Northwestern turns to University of Oregon’s Schill as its next president

The highly respected leader will take over at the acclaimed Chicago-area institution this fall, a place he knows well.

Maybe this could only happen in a town like this, as Sinatra said, at a moment in time where the stars could align to bring new hope to even the most impossible situation.

On Thursday, Northwestern University announced it had found a leader to replace Rebecca Blank, who tragically had to give up her position as newly named president because of a cancer diagnosis just one month ago. The person the Board of Trustees recommended and approved was the University of Oregon’s Michael Schill, one of the most highly respected presidents in the nation and someone with deep ties to the Chicago area.

The 63-year-old Schill—who has led UO to unprecedented heights over the past seven years and whose rÁ©sumÁ© includes degrees from Princeton and Yale, faculty stops at Penn and NYU, and a leadership post at UCLA—was also dean of the University of Chicago Law School, where he developed an affinity for the Windy City. Coming back to a place where he still spends so much time was a natural, and naturally a win for this esteemed academic institution.

“I am thrilled, honored and humbled to join Northwestern, one of the world’s most prominent universities,” Schill said in a statement. “Northwestern has a long tradition of educating the brightest minds and pushing the boundaries of research and innovation. Northwestern is blessed with a University community whose deep commitment to human potential is awe-inspiring. I believe that by working together, we can all make a difference, and I am looking forward to joining you for the next great chapter in our university’s history.”

That Northwestern’s board was able to pivot so quickly to find a leader of this caliber, and one who will start that journey when the institution opens this fall, is remarkable. But the state of higher education being what it is—where numerous leaders have retired, unretired, moved from post to post after just one or two years or simply sought a change—another announcement might not seem surprising. But the man who will become the 25th president in its history, following Blank and Morton Schapiro, and the institution he will leave behind makes this one of the biggest blockbuster deals of the past two years. Northwestern has a solid leader in place. Oregon now finds itself in a position it hasn’t been in since 2015. Like so many others, it will be searching, too.

“President Schill has significantly propelled the university forward, and so it is no surprise that he would be recruited by one of the most prestigious academic research institutions in the world,” Ginevra Ralph, Oregon’s Board of Trustees chair, said in a statement. “I and the other members of the Board of Trustees of the University of Oregon are immensely grateful for President Schill’s service and leadership to this university, and its faculty, staff and students. We are also extremely excited and optimistic about the future of the university. We are prepared for a new era of excellence, impact, and service to our students, community, and world as one of the country’s leading public research universities. The board will move expeditiously to appoint an interim president.”

What Northwestern is getting is a proven leader on many levels. He and his team raised an astonishing $3 billion at the university, which helped not only build its internationally renowned brand but also funded many of its world-class facilities, including the spectacular Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact. An expert in law and real estate, a member of the NCAA Board of Governors and the Academy of Arts and Sciences, Schill is that renaissance leader to lead Northwestern forward.

“Schill is known for his sense of dedication and passion that envelops everything he does,” said Jide O. Nzelibe, the Benjamin Mazur Summer Research Professor of Law and a faculty representative on the search committee. “Schill completely immerses himself in his environment, prioritizing faculty and academic excellence, as well as student quality and accessibility across all backgrounds. He is a president who will go above and beyond what is expected.”

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One of Schill’s best success stories was his ability to raise graduation rates by 10% at Oregon. He also worked hard to try to keep tuition costs down for low-income students while building a more inclusive campus. It is something he knows will be necessary for Evanston.

“I am committed to diversity,” said Schill, a first-generation student himself from the blue-collar town of Schenectady, N.Y. “The true potential of a place like Northwestern cannot be fulfilled without bringing people of diverse backgrounds, experiences, abilities and identities together as well as students, staff and faculty members who span the spectrum of ideological and political viewpoints.”

Charles Tribbett III, a vice chair of Northwestern’s Board of Trustees, is confident Schill will bring that extra level of care to the university. “President-elect Schill is a highly empathetic individual,” he said. “I am impressed with the depth and breadth of President-elect Schill’s leadership expertise. He will listen and thoughtfully respond to our community as he guides the University toward an effective strategic vision for the future.”

He will do that at a place that he now can call home, his kind of town. “I love the Steppenwolf Theatre and the Goodman Theatre. There is no city in the nation with architecture as beautiful and awe inspiring as Chicago. It’s a great place to live, work and study.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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