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.
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.”
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