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Former NU president Arnold Weber dies

Northwestern University's 14th president presided over a decade of growth and prosperity that saw the school triple its invested assets and enhance the faculty and student experience.

Arnold Weber.

Northwestern University President Emeritus Arnold R. Weber, who presided over a decade of growth and prosperity that strengthened the University financially and academically and put it on a path to national prominence as a research powerhouse, died Thursday at his Northbrook home. He was 90.

Weber served as Northwestern’s 14th president, from 1985 to 1994, and was known best for putting the university on a solid financial footing, which gave Northwestern the ability to attract top faculty, address deferred maintenance and develop significant new academic initiatives, including returning to a strong focus on teaching undergraduates. His leadership enabled Northwestern to strengthen schools and academic departments across the University.

Weber’s legacy also includes attracting unprecedented support for the University’s growing research enterprise and helping triple its invested assets. When he stepped down as president, gifts from private sources were approaching $100 million a year, and students were applying to undergraduate, graduate and professional programs in record numbers. During his tenure, he also greatly enhanced the faculty, the student experience and the beauty of the physical campus.

“Arnie was a transformative president. His brilliant leadership set the stage for everything good that has followed at Northwestern,” said Northwestern President Morton Schapiro. “His vision, his humanity and his legendary wit will always be celebrated at Northwestern and, as generations march through the Weber Arch to begin their Northwestern journeys, they will be reminded that Arnie Weber left his glorious mark on our institution.”

Weber had been hospitalized recently for congestive lung failure and passed away at his home, said Paul Weber, one of Weber’s three sons.

“Our father grew up in a Jewish family in the Bronx, where his father was an electrical worker and an important person in the electrical workers union, and he was incredibly influential on my dad,” said David Weber, another of Weber’s sons. “He originally was going to go into journalism at the University of Illinois and actually wrote for a humor magazine that was run by Hugh Hefner at that time. But he then switched to economics and focused on industrial relations and labor economics.”

Weber received his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where George Shultz, who later became a cabinet member under three presidents, was his advisor.

After Shultz went to the University of Chicago as a dean, he recruited Weber to the faculty of the Graduate School of Business, where Weber taught from 1958 until 1973, including as the Isidore Brown and Gladys Brown Professor of Urban and Labor Economics from 1971-1973. During those years, Shultz and Weber were referred to by some as among the nation’s leading labor economists.

The two also worked closely at the Office of Management and Budget in the Nixon White House and remained friends for all of Weber’s life.

Weber began his academic administration career as dean of the Graduate School of Industrial Administration at Carnegie Mellon University from 1973 to 1977, and he served as provost and professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon from 1977 to 1980. Weber was president of the University of Colorado from 1980 to 1985, when he was hired to become Northwestern’s president.

“My parents were happiest at Northwestern,” said David Weber. “My mom (Edna) grew up on a farm in Illinois, and my dad came from big city New York, so life in Evanston, with Chicago just up the road, was the perfect combination for them.”

The third of Weber’s three sons, Bob, graduated from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, and three of Weber’s grandchildren also graduated from Northwestern.

Weber was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of eight books and monographs and numerous articles on economic policy, industrial and labor relations and higher education, and he was a regular contributor to various business publications.

“Arnold Weber was an incredible leader for Northwestern and such an important figure for the university’s history, who improved Northwestern both financially and academically during his tenure,” said Howard Trienens, former chair of NU’s Board of Trustees. “He also set the university on a steady path toward the international reputation it enjoys today as a research powerhouse. He was a bearcat on budget, an extremely strong budget disciplinarian, which was a critical need at Northwestern when he arrived.”

“Arnold was a great partner and a pleasure to work with in leading the University, with his vision and keen wit, melding the classics and pop culture,” he added.

Trienens was on the search committee that chose Weber for the job, and he was chair of the board during Weber’s tenure. Thinking back on the committee’s decision to select him, Trienens said, “We thought when we picked him, he would be the best. He turned out to be better than we thought. And he even managed to set the football program on an elevated path with the hiring of Gary Barnett. He left a powerful legacy!”

Indeed, Weber took over Northwestern’s helm at a time when the University needed some budget discipline. He was qualified to help on that front. He was a member of the board of directors of Aon Corporation, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Inc., PepsiCo Inc., Tribune Co. and John Deere & Company.

However, Weber never wanted his financial successes at the university to outweigh his academic achievements at Northwestern.

“I don’t want to go down in history as the University’s greatest accountant,” Weber told Northwestern magazine in a 1994 article. “All of that is fine, and there should be due regard to it. But money is not an end in itself; it is an instrument that permits you to go about the main chore of the university with a sense of choice and comfort.”

Jay Pridmore, author of “Northwestern University: A History,” notes that Weber saw clearly what made Northwestern unique. It was the first place he had ever worked “where you had to tell people how good they were. The last thing we wanted was to be just like the Ivy League,” Weber said. “Our goal was to raise Northwestern’s aspirations as a national university and to elevate its academic performance while retaining the strong values in its Midwestern roots.”

Under Weber’s leadership, “A Framework for Distinction” was created in 1986, which promoted strengthening interdisciplinary programs.

A fundraising drive was engaged to provide new labs and research funding for the Technological Institute; in 1989, the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation became a primary benefactor, and the Institute was renamed the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in recognition.

Other significant fundraising under Weber’s direction included the $35 million Campaign for Kellogg (1989), a $30 million Campaign for Great Teachers (1990), $21 million Athletic Facilities Campaign (1987) and the $43.5 million Materials and Life Sciences Building (1992).

“President Weber laid the structural financial foundation for the University’s strategic growth at a critical time in its history,” said Ingrid Stafford, former Northwestern vice president for financial operations and treasurer. “His disciplined management launched a generation of academic strategic initiatives, which greatly strengthened the stature and accomplishments of the University and have been built upon by Presidents (Henry) Bienen and Schapiro.”

Weber will be remembered for many other achievements at Northwestern, as well, not least of which was the “Arnold Weber Arch.” After almost a decade as Northwestern president, Weber, in 1993, felt that the absence of a single gate through which students, faculty, alumni and visitors officially entered Northwestern was an architectural “gap” on the Evanston campus. The arch was completed in 1994.

In 2011, President Schapiro, Trienens and others honored Weber at a celebration ceremony naming the arch for him and placing a plaque on the stone footing of the arch that has become the main gateway to the University’s Evanston campus. It is also now the spot where first-year students enter at the start of their time here, following the Northwestern Marching Band into campus during Wildcat Welcome.

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