Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro said Monday that he knew “the optics” of hiring Mike Polisky as athletic director would be tough, but that he chose to do so after an independent investigation cleared Polisky of wrongdoing while he was deputy athletic director.
Schapiro has faced intense criticism and even protests outside his Evanston home over his handling of sexual harassment allegations involving cheerleaders, donors and Wildcat fans.
Last week, Polisky chose to resign after just 10 days on the job as protests from some students and faculty escalated over allegations of sexual harassment and racism in the university’s cheerleading program.
Polisky was Northwestern’s deputy athletic director when some cheerleaders alleged they were groped and touched inappropriately by alumni and fans at tailgating parties outside football games and at other university-sanctioned events.
“I would really like to know how it is possible for the environment to exist at Northwestern in 2017, 18, 19 into the present day, where these kinds of horrible acts of sexualization and discrimination and harassment against young women – Northwestern students and student athletes – could happen?” asked Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, a professor who is part of an organization of faculty members who opposed Polisky’s appointment.
Polisky was one of the people named in a lawsuit filed in January by Hayden Richardson, a member of the cheerleading squad from 2018 to 2020 who said she was groped and harassed by drunken alumni and fans.
In the lawsuit, Richardson claims Polisky dismissed her concerns and accused her of fabricating evidence.
While Schapiro acknowledged that “certainly terrible things happened,” he said an independent investigation looked into the allegations against Polisky and cleared him.
“Mike was a finalist and I of course waited to see the results of that independent investigation during which he was cleared,” said Schapiro. “We also filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. … I realized that the optics were going to be tough – but to accuse somebody of something doesn’t mean they actually did it — which I think is an important thing to remember for everyone.”
Schapiro said the university has implemented changes since the harassment came to light and that he had no advance notice of the allegations.
“There’s a difference of course between a president’s office and an office of equity. I learned about it reading the Chicago Tribune one horrible Friday afternoon,” said Schapiro. “We had already made a lot of changes, the coach was gone. The way the cheer squad interacted with fans and others completely changed and had been changed for years.”
President since 2009, Schapiro and the university announced in March that he would step down in August of next year. Some have interpreted that as a response to the sexual harassment controversy. Schapiro also faced charges of racism and calls from some students to resign last year after he refused to disband the university’s police force amid the racial reckoning that followed George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer. But Schapiro said his decision to leave the university was made a long time ago.
“I know that some people think that I am stepping down because of this controversy or not, but let’s remember, correlation is not causation,” Schapiro said. “This was long planned. If you had asked me in 2015 how long I was going to serve I would have said then that I was going to step down in August of 2022.”
Note: This story will be updated with video.
Video: We discuss the new book “Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us” with co-authors Morton Schapiro, the president of Northwestern University who is also a professor of economics, and Gary Saul Morson, professor of the arts and humanities and Slavic languages at Northwestern University.