Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

Spring 2017


Presidential Journey

By Julie Deardorff
Presidential Journey Morton Shapiro
Photo by Jim Prisching

Morton Schapiro had stepped foot on the Northwestern University campus just twice before he accepted the job as president in 2009. He had never lived through a Chicago winter. And as an outsider, he had few—if any—established relationships with faculty, staff, or the community.

But Schapiro had gone through major job changes before, and this time he had two secret weapons: time and anonymity. During a two-month window before his presidency began, Schapiro wandered around campus where he ate lunch with students at Norris University Center, attended plays and performances, and learned everything he could about the Wildcat culture.

“Those two months were invaluable,” said President Schapiro, a faculty member in the School of Education and Social Policy. “I worked from a hideaway office, and no one had any idea I was the new president.”

Change is never easy, and it can be especially rocky moving into high- pressure roles in academia. Like many officials in higher education, Schapiro has weathered his share of major transitions during his four- decade career, some smooth, some tumultuous. Along the way, he’s learned that while life and job changes can shake your sense of identity, they’re also an opportunity for reflection and growth.

“I always tell students to learn more from mistakes than triumphs,” said Schapiro, who rose from tenured faculty member to department chair to dean and has spent the last 17 years as a college president. “Some of my transitions were really tough. But I learned from each slip-up.”

A rocky road

Schapiro had been chairman of the economics department at the University of Southern California for three years before accepting the job as dean of its College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He took the job on one condition: that he could continue to teach and write, something he has sustained in every position for the last 38 years.

But it was one of his shakier transitions because he’d been at USC “long enough to know a fair amount about USC but not enough to get it right,” he said.

“I thought I knew enough about USC and enough about leadership, but I quickly realized I didn’t know much about either,” Schapiro said. “I went from a staff of five to a staff of hundreds, and I didn’t know what I was doing, so the transition was really tough.”

But Schapiro said he learned good lessons that helped down the road. “For one, I learned to delegate.”

In 2000, Schapiro left USC and reunited with friends and family on the East Coast at Williams College, where he had been a faculty member for 11 years prior to working at USC.

He showed up at Williams on the day he started as president; at first, it was like a reunion with his buddies. “But I wasn’t used to being a president,” he said. “I needed to develop the skills.”

Having already worked with a larger budget and staff at USC, Schapiro thought he would hit his stride as president relatively soon after starting. But “I figured out that when you’re president, there’s nowhere to hide,” he said. “You can’t think, ‘If I had a different presi- dent, I’d be doing so much better.’ That was a bit of an adjustment.”

Still, during his first few years as president of Williams, Schapiro said he was greatly helped by the 11 years he’d spent there before returning and “a lot of friends who wanted me to succeed.”

“I still wasn’t great on the transition but certainly better than the experience of six years earlier (at USC). And I got a little better about incentivizing people, staying in the background, listening more than talking.”

A new challenge: the Midwest

After nine years as president of Williams, Schapiro arrived at Northwestern in the summer of 2009. He had lived on both coasts but was a foreigner in the Midwest and was moving from a small, undergraduate, liberal arts college to a major research university with graduate programs.

“Humbled” by some of his other transitions, Schapiro said this time he “listened more and spoke less.” He also made key appointments and found people he could rely on, including Provost Dan Linzer.

“Transitions are hard when you come from the outside because people want to know your vision and plan, but they don’t really want you to have one because you don’t yet know the institution,” he said. “If you come out with a strategic plan, they think you’re full of hubris. It’s sort of a trap.”

Schapiro said he also had the good fortune of following the footsteps of former Northwestern University President Henry Bienen, who, while he was still in office, introduced Schapiro to the community, including trustees and donors.

“Henry still helps me,” Schapiro said. “I ask him to do big-deal things, and he does them brilliantly. It’s a blessing when you have a predecessor who cares about you personally and professionally and can help ease you through the transition.”