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Fall 2019

The Next Generation of Catalysts

Northwestern President Morton Schapiro welcomes the incoming class of undergraduates. By Morton Schapiro

In 1869 the Northwestern University Board of Trustees voted to admit women as students. This academic year we are commemorating 150 years of women at Northwestern, to celebrate the individuals who have taken risks, charted their own course and inspired great change.

At the end of September we welcomed 2,200 first-year and transfer students at the President’s Convocation in Ryan Fieldhouse. This entering cohort is our most diverse ever, with students hailing from 67 nations; with more than 20% of students coming from low-income, Pell Grant–eligible families; with 13% representing the first generation of their families to attend college; and with 6% coming from Chicago Public Schools. And apropos of our commemoration, 51% of our entering students are women.

In short, the incoming class is filled with the next generation of catalysts — and I can’t wait to see what they will accomplish here on our campus. I shared my hopes for them, as individuals and as future leaders, and touched on how they might be able to carry on a tradition of progress within their academic careers and lives, like those bold and brave women in the past 150 years who have opened doors, creating greater access and opportunity for all who followed.

It’s easy for me to appreciate how exceptional our incoming students are, having reviewed a sample of the 43,000 applications we received for this year’s first-year and transfer class. The 500 or so files I selected were suggested by alumni, by other Northwestern graduates teaching at high schools in the area and across the globe, by current students, by faculty and staff and by many others. I read enough files to realize that finding 10 applicants to reject for each one that we accept is a daunting task, given that many of those we passed on would surely have thrived here if presented the opportunity.

I informed the outstanding few who beat those formidable odds that, now that they are here, our goal is for them to think of Northwestern as their home, their community and their family — not just for the next few years, but for a lifetime.

“I told our new undergraduates that we need to understand and celebrate our differences.”

One of the concerns I shared with our entering undergraduates has to do with what many experts see as a national issue — stress and anxiety among college students at a time when the competition to outdo one another in academics and activities is more intense than ever. At Northwestern, we are always looking for ways to improve student well-being. We want our students to never be afraid to ask for help, to care for themselves and to watch out for one another.

Our new students reported to action within a particular context — a time, alas, of growing tensions and incivility in the world. With our recognition of 150 years of women at Northwestern, we’re reminded of the call to succeed not simply at a personal level but in a way that lifts up others. That is not easy, given what is going on in our larger world.

During the darkest of times, I recall perhaps the most memorable talk I have attended during my decade at Northwestern. The speaker was on campus in 2016 as part of our Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. She was Diane Nash, a civil rights legend who still stays active in her hometown of Chicago. She put her life on the line as she fought for voting rights, for desegregation and for dignity for all.

Ms. Nash’s talk was about effective activism, and this fall I recounted to our newest undergraduates how she made the point that advocates for social and institutional change have a choice to make.

They can be content in simply expressing their moral outrage and being consumed by their anger, or they can invest in the hard work that results in lasting change.

That work, she argued, means treating your opponents with a modicum of respect, even when it is tempting to resort to pure vilification. “But why do that?” one might ask. “Aren’t our enemies the personification of all evil?” Perhaps not, she suggested. Give them some benefit of the doubt.

First of all, it is a lot easier to convince people to change if you treat them in a civil manner, she argued; and second, even if you are unsuccessful in changing minds, treating them as humans rather than as symbols embodying all that you hate is quite simply the right thing to do.

I am not saying that there are always good people on all sides or that all sides are equally good — I believe that is absolutely not the case. But Ms. Nash offered our Northwestern community words to live by, even if they are easy to forget in the heat of the moment.

I told our new undergraduates that we need to understand and celebrate our differences, treat each other with respect, learn from one another and be examples for others to emulate.

I believe our incredibly accomplished and supportive network of alumni provides a model for the manner of community we seek to build on campus. And I’m grateful especially for the many ways in which you help Northwestern students to become the next generation of catalysts — as they develop deep and enduring friendships, gain the ability to educate themselves over a lifetime and prepare to repair a broken world.

Because of our students’ talents and ambitions, and your ability to help bring those talents into full blossom, I believe you will be hearing from this entering class for years to come.

Best wishes,

Morton Schapiro
President and Professor


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