North­eastern Uni­ver­sity Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun addressed the global chal­lenges faced by Amer­ican higher edu­ca­tion in the Muh Alumni Award lec­ture at Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nology Wednesday evening, declaring that “glob­al­iza­tion will be pro­foundly dis­rup­tive to fun­da­mental aspects of our system.”

Those aspects, ranging from an exclu­sionary admis­sions approach to a costly research cul­ture, are increas­ingly out of step with what the emerging world needs from higher edu­ca­tion, said Aoun.

As a result, he noted, some U.S. uni­ver­si­ties seeking to expand glob­ally have strug­gled when they’ve tried to trans­plant Amer­ican aca­d­emic models and values to other coun­tries. But they can seize this moment as an oppor­tu­nity, Aoun said, to inno­vate and become “more flex­ible, adapt­able, and atten­tive to local needs.”

Prior to the lec­ture, Deb­orah Fitzgerald, the Kenan Sahin Dean of MIT’s School of Human­i­ties, Arts, and Social Sci­ences pre­sented Aoun with the 2011 Robert A. Muh Alumni Award. She lauded the North­eastern pres­i­dent as “a dis­tin­guished scholar and edu­ca­tion leader.” The bien­nial award is given by the school to honor an alumnus or alumna who has made extra­or­di­nary con­tri­bu­tions to one of those fields.

Aoun, who received his PhD in lin­guis­tics from MIT in 1982, joins the ranks of pre­vious Muh Alumni Award win­ners, including former U.S. Sec­re­tary of State George Shultz and Nobel lau­reate in eco­nomics Robert Merton.

The Muh lec­ture is a pop­ular event, and more than 100 fac­ulty, stu­dents, and staff from MIT and North­eastern heard Aoun describe the rapid-​​fire changes to the world­wide edu­ca­tion land­scape that make global expan­sion so enticing—and challenging—for Amer­ican universities.

Demand for higher edu­ca­tion in emerging coun­tries like India and China is exploding, Aoun explained, over­whelming the existing phys­ical infra­struc­ture and aca­d­emic resources. Increased invest­ment in uni­ver­si­ties devel­oped on the Amer­ican model has driven up com­pe­ti­tion, with the result that the United States is no longer the des­ti­na­tion of first choice for some inter­na­tional stu­dents. And new tech­nology is enabling the global delivery of edu­ca­tional con­tent at extremely low cost.

Uni­ver­si­ties in the United States see in this oppor­tu­ni­ties, said Aoun: oppor­tu­ni­ties to open up new mar­kets and increase their rev­enue sources, be more inno­v­a­tive with their cur­riculum, or advance their research enterprise.

As a result too many schools are rushing into other coun­tries with “a Sesame Street men­tality,” he said. “They thought they could just trans­late Sesame Street into 63 lan­guages and it would be a world­wide hit. It didn’t work.”

Like­wise, in higher edu­ca­tion, “we are seeing the begin­nings of a back­lash to this gold-​​rush approach,” Aoun said.

Aoun, who has lived and studied on three con­ti­nents, gained some new insights at a recent U.S.-India edu­ca­tional summit spon­sored by the U.S. State Depart­ment. At the event, an advisor to Indian prime min­ister Man­mohan Singh said bluntly that the existing model of Amer­ican higher edu­ca­tion is “not scal­able, not afford­able, not adapt­able, and not what we really need.”

Expanding on the point, Aoun said the Amer­ican model, with admis­sions based on excluding most appli­cants, poorly serves the needs of coun­tries where it is urgent to expand edu­ca­tional oppor­tu­ni­ties. Like­wise, our system’s focus on full-​​time atten­dance shuts out stu­dents in other coun­tries where part-​​time edu­ca­tion has greater cul­tural relevance.

It is the same story in research, said Aoun, where U.S. uni­ver­si­ties pursue what they con­sider global research pri­or­i­ties, gen­er­ally without regard to cost—while aca­d­emic researchers in coun­tries such as India have an urgent need to dis­cover low-​​cost solu­tions to local, rather than global, challenges.

Even values that we believe con­tribute to making the Amer­ican system of higher edu­ca­tion the best in the world, said Aoun—such as aca­d­emic freedom, greater equality of oppor­tu­nity, and the merit-​​based approach to fac­ulty hiring and promotion—cannot blindly be trans­planted to other coun­tries and cultures.

So how can Amer­ican insti­tu­tions of higher edu­ca­tion become rel­e­vant players in the global marketplace?

What has helped make ours the best system in the world is the social com­pact we’ve entered into with society, to edu­cate our cit­i­zens and to create research for the bet­ter­ment of all,” Aoun said. “That’s what jus­ti­fies the invest­ments that society makes in us.”

Amer­ican uni­ver­si­ties need to reaf­firm that same social com­pact with each country they enter into, but one tai­lored to local needs and con­di­tions, he said. “That’s the only way to ensure accep­tance and a sus­tain­able partnership.”

Aoun was intro­duced by his former MIT classmate—and later, a fac­ulty col­league at the Uni­ver­sity of Southern California—David Pesetsky, now the Fer­rari P. Ward Pro­fessor of Modern Lan­guages and Lin­guis­tics at MIT.

Pesetsky read a letter of con­grat­u­la­tions to Aoun from Noam Chomsky, the glob­ally acclaimed lin­guist and cog­ni­tive sci­en­tist, who cofounded the lin­guis­tics pro­gram at MIT.

Speaking of Aoun’s numerous accom­plish­ments in the field, Pesetsky noted Aoun’s ground­breaking research that showed a “deep under­lying unity among prop­er­ties of dif­ferent lan­guages thought to be distinct.”

Since then,” he con­tinued, “I’ve seen the same devo­tion to a deeper unity in his insights on the world, anal­o­gous to those that underlie his work in linguistics.”