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I suppose it had to happen sooner or later: The sort of conflicts that have occurred at other colleges and universities at last came to Northwestern. The difference is that Northwestern President Morty Schapiro is unlike other presidents of major research universities.

For a decade Schapiro and I have co-taught an interdisciplinary course (which led to our book, Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities) in which we argue about our respective disciplines, as well as about social, ethical, and religious issues. The course’s motto is John Stuart Mill's famous comment: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” This March we completed another book entitled Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us. It argues for respectful dialogue and diversity of opinion in politics, economics, religion, and literary studies. I know as well as anyone could that Schapiro believes deeply in free speech and open-ended dialogue. He puts up with me, after all.

Unlike other presidents of secular universities, Schapiro is overtly religious. An observant Conservative Jew, he brings his faith to whatever he does and mentions it in class. As president, he has fostered and supported all faith communities. Perhaps that is why he has received honorary degrees from the Methodists (Garrett Evangelical) and Catholics (Notre Dame) as well as Jews (Hebrew Union College)—“covering all the bases,” as he once joked. 

Schapiro’s commitment to helping the unfortunate, to racial justice, and to greater economic equality (a theme of our course) runs deep. He has received a Community Service Award from the NAACP and the Posse Star Award from the Posse Foundation. When I listen to most university administrators, I wonder if their familiar high-minded words are just part of the job description, but knowing Schapiro personally, I can testify that his concern is real. He has created the Northwestern Academy to help Chicago Public School students prepare for and apply to college, and he removed all loans from financial aid packages. More important, he has done things he does not call attention to, just because he really cares. Few know that he walks the two miles to his office every day rather than drive his (hybrid, but still carbon-emitting) car. 

One might suppose he would be the last president faulted for lack of commitment, but after a decade in office—for years students referred to “our beloved Morty” because of his devotion to undergraduates—events caught up with him.

Since June, a group of students called NU Community Not Cops has been demanding that Northwestern disband its police department. The university met virtually with students over the summer and on September 10 issued a statement (not its first) committing itself to a range of measures promoting racial justice—including a complete review, led by two outside consultants, of the “operations and polices,” as well as the budget, of the university police. 

All the same, on October 12, Community Not Cops began daily protests, leading to vandalism in downtown Evanston. A student told the Daily Northwestern, which is sympathetic to the protestors, that “there is no level of property destruction that we can do that is more violent than the cops existing.” Just existing.

Despite these actions and threats, they were surprised and outraged to discover university and Evanston police when they showed up at the president’s house in the middle of the night shouting obscenities.

The next day, rather than capitulating, President Schapiro circulated a strong response. He reiterated his concern with “the many injustices faced by Black and other marginalized groups,” but stated in no uncertain terms that the once-peaceful protests are no longer so. The claim that the student group was just trying to get the administration’s attention, he wrote, is “simply not true,” inasmuch as several administrators have “had numerous discussions with concerned students.” “I condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the overstepping of the protesters,” Schapiro continued. “They have no right to menace members of our academic and surrounding communities. When students and other participants are vandalizing property, lighting fires and spray-painting phrases such as ‘kill the pigs,’ we have moved well past legitimate forms of free speech.”

Protestors at his house called Schapiro “piggy Morty.” Comparison of Jews to pigs was standard Nazi propaganda and still circulates in the Middle East. Allowing for the possibility that the students were unaware of the term’s resonance, he pointed out they were getting dangerously close to an anti-Semitic trope.

While promising to hold violators of the law accountable, Schapiro repeated that he was ready for productive dialogue, but that he will not engage with “individuals who continue to use the tactics of intimidation and violence.” The response has been calls for his resignation, but he declined to take back a word of his message.

I can think of no major university president who has acted this courageously. If you agree, now is the time to show your support.

Gary Saul Morson is Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University.

Photo by Northwestern News via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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