Last Monday, I had a chance to sit down with Northwestern President, Dr. Morton Schapiro. Our conversation touched on the American political system, the importance of both safe spaces and uncomfortable learning, and why students need humility. I’ve broken the interview up into three parts and have edited it slightly for clarity.
The American System, and Why it Works:
Our written values are exemplary:
What does it mean for all men to be created equal? Well, the founders were men, white men, property owners, and that (should) give (us) a lot to think about. (But) freedom of religion, freedom of expression, individual liberty are great things. I think that the values we have in the U.S., that we have written down but don’t always live, are good ways to live. One of my fields is development economics, and I’ve spent time in seventeen countries. I’ve been in a lot of countries where I’ve said, “Man, they could use a Constitution like ours.”
Property rights and rule of law are fundamental to any country:
I hope being an American would mean to respect basic human rights. It hasn’t always been that way in this country. But beyond that, I also think the rule of law is so important, specifically respecting property rights. I’ve worked in countries where socialist governments nationalized everything overnight. It was such a disaster. You have to respect individual liberty, you have to respect property. If you have laws, you have to abide by them.
One of my colleagues wrote a new book about the culture of economic growth. He argues that some countries have developed and others haven’t, even today, because of respect for laws. In so many countries, the laws are situational. There’s an expediency for the judiciary, for the executive branch. We don’t have that in this country. We don’t always agree on the law, but it is great to be in a country where the law matters. If you don’t protect property rights, you don’t get any investment in capital, human or physical.
Checks and balances:
After the election, I said I had a lot of faith in checks and balances, particularly the independent judiciary. A lot of people said, “That won’t happen.” Well, checks and balances have worked. “So-called” judges have maintained their independence in a beautiful way. Congress has been more of a mixed bag. I think the brilliance of our founding is really that system of checks and balances. (It means) that if there’s a President who has certain kinds of views that aren’t consistent with a lot of other people’s, there’s a limit to what they can do. It’s still not perfect. The President still has the nuclear codes, but it’s a lot better than a lot of the places I’ve been.
Safe Spaces, Uncomfortable Learning, and Moral Obligation in Our Universities:
What is a safe space?
A safe space is where you can let down your guard. Where people want you to look good, not bad. Where they love you, and support you. If there’s a challenge in a safe space, it’s because you’ve agreed to it.
Why we need safe spaces:
People think (navigating the diversity) of college campuses is easy. They might try doing it in their segregated homes, in their segregated work spaces. It’s amazing college campuses work as well as they do, not that our campuses always work (perfectly).
I do believe, given how uncomfortable most of the learning is on campus, you should be able to go home and be with people who love you and support you. A lot of people who (call students) “snowflakes” and (say) “we’re coddling,” do so out of the comfort of their gated communities and country clubs. They’ll say those places aren’t safe spaces. But they are.
On his safe space:
I’m an observant Jew; I go to synagogue every Friday night and Saturday morning. It’s a safe space for me. No one yells at me about whether their grandchild deserved to get in. No one yells at me about my ideology. No one screams about whether Israel has a right to exist. I’m in shul. It’s great.
Why he thinks people’s judgement of safe spaces misses the mark:
No one ever asks me why Northwestern has a Sheil Catholic Center, which is a big beautiful part of campus. No one ever complains about Hillel: “Why don’t you integrate the Jews?” No one cares, for the most part, about a capella groups or the lacrosse team. They’re all safe spaces. I pointed out to freshmen today that the brass quartet that performed has a safe space. They’re performing their music, and no one is screaming about them or about whether they deserved to get in.
But if it’s called “African-American House” or something about queer community, everyone goes crazy, because (most people) don’t recognize their own safe spaces. That being said, if students are in an African-American house or the LGBTQ community, and they don’t come out of that zone (to engage others), then we’ve failed you.
Classrooms are not safe spaces. They are spaces for uncomfortable learning:
I told the freshman class, there’s a lot of confusion about my and Northwestern’s thoughts on the subject. You have safe spaces so that you get the confidence to engage in uncomfortable learning. If you’re looking for classes to be safe spaces, then you’re at the wrong place. My job as a teacher is to disrupt your thinking. Now, you might leave my class thinking the same way you did at the beginning. But I’m going to challenge you to rethink everything about yourself. Classes aren’t safe spaces.
How he thinks about equality on campus and off of it:
There are two ways to equalize experiences, wealth, etc. One is to do the hard thing, which is to take people who are disenfranchised, who don’t feel a part of the community, and give them support. The easy one is to ruin it for people who are privileged. You can do that with economic distribution. You can have prohibitive taxes on the rich, and make them poor, too.
(For colleges), you look at the senior survey data from all of our schools. You see white people like (college) more than anyone else. You see rich kids like it more than anyone else. You see legacies like it more than anyone else. So, the easy thing is to say, “You like your fraternity, you like your club, so we’ll close it.” The real challenge is that you want people who don’t feel part of the community, to feel a part of it. Maybe give them the attention, give them the resources, give them the help so that they love it as much as the other kids.
If you equalize at the lowest level, who really won? In general, I am skeptical of things that take away aspects of college life that make people really happy.
United States universities have a moral obligation:
To be an American university, if you’re a non-profit, there’s a real moral obligation to serve the public good. Universities get rich because we don’t have to pay capital gains taxes and people get 30% of donations back from the American tax system. So, you have a moral obligation to serve the country. You do it. You do it by producing good citizens, by producing people who are good members of the economy.
How Northwestern realizes this obligation:
I told students at Convocation, “You’ll leave here having the tools to educate yourself for a lifetime. But what I really hope is that you have the humility to recognize your education starts today, it doesn’t end.” Empathy, and humility, are so important. I think our obligation, moral, if not legal, is to educate people about the values that have made this country what it is.
Almost 90% students are from the U.S., and 10% are international. The reason why we’ve doubled the number of non-U.S. students here is not because I feel an obligation to the world. As a 501c(3), our obligation is to the U.S. Having international students prepares U.S. students for the world.
Additionally, we have one other campus in Qatar, and our job there is to prepare media people for jobs at Al Jazeera and other places. I get more criticism about that campus than anything else about this campus. But I think we’re doing the right things, training people about Western values, in a part of the world where freedom of press is such a foreign idea.
What he hopes students at Northwestern, and other elite universities, take away from their four years:
I think a lot of the things I said in my Convocation speech that I hope students learn and do – treating people with respect, having the humility to educate yourself for a lifetime, tikkun olam (healing the world) – I think most people would say is consistent with good citizenship.
The Bill of Rights is pretty important, so it’d be nice if people had some understanding of it. But I actually find that the people who can recite actually don’t live them. Most people have no idea about the complications of the first amendment, and yet they act like they do. I think you have to live your values over-and-over.
Literature and empathy:
The way I understand the world is deeply affected by the fact that I always have a piece of fiction in my life. A lot of people talk about empathy. But the way to develop it is to read literature. In literature, all of a sudden, my (being the protagonist’s) age is different, sexuality is different, race is different, socioeconomic status is different, view of right and wrong is different, faith is different. That’s what you do when you read a book. You learn empathy. My book, Cents and Sensibility: What Literature Can Teach Economics, is about how literature improves the world.
The important message he wants students to learn:
Don’t confuse elite with elitist, as most people do. If you graduate from an elite institution, it doesn’t mean you should be an elitist. I come from a tradition where tikkun olam, healing the world, is the most important value. I quoted to students today a commencement speaker I had at Williams. He said, “The only time you should ever look down on someone is when you’re putting your hands out to lift that person up.” I told him (when he gave that speech), “I don’t always do that. I’m always asking where you go to school, what’s your background.” It really had a profound impact on me and how I think about people.
So I think that’s part of citizenship. It’s to realize you really are no better (than anyone else). When you’re at a place like Williams, or Harvard, or Northwestern, it’s hard to not take yourself very seriously. But when you do, it interferes with your perception of who people are, and I think that’s a tremendous mistake. I honestly don’t feel like I’m different than anyone else. I haven’t always been that way, though. Students should be proud of what they’ve achieved. But they should be humble about their place in the world.