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Fall 2023

Building on the Best of Northwestern

Michael Schill is poised to lead the University into an era of greater eminence. By Sean Hargadon

Northwestern University’s 17th president, Michael Schill.Image: Matthew Gilson

The first thing to know about Michael Schill, says Carleton College president emeritus Steven Poskanzer, is that he has relentless energy.  

“Every place he’s been, he has taken something that was good and made it measurably better, more prominent and more distinctive,” says Poskanzer, who has known Schill since their undergrad days at Princeton University. “My friends tell me that I am a workaholic, but Mike Schill makes me feel like a slug laggard.”   

Schill’s prior appointments reflect this constant drive toward excellence. As president of the University of Oregon (UO), he set out to improve the four-year graduation rate by 10 percentage points within five years. UO did it in four. As dean of the UCLA School of Law, he nearly doubled alumni participation in annual giving. And when he was dean at the University of Chicago Law School, 97% of grads obtained full-time employment within 10 months of graduation.  

That unfailing energy and laser-sharp focus on institutional improvement proved invaluable as Schill, Northwestern’s 17th president, helped the University address hazing allegations that stunned the community in late summer. Just 10 months into his presidency, Schill found himself facing one of the most significant and unexpected challenges of his career. And now, in addition to maintaining the University’s high academic standards, he has a clear goal: building Northwestern’s athletic department into a national model for integrity and student well-being.   

Schill has a reputation for such turnarounds — and for making tough decisions that result in significant positive change. University of Wisconsin–Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin saw that when she served as Schill’s vice dean at UCLA Law.  

“Mike takes ownership,” she says. “He doesn’t push hard or painful decisions onto others. As a leader, Mike is authentic, he’s high-integrity, and he’s not afraid to admit that he can learn from others. What happened at Northwestern this past [summer] has been tough all around, but I admire that Mike is a leader who isn’t afraid to say when he thinks he’s made a mistake. Some folks double down and get defensive. Mike listens, he learns, and he’s willing to reassess when necessary. That isn’t easy to do.  

“Mike is exactly the kind of principled leader who will take these issues incredibly seriously,” Mnookin adds. At the same time, “he also won’t let the whole university or the student experience be defined by this significant challenge.” 

When Schill was introduced as Northwestern’s president on Sept. 12, 2022, it came as little surprise to Mnookin that his first order of business was a nine-month get-to-know-Northwestern listening tour.  

He has an incredible ability to listen, says Mnookin, Schill’s longtime friend. “Mike takes a real interest in people and tries to understand who they are and what makes them tick.”  

On June 2, the day Northwestern celebrated his inauguration, Schill revealed what he’d learned during his listening tour — and what lies ahead as he steps into “the role of a lifetime.”  

“[This is] an extraordinary academic community, proud of its accomplishments but hungry to do much more,” he said on a picturesque early summer day in Evanston. Northwestern’s “rapid and steep” ascent to become one of the top universities in the country, he acknowledged, is due in no small part to the contributions of his immediate predecessors, Henry Bienen ’09 H and Morton Schapiro ’23 H.  

Schill plans to continue that trajectory — both deepening and expanding the University’s impact in Evanston, Chicago and the world. And with an open mind and decades of university leadership experience under his belt, he’s ready to get started. 

President Schill welcomes students at march through the arch.
On his second day as Northwestern president, Mike Schill welcomed new students and their families at March Through the Arch in September 2022. Image: Shane Collins


Mike Schill and his sister, Margo, grew up in blue-collar Schenectady, N.Y. Their father, Simon, worked in a clothing factory, and their mother, Ruth, was a nurse. Neither of their parents went to college. But in one of his earliest memories, Schill recalls his father telling him he’d one day go to Harvard.  

Well, Harvard wait-listed Schill, but Princeton accepted him — and provided a generous scholarship. Still, going to Princeton was a bit of an adjustment. 

Mike Schill’s portrait in the 1980 Nassau Herald, Princeton University’s senior yearbook. Courtesy of Steven Poskanzer 

“Princeton is a highly selective private school, and I really didn’t know that world,” he says. “It took a little bit for me to feel comfortable. But I think there’s something formative about the relatively modest circumstances of my upbringing.  

“Having been a first-generation student at a university that isn’t terribly unlike Northwestern allows me to empathize with our first-generation students here,” Schill adds. “I understand some of the ‘fish out of water’ feeling. But I also know that what makes them perhaps not fit in initially is also something that’s going to give them strength.”  

Schill studied public policy, graduated summa cum laude in 1980, took a year off to co-write a book (Revitalizing America’s Cities) with his thesis adviser and then earned his law degree from Yale Law School.  

“He loved the learning. He ate it up,” says Sarah Gerecke, who met Schill in 1978 during their junior year at Princeton. “There’s so much about him that is still the same. He’s hilariously funny. He is one of the most loyal people I’ve ever met. And he’s candid in a remarkably helpful and not hurtful way, which is a bit of a gift.”  

After a judicial clerkship, Schill joined the Wall Street law firm Fried Frank. But he disliked the unpredictability of responding to client needs. And he missed getting lost in research. “I like to go very deep into issues,” he says, “and clients aren’t going to pay for someone to learn everything they want to learn before giving an opinion.”  

While working for Fried Frank, Schill taught a weekly class at Yale University on real estate transactions and unexpectedly discovered that students loved his teaching. A career in academia seemed like a natural fit. In 1987 he joined the faculty in law and business at the University of Pennsylvania, the start of a 36-year, coast-to-coast academic career that includes nearly 20 years as a dean or university president.  

Schill became an expert on housing policy, immigration, and race and poverty in U.S. cities. After Penn, he joined the faculty at New York University (NYU), where in 1995 he founded the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, a much-needed place for “thinking theoretically and academically but also practically and economically about housing policy in New York,” says Gerecke, an adjunct professor of urban planning at NYU.  

In 2004 Schill left NYU to become dean of UCLA Law. There, he increased the diversity of the student body and led a successful $100 million fundraising campaign.  

“He was able to wildly break all previous fundraising records,” says Mnookin. “He built relationships with people who had not given the university a dime and convinced them to make their first gift — in seven figures. And he did that by being authentic, clear, transparent and caring.”  

Schill became dean of the University of Chicago Law School in 2010. During his five-year tenure, he enhanced research excellence, increased public interest opportunities for students who wanted to work with nonprofits and government agencies, and improved faculty hiring and retention.  

Up in Evanston, Northwestern president Henry Bienen took note. Schill had studied urban politics in a course co-taught by Bienen at Princeton, and Bienen had kept tabs on him ever since. They reconnected in Chicago.  

“I was always struck by the fact that Mike cares … about institutions … about people and good work and excellence and fairness,” Bienen recalled in his introduction of Schill at inauguration. “Early on it was clear to me that Mike would someday be president of a major academic institution if he wanted.” 

That opportunity arrived in 2015, when Schill became president of the University of Oregon. But the opportunity did not come without challenges. He took the reins of an institution that had recently experienced a sexual violence case involving three student-athletes. UO also faced the prospect of reductions in state funding amid increased costs for public pensions and medical insurance. What’s more, Schill’s two predecessors had been forced out, and the institution had experienced stagnant research investment and a loss of faculty confidence. “The broader reputation of the institution was on the line, certainly in the academic world,” says Association of American Universities president Barbara Snyder 

When he started at UO, Schill became the sixth person to serve as president in seven years. “It was a revolving door,” says Snyder, who first met Schill during his time at the University of Chicago, via her involvement as an alum of the university’s law school. “Because of the crisis of leadership, Mike had to spend time in those early years earning people’s confidence, both inside and outside the institution. And the changes that he put in place made an enormous difference.”  

Schill focused on academic excellence: He increased research funding by more than 60%, and the university hired more tenure-track and research faculty. Schill worked closely with Nike founder Phil Knight to secure support for the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact, a $1 billion initiative to fast-track scientific discoveries and innovations. Schill also launched the Ballmer Institute for Children’s Behavioral Health at a new campus in Portland, Ore.  

“He was committed to doing the hard things,” says Snyder. “The experiences he had [at UO] prepared him well for the challenges at Northwestern. ... The ultimate compliment for any leader is [to answer the question], ‘Did the person make the place better?’ ... And it’s resoundingly ‘yes’ at Oregon.”  

Schill’s strong suit, Mnookin adds, is his ability to understand an institution’s strengths, find opportunities to build on them and then develop a few important projects that can really move that institution forward. He sees a university “in its best present and future light,” she says. “I have every confidence that he is going to take Northwestern’s many strengths and build them further.”   

“As I was learning about the unique nature of the University in preparation for my inauguration, I came to fully understand that at Northwestern we truly believe in both breadth and depth. We embrace the full range of knowledge and creativity. It’s that linkage that makes Northwestern so strong and distinctive.” — Michael Schill


“As I was learning about the unique nature of the University in preparation for my inauguration, I came to fully understand that at Northwestern we truly believe in both breadth and depth,” Schill said in his inaugural address. “We embrace the full range of knowledge and creativity. It’s that linkage that makes Northwestern so strong and distinctive.”  

He also acknowledged Northwestern’s interdisciplinary excellence. “Innovation happens at the intersection of disciplines — and Northwestern is like a city filled with those intersections,” he said, pledging to “create the conditions for even more intersections and more innovation.”  

Schill then laid out several major priorities for his presidency. He pledged to make Northwestern a leader in the biosciences, a place that will “create new treatments, cures and health delivery systems.” He committed to research in decarbonization, renewable energy and sustainability, “because little else matters if we cannot ensure a future for our students.” And he promised to support research that harnesses the power of data analytics and artificial intelligence. Finally, he pledged to bring together — in a newly renovated Jacobs Center — Northwestern’s interdisciplinary strengths in the social sciences and global studies. He also plans to bolster the University’s position in the creative and performing arts.  

Following the hazing allegations this summer, Schill also made a series of statements that clarified his ongoing commitment to the wellness of student-athletes — and his plans to make Northwestern Athletics stronger than ever. Student welfare is his absolute priority, he said, and Northwestern remains as committed as ever to its student-athletes and athletic programs.  

Schill, who has experience with high-level collegiate athletics as former chair of the Pac-12 CEO Group and a former member of the NCAA Board of Governors, backed up those statements with a series of immediate actions, including the installation of new staff to monitor the football locker room, additional anti-hazing training for all student-athletes and the enhancement of the University’s online reporting tools. Northwestern also hired former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to conduct an independent review of the accountability mechanisms in place to detect, report and respond to potential misconduct in the athletics programs and an examination of the culture of Northwestern Athletics to ensure it is consistent with the University’s mission and values. The review will be conducted with engagement from faculty, staff, alumni and students, and the results will be made public to ensure full transparency and so that other universities may learn from it.  

“For many years our student-athletes have been examples of what it means to be exceptionally talented in the classroom and on the field in Division I sports,” Schill says. “We must now also become a model for supporting student-athletes’ well-being, for rooting out and preventing hazing, and for creating an environment where all can truly thrive.”  

Northwestern Athletics, he says, will be a program that all faculty, staff, students, alumni and fans can be proud of.  

Beyond athletics, Schill’s goals also include prioritizing faculty and staff retention and supporting students’ mental health and sense of belonging. Schill has praised the University for its record enrollment of underrepresented students and Pell Grant recipients and has promised to maintain that commitment to diversity. “Regardless of where you were born, what skin color you have, all individuals of merit should have the opportunity to get a world-class education,” he said in his inaugural address. “The benefits of diversity accrue to everyone on our campus and the larger society.  

“With diversity comes difference,” he added. That creates opportunity for dialogue and learning. And the University “is well equipped to create models for engagement across difference.” In that endeavor, Northwestern will prioritize free speech and academic freedom, said Schill, who plans to create an academic center at the Kellogg School of Management to teach students “how to engage with each other across difference” while also developing “data-driven research on what works and what doesn’t.”   

Schill plans to better connect Northwestern’s Evanston and Chicago campuses as well — and to collaborate more regularly with the University of Chicago and other local institutions. “We will have the greatest ability to serve [our nation and our world] if we also focus on serving our own community ... and partner [with] — rather than just compete with — our academic neighbors in Hyde Park,” he said. 

Governor Pritzker walks with President Schill down rows of graduates on commencement day.
Mike Schill, right, waves to students during the 2023 Commencement procession in June, alongside Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker ’93 JD, ’23 H, the keynote speaker. Image: Jim Prisching


Northwestern Faculty Senate president Ceci Rodgers appreciates that Schill is “making no small plans” as he begins his presidency. “His vision for Northwestern isn’t static,” says Rodgers, a journalism professor and director of global journalism learning.  

She also appreciates his openness to hearing and responding to faculty concerns regarding the reports of hazing in the football program — including following through on recommendations for a full assessment of the athletic department’s culture and a commitment to greater accountability measures.  

“I have supported the message of institutional integrity that President Schill has sent with key personnel changes in Northwestern Athletics,” Rodgers adds, “including the firing of former head football coach Pat Fitzgerald ’97, in spite of tremendous opposition.”  

Eli Finkel ’97, who moderated the inauguration week panel discussion “Free Expression, Academic Freedom and Higher Education,” liked what he heard in Schill’s inaugural address. “I felt like, ‘Oh, captain, my captain!’” says Finkel, a professor of psychology and of management and organizations. “President Schill is a forceful and consistent advocate for intellectual freedom. I get the sense that he is going to prize robust intellectual exchange, even if that gets controversial sometimes.”  

And Schill doesn’t shy away from controversy. Early in 2023, political science professor Alvin Tillery and several colleagues sent the president a letter regarding their concerns about Florida’s ban on African American studies curricula.  

Tillery didn’t really expect a response, but within three days, Schill invited him to his office to talk. Tillery wanted the University to “review its relationship with the College Board in light of its complicity with Florida’s censorship of African American studies,” Tillery says.  

“He didn’t agree with what I was asking to be done,” Tillery adds, “but he gave me a well-reasoned response.”   

While they didn’t agree on a response to Florida’s ban, Schill asked Tillery to appear on his free expression panel. 

“For me, that’s a real hallmark of leadership,” says Tillery, director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy. “It’s easy to find people who are going to blow smoke and tell you that they agree with you. But that’s debilitating for making good decisions. Mike wants to hear every viewpoint.”   

With a little more than a year under his belt, Schill says leading Northwestern remains the challenge and honor of a lifetime. And with his trademark enthusiasm, Schill is ready to do the hard work of guiding the University to further excellence.  

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I could make Northwestern better,” he says. “I’m not a caretaker president. ... Everyone at the University is incredibly ambitious to grow, to achieve even more excellence, more eminence. My job is to lead that process and bring Northwestern into a new era of even greater impact.”  


Sean Hargadon is editor in chief of Northwestern Magazine. 

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