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.
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