Leadership & Governance

Doubling Down on Innovation for Success

Joseph E. Aoun, president, Northeastern U.

October 10, 2016

Produced by Carmen Mendoza and Julia Schmalz

Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University, discusses how his institution has used a combination of global focus and experiential learning to raise its profile, and how colleges should be preparing students for the job market of tomorrow. 


LEE GARDNER: I'm here with Joseph Aoun, President of Northeastern University. He's been president for 10 years, and in that time, the university has experienced an elevated profile, domestically and internationally. And we're here to talk about that.

I guess the thing that I'm curious about most is you've hired a lot of faculty, started a lot of programs, and you're doing all this while swimming in the same waters as other colleges. How has that worked financially?

JOSEPH AOUN: So far for us it has worked very well because we decided, as you know, Lee, that during the recession it was an opportune time for us to grow. We built a strategic plan for growth, and it had various components. Very quickly we doubled down on differentiation, namely co-op. We took co-op on a global scale. We focused on experiential learning. We recruited faculty at a time when no one was recruiting, and we made bets on emerging fields. So that was the beginning.

About This Series

The Chronicle’s On Leadership video series explores various aspects of campus leadership with movers and shakers across academe. The series is hosted by Chronicle editors and reporters. Visit our complete collection of interviews. 

But then in order to achieve that, we built a fiscally responsible plan with contingencies. So we said, there is a baseline that will allow us to do X. If we overachieve that, then we accelerate our momentum. If we don't achieve that, we decelerate our momentum. So the plan was built with contingencies and opportunities and seizing opportunities. That's what we did.

LEE GARDNER: But you're still working with the trio of tuition dollars, research dollars, and fund raising to fund all this.

JOSEPH AOUN: But also we added another dimension, as you know. We said that now we live in a period of enormous knowledge acceleration. There are new fields being created. Who is providing that? So we embarked on building a large number of professional certificates and master's that are delivered online and in various sites, either with companies or in Seattle, in Charlotte, in Silicon Valley, and now in Toronto.

So those examples are cybersecurity, computer science, engineering management, health informatics, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So that allowed us also to have a presence in these domains, in these cities, and also to have benefits that we plowed into our ambitions.

LEE GARDNER: I know that you have had a substantial influx of international students. And I'm curious about if you have had any second thoughts about that based on the fact that, say, a shift with interrelations with China could have significant impacts on that.

JOSEPH AOUN: When I started at Northeastern, we used to have 3 percent of our students who were international. We are now at 17 percent to 18percent per year. The reason we did it is we embarked on a globalization of the university. So ultimately, the goal was to globalize the university and allow the students to roam the world.

How did we do it? We said globalization starts at home. So we recruited the international students. Second, once we did that, we started globalizing our co-ops. So we are now in 131 countries, and we have 3,000 employers. This allowed us to globalize our co-ops because people became at ease in the international arena at home.

Now, with respect to your question, we are very diversified in our recruitment. We recruit from all over the world. And we had to learn to recruit from all over the world by looking at the best practices and by — for instance, I mentioned to you that Australia was ahead in global recruitment. We looked at what they did. We took chapters from their practices. And the whole point is to remain diversified worldwide. But the strategy was to offer our students a global experiential opportunity, via co-op, via Dialogue of Civilizations, et cetera.

LEE GARDNER: The co-op and other experiential learning opportunities are a big part of the education that Northeastern offers. And yet it's still relatively rare among American universities. What were the keys to building up those programs?

JOSEPH AOUN: The co-op was started 100 years ago. However, what has happened is that it was reinvented constantly, not in terms of its practice but in terms of its purpose. So we look at co-op as part of an experiential learning opportunity. What is experiential learning? It's the integration of the classroom experience with the world experience. And integration is key.

So before a student goes on a co-op, she has to understand the company or the not-for-profit she is going to be part of. She's going to be interviewed. Those are not given. They have to be interviewed. They have to understand how they come across. Once they are recruited, we have a mentor in the company or the not-for-profit.

And once they come back, we integrate what they learned in the classroom. That has been a very powerful approach to learning. And we see it because the students have outcomes. They have jobs, they go to graduate school, they go to medical school, et cetera.

Now this is a laborious endeavor. It requires that the whole institution focuses on getting that. And frankly, in some ways the largest barrier to entry is the faculty. When you go to Northeastern, you know as a faculty that this is part and parcel of what we do. This is our DNA.

But I have to tell you, when the students come back from Cape Town, when they come back from Shanghai, when they come back from Wall Street, when they come back from India, and if you're lecturing about poverty, if you're lecturing about the financial crisis — they lived it. They got out of their comfort zone, and they can question you as a faculty. So they have a perspective that is more up to date in many cases and more relevant. And we love that. So the barrier to entry — why is it the case that not more universities are adopting it? It's because you have to change the culture of the faculty.

LEE GARDNER: I know that you've spoken and written about what colleges need to do to adapt to an increasingly automated world. I'm curious if you could share some of those thoughts with us.

JOSEPH AOUN: I think that we pitted, in higher education, liberal arts and knowledge of a domain and skills, however you want to characterize it. And we've created this dichotomy. Either you go this way or you go this way. This is a false dichotomy. In today's world, you have to have both.

You have to have what I call the new literacy. Coding is an example. Data analytics would be another example, et cetera, et cetera. But also, if you're a liberal-arts major, you have to understand those new literacies. And you have also to practice your liberal arts. How do you do it? We have a concept called experiential liberal arts.

If you are studying something that is technical and involving computer science, robotics, whatever it is, engineering, it's not enough. Your knowledge will become obsolete. We believe that by the time you leave college, most of your knowledge is going to be obsolete. Why? Because things are moving fast. So you have to learn how to learn. You have to learn also systems thinking. You have to learn how to be in a team environment. You have to learn about the world. And this is the challenge we face and opportunity we face in higher education. Robots are going to make many jobs disappear.

And therefore we have a responsibility as educators to think beyond the jobs that people are trained for. Can they be ready for the world, and can they be ready for life? So our approach is to say, we want to give you the opportunity to earn a living and to live your life and to navigate the change.

It's easier said than done, but that means that you have to blur the boundaries constantly and not to pit liberal arts and specific domains that are technical. Every person would have to have the opportunity to meld the two. And they have the opportunity to do it over a lifetime. It's no longer the case that your learning is going to be defined over four years. It has to be defined over a lifetime. And that's where we as universities have to position ourselves as providing lifelong learning opportunities for the world.

LEE GARDNER: Thank you very much for being with us.

JOSEPH AOUN: Thank you, Lee. Good to be with you.

Lee Gardner writes about the management of colleges and universities, higher-education marketing, and other topics. Follow him on Twitter @_lee_g, or email him at lee.gardner@chronicle.com.