already fought so hard to acquire.
The former president of Associated Student Government, Christina Cilento, says this “performative” aspect of Morty can sometimes rub students the wrong way. When the ideals he espouses in publications like The Wall Street Journal, The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Washington Post don’t match up with policy at Northwestern, students are naturally frustrated. “He has a reputation of saying a lot but doing a little,” says Lars Benson, who is ASG’s chief of staff and took Humanities 260 with Morty earlier this year.
“It’s very easy to write a 500-word op-ed that has probably been proofread by a million other people, but it’s much more telling about his actual intentions when you look at what this university has done for students of color.”
- Marcel Hanna
Other students have even more blistering critiques than Benson. Weinberg senior Marcel Hanna, the outgoing president of Students for Justice in Palestine, says Morty belittled students during the height of the divest movement. Macs Vinson, who was Cilento’s vice president and active in various student activist groups, suggests Morty isn’t always clued into the sorts of problems facing marginalized students on campus.
This winter, Vinson and Cilento met with Morty and Patricia Telles-Irvin, Northwestern’s vice president for student affairs, for a quarterly update from ASG. One of their major concerns was how to make the university more accessible for low-income students. They had brought along Madisen Hursey and Steffany Bahamon from Quest Scholars, a scholarship match program and student advocacy group.
At the meeting, the students discussed changes the university should make to better support students, like ensuring faculty make syllabi available before course registration and creating a space for low-income students on-campus, something akin to Multicultural Student Affairs or the Black House.
To their surprise, Morty agreed with just about everything, and even floated the idea of putting the new space in University Commons, which will eventually replace Norris. But Telles-Irvin had to remind him the building already had a set design and it was too late to change it.
The exchange miffed Cilento and Vinson, but what was especially frustrating was the fact that Morty didn’t seem to know the person responsible for running the office to support low-income students, Kourtney Cockrell. Morty says he doesn’t remember the meeting (after all, he has many with students), and Telles-Irvin emphasizes that Morty never made a concrete proposal. Telles-Irvin also says she wished students remembered that Morty making time to meet with students is unique among university presidents.
“It’s unfortunate because students don’t have a basis for comparison,” Telles-Irvin says.
“I thought anything that came from Morty was word — was like the Gospel . . . and that’s not the way it is.”
- Christina Cilento
Other students, though, connect the dots a little differently than Telles-Irvin. Hanna suggests Morty’s lack of decisive action on issues from divestment to mental health services for low-income students and students of color reveals a callous complacency.
“It’s very easy to write a 500-word op-ed that has probably been proofread by a million other people,” Hanna says. “But it’s much more telling about his actual intentions when you look at what this university has done for students of color. Our demands aren’t as general as ‘end systematic racism in this university.’ Our demands are [specific] like ‘provide computers and a room for engineers of color.’”
Sometimes, though, it’s difficult to separate criticism of Morty from criticism of the Board of Trustees, or the administration, or just certain professors and student groups. Cilento thinks Morty’s presence on campus – after all, he is a campus celebrity – can sometimes lead to students having a skewed perspective of him and his responsibilities as president. They can forget he’s indirectly responsible for the livelihood of more than 3,000 faculty and 6,000 staff members, and answers to a Board of Trustees worried about the long-term financial health of the school. Even if Morty bears ultimate responsibility, he isn’t the only one making or implementing decisions.
“I thought anything that came from Morty was word – was like the Gospel,” Cilento says. “And that’s not the way it is.”
Last April, Cilento was headed to a dinner with the President. Morty had invited her and around 50 other students from ASG to attend the meal as a thank you for their hard work. But Cilento, Vinson and five other students decided that rather than spend the evening inside with Morty, they were going to leave his home at the start of dinner to join a group of student protesters outside.
The students wanted to let Morty and administrators know they weren’t content with the progress for the Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility, which was supposed to give students more say in how Northwestern chose to invest its money.
“We wanted to disrupt the space because dinners at Morty’s house are very elite events,” Cilento says. “We wanted to make a statement in a way that was unexpected.”
Before dinner, Morty got up to give a short, presidential welcome. And to the surprise of just about everyone, Morty talked about divestment instead of ASG. As it turns out, the walkout was not as unexpected as those students thought. Someone had told Morty what the students were planning.
Morty talked about changes in the university’s investment policy and even said he favored divesting from a few coal stocks, a sentiment he said the Board of Trustees did not share. He talked about other things too, like reducing investments in guns and tobacco. But Morty made no mention of the divest campaigns most of the students at dinner and around campus were thinking about: Unshackle NU, which demanded the school divest from detention centers and private prisons, and NUDivest, which urged the school to divest from six corporations they said were violating Palestinians’ human rights.
As Morty spoke, Cilento fiddled with her phone under the table. She and the other students weren’t sure how to respond. To Cilento, Morty’s speech seemed like a last-ditch effort to win student support. And besides, she, Vinson and the rest of the group had made up their mind long before Morty started talking.
So shortly after Morty wrapped things up, another student, Anna DiStefano, read a list of demands the students had prepared, and then Ruba Assaf gave a short explanation for why the students were leaving in protest. After Assaf finished, the students stood up, and as they marched out, Cilento remembers Telles-Irvin whispering “This is such a shame.”
In the 17 years Morty had been a university president, nobody had left his home like that. Some say he stood up and told the students to “get out.” Others say he waved them out the door, enunciating a single word over and over again: “Bye.” But all agree Morty was not happy.
As the students groped around in Morty’s closet looking for their coats and backpacks, Christina realized they weren’t vacating a drab conference room, the kind of place where Morty normally met with students. They had gotten up with the first course salad still on their plates and had walked out of the president’s home. After the last student left, the room was silent.
But outside the scene was one of jubilation. One of the student protestors held up a sign with a photo of Morty glued next to one of Cilento and Vinson. Under his name, it said “Profit,” under theirs “Prophets.”
Even today, Morty doesn’t like to talk about the walkout. He says he’s not sure the students listened to him. Some students think it’s a bit more complicated. While Morty says those students didn’t need to protest like that to find a time to talk with him, the students think the reason they got the resulting advisory committee was because the event became high profile.
“Morty and the board were worried about having a PR disaster so they tried to reach out to us to act like they actually care about the stuff we’re talking about,” Hanna says.
While Morty may not realize it, these students say that when he got up to talk about divestment, much like when he talked about safe spaces last September, he co-opted their cause and made it his own. Then, rather than talking about what the students were protesting – those six corporations and private prisons – he talked about tobacco, coal and guns. To the students, it looked like he had inserted himself into the conversation without really listening to them.
Hanna says this is part of the reason why students gripe about Morty’s editorials and public remarks. It makes Northwestern look good, but it does little for the students.
“He’s the only one who benefits from writing these things,” Hanna says. “You end up getting white students here who think he’s this liberal angel, and then you also end up having these other universities thinking he’s a progressive guy. But it’s very far from the truth.”
Young Miller has known Morty for a long time. She was his office assistant back when he was the chair of the economics department at USC, long before he became President Schapiro. Over the years, she’s worked for many chairs, and none of them, she says, have been quite like Morty.
“He’s a perfect storm,” she says. “He’s a professor, a great researcher, a great teacher, but a good administrator and a good person.”
Morty was also the person who took a chance on Miller 25 years ago when he hired her. She was a Korean citizen with no work, let alone college experience in the United States. A few years later, when Miller applied for citizenship, Morty wrote her a recommendation letter. Her life and career in America, she says, is because of Morty.
Since then, Miller has dealt with professors who blurted things out, who got flustered and angry, who thought too much of themselves, the elitist, academic types who condescended, who never apologized, who never seemed to care about her and the rest of the administrative staff. Morty, she says, was never like that.
“He would just come out and sit with the staff and talk about going to his son’s baseball game, his daughter’s ballet, like one of us – like a friend,” she says.
Jeffrey Nugent, a professor of economics at USC, says Morty had a gift for making people comfortable. He could find joint interests with just about anybody and had a talent for building consensus that was especially useful in the early ‘90s when the economics department was embroiled in conflict and controversy. When anyone came to Morty with a problem, Miller says, he would say, “It’s not a problem if you can solve it.” Miller still uses that line today, and when she does, she still thinks of Morty.
“I am truly honored to have known him,” she says. “It still tickles me when I say ‘Morty hired me’ and it makes me so happy and makes me feel so honored.”
A few Tuesdays back, Morty spoke in front of a packed audience at the McCormick Foundation Center auditorium. The event, called Conversations with the President, was an opportunity for Morty and other senior administrators to share updates on Northwestern’s progress from the previous year. It was supposed to be a community event, but only a handful of students had showed up that morning.
Before the event started, Morty weaved his way through the audience, commiserating with faculty, staff and administrators. He approached, greeted them by name (he never forgets names), kibitzed for a few moments, then moved on to another person. After this exchange, almost without fail, the person gushed to neighbors about Morty’s capacity to remember the details of their life and made a comment about what a swell guy he is.
After about 15 minutes of this, Morty made his way to the lectern. There were five video crews around the auditorium, and the event was available through an online livestream provided by the university for those who could not make it in person.
During his opening remarks, which he ad-libbed (like most of his speeches), Morty talked about improvements to the endowment and inclusivity. Eventually, he arrived at his main point for the morning, the sentence that was later blasted to every student on campus in a “Northwestern Now” email: “You have to do the right thing.”
When I asked Hanna about this, he scoffed. “You’re obviously not doing the right thing, you know?”
Morty’s justification for doing things because they are right doesn’t sit well with Hanna and others. This is because what Morty describes as being “right” in some universal sense is not so for every Northwestern student, let alone every post-doc, administrative assistant, non-tenure track faculty member or dining hall worker.
“I walk around this campus knowing that my tuition money is going towards funding the oppression of my people,” he says. “Native students have to see John Evans plastered all over the place – it’s laughable.”
Of course, Morty knows this. It’s a hazard of his job, having to balance all those opinions, keeping everyone happy. He’s The President. His job is to make sure the school does what’s best, even if it’s not the most expedient option. And that’s not easy. Turnover rate is high; nine people who at one point reported to Morty have gone on to their own presidencies. Only three are still on the job.
When Morty was still president at Williams, a student distributed offensive posters on Holocaust Remembrance Day that celebrated Hitler’s birthday. Morty thought they were disgusting, but the posters were also protected by free speech because they didn’t target any student. When Williams made the decision to not press charges against the student, he says, people called him a self-hating Jew.
But Morty is a man of faith. He hasn’t missed services in more than 80 weeks. No matter his schedule, he makes time to go to temple. (His staff, he says, can find him a good one just about anywhere.) He could probably write a book about it, he says, something like The Best Temples of the Big Ten.
At the same time, though, Morty says he’s not an ethicist or a theologian, and he wouldn’t last a minute as a politician. He’s never been elected to anything in his life. He’s just an economist who happens to be Northwestern’s president. Morty knows he’s not perfect or even close to it; he just believes that slowly but surely, he can make things better. “While some people of faith believe there’s a rulebook, I don’t,” he says.
For Morty, life is about trying to develop the right answer based on circumstance. He says he’s trying to do what’s best, but he’s constantly having to adjust.
Some think his best just isn’t cutting it. They feel ignored. They demand change. Are you going to listen to us for real this time, Morty? Others probably wish he would just stop writing editorials, hosting dinners and making appearances at football games. Why bother with inclusivity? Can’t you just raise more money, Morty?
But there are also some who think his best is awe-inspiring. He’s a genius whose brilliance never comes across as condescension. He’s a dedicated professor, a diligent mentor, a close friend. How do you manage it all, Morty?
But the idea of Morty – the engaged and ever-approachable university president – often obscures Morton Schapiro the man. Walking around campus in his signature purple sweater, Schapiro appears more like an icon than an individual. It’s easy to forget he’s the kid who grew up in a military family and went to a New York college few have heard of, the starry-eyed student who wanted to teach about paintings and sculptures, not sit in boring meetings on Capitol Hill. Morton, the man who signs off emails “Professor and President of Northwestern University,” says faith keeps him grounded. Each week, shabbat services remind him to pause and take stock of life.
“In synagogue, I think about how I can be a better person, a better president, a better family member,” he says. “I’m just trying to do the best I can.”