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Spring 2023

Schill on Schill

Northwestern President Michael Schill talks about free speech and his love for books.

Image: Shane Collins

As President Michael Schill wrapped up his first few months in office, Northwestern Magazine talked with him about higher education’s role in creating a compassionate community, his favorite books and what he values most in his human — and canine — companions. 

What has surprised you about the University in your first months here?

One is the level of ambition of virtually everyone here — wanting to get better, wanting to push themselves. I had known it was a great school; I just didn’t know how ambitious everybody is, and that’s very positive.

What’s your favorite place on campus — maybe to walk your dog, Max?

The place I go to the most is Deering Meadow, and if there’s no one there, I let Max off leash for a few minutes, and he runs and chases squirrels and rabbits. Walking through campus with Max is a great way to meet students because they always stop us and want to pet him.

How can we continue to build a community of kindness, collaboration and thoughtfulness at Northwestern?

One of the challenges of universities is to model the behavior that we would like to see in the world around us. And we’re at a point in this country where we don’t have a community of kindness or collaboration — certainly not in our politics and not really in our society at large. So, it’s an opportunity for us.

This is one of the great benefits of a residential higher education experience, particularly at a great school like Northwestern. We should bring people of all different races, sexes, genders, abilities and, importantly, politically different students — not all with the same biases or predilections — and bring them all together and help them learn from each other. They don’t have to be persuaded. They don’t have to be brought over to a particular viewpoint, but they should learn how to respect other viewpoints and know that there are other people who have legitimate beliefs that are different from theirs.

You have strong opinions on freedom of expression. Would you like to share some thoughts on that? 

We’re seeing one side of the political debate taking over freedom of speech as their issue, but it isn’t just a value on one side of the political spectrum. Freedom of speech needs to undergird all civil society. And for universities, that’s our bedrock. If you can’t give your views, even if they’re unpopular views, if you can’t do research in unconventional areas and suggest theories, I’m not sure what value our institutions of higher learning hold at that point. 

In addition, I will defend freedom of speech with passion, but just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean that you should say it. You need to have empathy. And while I’m not going to inhibit your speech, except if it reaches the level of harassment, I believe you should be mindful of the way those comments will affect people around you. 

In the unlikely event you had a free hour, how would you spend that time? 

I would go to a bookstore. Whenever I travel, the first or second place I’ll go is a bookstore. I like to get lost among the shelves. I love the serendipity of finding something I didn’t know existed that looks interesting. 

What is your most treasured possession? 

My books, of course. 

“Whenever I travel, the first or second place I’ll go is a bookstore. I like to get lost among the shelves. I love the serendipity of finding something I didn’t know existed that looks interesting.”


Can you tell us about your extensive book collection? 

I’m a nonfiction guy. I like biographies. I like learning when I read. I have a great collection. Here, in my office, this is probably 1/20th of my collection. I have shelves of books on Chicago, on housing, on race and urban history, and on higher education. I buy most of what’s written on higher education. And I even read some of it!  

I have enjoyed books written by former university presidents, including Bill Bowen’s book on leadership [Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President]. He was the president of Princeton when I was a student there, and he became a mentor of mine. It is interesting reading about how he dealt with some of the issues that we doled out to him when I was on the other side of Nassau Hall [which houses Princeton’s administrative offices]. 

I like looking at how university presidents resolve issues. You learn from that. No one goes into teaching thinking they’re going to become a college president. We go into this profession because we want to teach and we care about students and we care about research. So having someone to model oneself after is important, because you’re typically not trained to do this. 

You recently enjoyed seeing “As You Like It” at Northwestern’s Barber Theater. What are some of your favorite plays? 

My favorite play of all time is Arcadia by Tom Stoppard. I saw it three times and learned something different every time. It’s just an amazingly interesting and intricate play. My favorite musical is Dreamgirls. Anyone who is around my age who went to see the original Dreamgirls will remember the end of the first act when Jennifer Holliday, who had a voice like no one’s ever heard before, belted out “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” And then the curtain comes down. We were all stunned and on our feet. It was just a very magical experience — goosebumps. 

What do you most value in your friends? 

They will always be honest with me, and I’ll always be honest with them, even when we don’t agree. And we don’t worry about hurting each other’s feelings, because we’re sensitive to each other but also we accept and care about each other for who we are. You can’t have that if you don’t trust people, and I value the trust that we share with each other. 


Northwestern will celebrate the Inauguration of Michael H. Schill on Friday, June 2. Learn more at

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Reader Responses

  • It is a great privilege to be an incoming MMM student during President Schill's inauguration. Coming from Kuwait, I have always admired the American educational system and the freedom of expression that Americans enjoy. It is so reassuring to have a university president who is a staunch advocate of free expression. I now have one more reason to respect Northwestern University.

    Dalal Aldilaimi ’25 MBA, MS, Kuwait

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