Calling the position the “challenge and opportunity of a lifetime,” Michael Schill was officially installed as the president of Northwestern University on Friday morning.
The ceremony, at Ryan Fieldhouse, incorporated a large number of faculty and administrators in colorful academic regalia, along with music, including an entry march, Native American music to acknowledge the original inhabitants of this area, the Star-Spangled Banner, and the Northwestern alma mater.
Schill, 64, said the challenges facing colleges and universities are “greater than at any time in my memory,” including making higher education more diverse and more affordable.
The observation that “everyone thinks we cost too much” is hard to disagree with, although the timing is also a bit ironic, coming just days after Northwestern hiked tuition by 4%, making it costlier than Harvard.
For academic 2023-24, undergraduate tuition at NU will be $64,887 per year, although NU does offer a significant amount of financial assistance.
But the biggest challenge, Schill said, is “the growing lack of trust” that the public has in academia.
A graduate of Princeton University and the Yale Law School, Schill was most recently president of the University of Oregon. He also has held teaching or administrative positions at the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, UCLA, and NYU.
In his 36 years in higher education, Schill said he “can’t remember a time when we were under the microscope so intensely,” being treated “like a political football.”
The Red/Blue divide in America is a big reason, Schill noted, for why the role and reputation of universities are being kicked around.
“Legislative efforts” to determine “what we do in college is antithetical to the pursuit of knowledge,” Schill stated.
“We believe in free expression, and we trust our faculty to determine what to teach and how to teach it.”
Schill also said that Northwestern is uniquely positioned to respond to the challenges.
“We are ready and willing,” he said,” to face the headwinds buffeting higher education.”
For example, Schill said Northwestern will continue to emphasize diversity, even with an expected Supreme Court ruling outlawing the use of race as a factor in determining college admissions.
With so many Americans retreating into their own political echo chambers, only listening to what they believe, and not associating with people who disagree with them, people, Schill said, “lack the capacity to understand each other.”
Northwestern, he said, will create an academic center with the purpose of fostering “engagement across differences,” supporting “fearless debate,” but trying to at least bring people of opposite persuasions to listen to the other side.
“Trust is at a low ebb across higher education,” Schill said. “But Northwestern can play a major role” in rebuilding that trust.
“The people of Northwestern,” Schill noted, “can have an impact second to none,” in areas such as bioscience, sustainability, data analysis and artificial intelligence, and utilizing social sciences for a “global impact.”
While this was Inauguration Day, Schill has been NU’s president for about nine months.
The Board of Trusteees chose him last year, after president-elect Rebecca Blank withdrew due to illness before ever starting the job.
Blank, Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison subsequently died from cancer.
Schill acknowledged Blank, and also thanked predecessors Morton Schapiro and Henry Bienen.
Northwestern has changed immesurably since its founding 172 years ago. Schill noted that one of the founders, John Evans (for whom Evanston was named) has been praised for his vision in education, but criticized by others for having a connection to “unspeakable crimes” committed against Native Americans in an 1864 massacre.
“The university and the world” that NU’s founders “inhabited were far different than the world today,” Schill said.
And on a bright note despite the public headwinds, Schill said the majority of Americans are “united in the idea that great research universities are critical to the future.”
Northwestern, he said, is “one of the greatest research universities in the world,” and there is no reason why that excellence cannot continue.
As part of the ceremony, Schill was presented with the University Charter, the University Seal, and the University Chain and Pendant, the latter worn during every NU presidential inauguration since 1939.
Schill also had a word for NU’s students, calling them “the people whom we serve, and who will go on to serve the world.”
He also added something which anyone connected to Northwestern can relate to and cheer loudly: “Go Cats!”