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A Hard Act to Follow

Arnold Weber helped enhance Northwestern’s reputation as one of the country’s great universities. By Neil Steinberg

Ten years ago, after the committee searching for the 14th president of Northwestern had narrowed the field to a handful of candidates, the finalists were asked to assess the University they wanted to lead. 

“What we got from a couple of the outstanding candidates were some of the sweet statements about what a fine place Northwestern was,” remembers Victor Rosenblum, a professor in the School of Law and member of the committee. “Arnie Weber did not talk about coming here as a gladiator with a sword to do battle; he asked the search committee if we were as aware as we should be of some of the perceived weaknesses of the school.”

Weber was the committee’s choice, and the quality that so impressed them — his willingness to candidly and coolly analyze a situation without sugar coating or buzz phrases — has been the hallmark of his presidency, a time of immensely important growth for the University. 

Weber, at 64, is leaving Northwestern a stronger institution than he found it — stronger academically, stronger financially and, for want of a better word, stronger emotionally. Faculty, alumni and students look back on a man who shook up the school with his incisive mind, his sharp wit and his ability to engage people and challenge them to work at, or beyond, their potential. 

“We thought when we picked him he would be the best,” says board chairman Howard J. Trienens, who was also on the search committee. “He turned out to be better than we thought he could be.”

“I don’t want to go down in history as the University’s greatest accountant.”

Arnold R. Weber was born in the Bronx in 1930. He played basketball for Evander Childs High School. Like a lot of kids growing up in New York City in that era, when the time came to go to college, he chose the exotic Midwest, attending the University of Illinois despite the objections of his mother, who actually had hidden the school’s acceptance letter. 

In Champaign-Urbana he met his wife, Edna Files, of Dennison, Ill., also a student at the university. Weber was a busboy for the food service in her dormitory.

Graduating in 1950, Weber received a master’s degree in industrial relations from Illinois in 1952 and a PhD in economics from MIT in 1958. He was a member of the faculty of the Graduate School of Business at the University of Chicago for 15 years. He calls Chicago “the city where I grew up professionally and personally.” In the process, he also developed a common local affliction: He became a Cubs fan, a malady he says he caught from his three sons. 

white house meeting with richard nixon

Arnold Weber, far right, served as executive director of the Cost of Living Council for Richard Nixon.

His next assignments were in government, as assistant labor secretary in 1969-70 and associate director of the Office of Management and Budget in 1970-71. In 1971 George Shultz, then OMB director, recruited him to serve as executive director of the Cost of Living Council for Richard Nixon. 

Weber applied his managerial expertise to the academic world at Carnegie Mellon, where he was dean of the Graduate School of Industrial Administration from 1973 to 1977 and provost from 1977 to 1980, and as president of the massive University of Colorado system from 1980 to 1985. When he was brought to Northwestern, Weber was expected to help its sagging financial situation. The expectation was not in vain. 

“He is a bearcat on budget,” says Trienens, pointing to the many major corporate boards on which Weber sits — PepsiCo, Inland Steel, Burlington Northern, Aon and the Tribune Co. “He is one of the toughest budget disciplinarians in any organization.” In fact, Weber’s accomplishments at Northwestern in the economic realm are so great — he achieved balanced budgets every one of his nine years, during a period when other universities have been in fiscal distress — that he worries that his economic victories will overshadow his other achievements. 

“I don’t want to go down in history as the University’s greatest accountant,” he says in an interview at his Rebecca Crown Center office. “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.” 

The accomplishments relating to Weber’s “main chore” are almost too numerous to mention. Every year of his administration has brought several major program initiatives, such as the Institute for Neuroscience, the Institute for the Learning Sciences and the Infrastructure Technology Institute. He is proud that Northwestern is a major player in three new science and technology centers funded by the National Science Foundation — in advanced cement-based materials, superconductivity and biological timing. 

Weber returned focus to the soul of the University — teaching undergraduates. He created a Task Force on the Undergraduate Experience, which led to such changes as restructuring New Student Week, introducing junior tutorials, and constructing a new undergraduate form for the Public Affairs Residential College. The Searle Center for Teaching Excellence and the Task Force on Computing in the Undergraduate Environment followed, along with a presidential statement on teaching that rededicates the faculty to its “core responsibility and highest calling.” 

At the same time, he reached out to the faculty, breaking down the wall between administration and teaching — first by taking the time to learn who in his University was teaching what, and where. 

“Whenever I got to a meeting, he seemed to know everyone at the table,” marvels philosophy department chair Kenneth Seeskin. “What they were working on, what department they were in, what research projects they were doing. It was really kind of amazing.”

“He knew both his University and his faculty in ways you don’t see at other schools,” says Donna Leff, a professor in the Medill School of Journalism. “My husband, Alan, is a professor at the University of Chicago. He never met [former U of C president] Hannah Gray. He never went to her house. She wouldn’t know him walking down the street. But Arnie not only knows me, he knows my husband. He knows what my husband does. He knows my kids go to [The University of Chicago’s] Lab School. He teases me about living in Hyde Park. It’s personal.”

Sometimes a gesture as small as an annual recognition dinner can mean a lot to professors struggling to maintain status in the often thorny hierarchy of academe. 

“The saying is that usually you’re famous outside your university and not appreciated inside.” says Neena Schwartz, the William Deering Professor of Biological Sciences. “[Weber] started a custom of honoring every faculty member in the University who got an honor in the past year. I think that’s terrific. It gave the faculty a sense of being valued.” 

That sense of value was underlined by raising faculty salaries, which Weber managed to do while instituting a program to limit tuition increases. Each year of his presidency opened a larger gap between Northwestern’s tuition and that of comparable private schools, which became increasingly expensive. 

“Just think of what parents sacrifice to have their kids come here,” Weber says. “We have a collateral responsibility to manage efficiently and be restrained in our tuition. And it ended up being a better institution, because [restraint] forced us to have focus and decide what we really wanted to do.”

One of Weber’s first and most significant acts was to carry out the faculty’s recommendation for institutionalized review of every department, making those reviews a significant new component for improvement of academic quality. 

“He put everybody on notice that you are going to be reviewed, and the president would read the review, and when it was over the head of the unit would sit across from the president and go over it,” says Seeskin. “He raised standards. He raised expectations. He made people aim higher than ever before.”

Of course, you cannot raise standards without ruffling some feathers. Weber, smoking Kents and trying to cope with an endless workload of duties and obligations, is known to dispatch in very short order those he views as wasting his time.

“If you don’t have your act together he’ll see through you in a second,” says Seeskin. “He can be real hard on people who are lazy or confused or not working 100 percent. He doesn’t like B-plus performance.” 

Despite the enormous demands on his time, and unlike many other university presidents, Weber did not let the high-level management of a university come between him and the raison d’etre of the school itself: the students. The classic image of a university president — as Weber himself admitted in at least one speech — is someone who is seen by students once at freshman orientation and again, four years later at graduation. Weber did not want to fall into that trap, and made sure that any student who wanted access to the president could get it. 

“I could spend 14 hours a day on the University’s business and never see a student,” says Weber. “So I thought it was very important to have some specific occasions when I would interact regularly with students, particularly undergraduate students.” 

Not only did he establish monthly breakfasts and regular afternoon conversations with students, he also made a point of meeting with the reporters and editors of the Daily Northwestern at least three times a quarter so that the budding young journalists could question him about topics of interest to their readers. He and his wife also have hosted hundreds of student leaders at the president’s house. 

During the Gulf War, Weber made certain that students had avenues to express their often tangled feelings. “We set up discussion groups in the forms, in Norris, we had services in Millar,” says Weber. “For many of these young people, the benchmark for reacting was Vietnam...When President Bush said, ‘Remember the lessons of Munich,’ we wanted to make sure the students knew that Munch wasn’t a German rock band, that it was an important historical event that had conditioned the perceptions and reactions of the generation making decisions.” 

Perhaps this familiarity and communication are what helped Northwestern avoid much of the wrenching political correctness debate defining college life across the country for much of the past decade. 

“I didn’t worry about [political correctness], not in that sense,” says Weber, “but I took steps to articulate principles and values that govern my tenure.” Weber had laid out his position in his inauguration speech: “Our central value is freedom of inquiry and dissent,...” he said. “Those who would deny these freedoms and substitute indignation — or worse — for inquiry attack the legitimacy of the University itself.”

This is not to say his tenure has been free of incident. Just three months into his presidency, student protesters demanded that Northwestern divest itself of stock in companies doing business in South Africa. More than 120 protesters were arrested in anti-apartheid sit-ins in the central administration offices in May 1985, and 32 protesters were arrested in a similar incident the next spring. In perhaps the most acrimonious situation in Weber’s presidency, his office was occupied briefly in 1987 by four students protesting the denial of tenure to Barbara Foley. Foley was a Marxist-leaning assistant professor of English who led a protest that prevented Nicaraguan contra leader Adolfo Calero from speaking at the University on April 13, 1985. The protesters claimed that Calero had no right to speak and “should feel lucky to get out of here alive.”

“They threw synthetic blood on him and ran a miniriot that prevented him from speaking,” says Weber. “Charges were brought, and the administration supported those charges. Professor Foley ended up being censured by the faculty; it spoke very well of the faculty. And then she came up for tenure a couple of months later.” Asserting that Foley had violated the standards of “academic citizenship,” Raymond Mack, then provost, rejected the faculty’s recommendation of tenure, and Weber upheld the decision on appeal.

“I often say that if you view the higher education hierarchy as a six-story building, we are at the fifth floor and on the way up.”

Needless to say, his stand did not make him popular in some quarters of the University, but Weber has never made it a policy to take an opinion poll before acting or speaking. And while some faculty will no doubt mark his leaving by remembering some episode of suffering under his rhetorical lash, others have a sentiment rarely felt for college presidents in this day and age.

“I love Arnie; I’m dying that he’s leaving,” says Leff. “A lot of the faculty genuinely like him.”

“There really is [affection],” says Rosenblum. “Maybe part of it is the tough love concept. I think, in the final analysis, he is definitely a lovable person — in part because he doesn’t allow himself to be perceived that way. He does not court love and affection; he courts collegiality and sometimes, as an unexpected benefit, love accompanies it...A lot of us feel he is leaving too early.”

Weber would no doubt scoff at such sentimentality, which he calls “the Mr. Chips business.”

“It’s not a sentimental job,” he says. “People tend to view the University as not a real enterprise, as somewhere between a commune and a 7-11. In point of fact, it is an enterprise with 6,000 employees and an annual budget in excess of $600 million and financial assets of almost $1.7 billion. We write 1,200 checks a day, so somebody had better keep count.”

Arnold Weber has kept count, but, as he rightly insists, he has been much, much more than “the University’s greatest accountant.” To the faculty, he demonstrated that the administration is sensitive to the contributions of teaching and scholarship. To the students, he kept Northwestern’s reality in step with its reputation and helped keep it a place people could afford to attend.

There was even some of “the Mr. Chips business,” in ways that people might not even be aware of.

“Arnold walks around the campus a lot,” says Marilyn McCoy, vice president for administration and planning, whom Weber brought with him from Colorado. “He is concerned about the physical environment and aesthetics of the campus.”

McCoy tells a story that eloquently illustrates the harmony between Weber’s eye for small details and his love of financial soundness. When philanthropist Leigh Block donated his sculptures to the University, Weber had the best ones installed around campus and sold the lesser ones to create an endowment to maintain the sculptures that were kept.

Now, at the end of his tenure, Weber is no more inclined to be a Pollyanna than he was at the beginning. He agreed when he took the job that 10 years would be a sufficient term “if things worked out,” and the fact that he feels comfortable leaving indicates that he has done the job he came to do.

“I think the University is in good shape,” he says. “It has a real chance of moving into the very top tier. Our applications and enrollments are up, and there has certainly been significant improvement in the overall quality of the faculty. A lot of program initiatives have been started. We’re in good shape financially. We’re not spending our energy in figuring out what we’re going to cut. Northwestern is an outstanding institution. It’s been a privilege to serve the University.

“I often say that if you view the higher education hierarchy as a six-story building, we are at the fifth floor and on the way up.”

Neil Steinberg '82 is a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and a freelance writer.

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