Uni­ver­sity pres­i­dents must be the cat­a­lyst for cul­ture change at their insti­tu­tions and sup­port those who will bring that change to fruition, North­eastern Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun said Tuesday morning during a panel dis­cus­sion in Wash­ington, D.C.

The mis­take we pres­i­dents make is when we define our­selves as a change agent,” Aoun said. “We suc­ceed the day people take over for us and become the change dri­vers. We are the cat­a­lysts and should let the early adopters lead.”

George­town Uni­ver­sity hosted the event, which was co-​​sponsored by Ari­zona State Uni­ver­sity. The panel dis­cus­sion, titled “Lead­er­ship for the Inno­v­a­tive Uni­ver­sity,” focused on the skills and attrib­utes col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties will demand from their leaders in the future.

Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun, center, responds to a question during the panel discussion titled "Leadership for the Innovative University." Photo credit: Theresa Keil Photography

North­eastern Uni­ver­sity Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun, center, responds to a ques­tion during the panel dis­cus­sion titled “Lead­er­ship for the Inno­v­a­tive Uni­ver­sity.” Photo credit: Theresa Keil Photography

Aoun is a national leader on issues crit­ical to higher edu­ca­tion. He fre­quently writes and speaks about inno­va­tion in higher edu­ca­tion, with par­tic­ular emphasis on Amer­ican higher edu­ca­tion in a global context.

In addi­tion to Aoun, the panel com­prised Ben­jamin Freakley, a pro­fessor of prac­tice at ASU and a retired U.S. Army lieu­tenant gen­eral; Heather Fraser, co-​​founder of Rotman Design­Works at the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto; William Kirwan, Uni­ver­sity System of Mary­land chan­cellor; and Jami­enne Studley, acting deputy under sec­re­tary of the Depart­ment of Education.

Jef­frey Selingo, pro­fessor of prac­tice at ASU and con­tributing editor at The Chron­icle of Higher Edu­ca­tion, mod­er­ated the dis­cus­sion. When the pan­elists were asked if they believe lead­er­ship is an innate quality or if it’s some­thing that can be taught, Aoun he said he believes higher edu­ca­tion helps people deter­mine what type of leader they want to be.

In some ways edu­ca­tion has a trig­gering effect,” Aoun noted. “It doesn’t create lead­er­ship, but it can help you under­stand what lead­er­ship is going to be about.”

He added that lead­er­ship is not uni­form and leaders at higher edu­ca­tion insti­tu­tions thrive when there is a strong match between the leader and institution.

When asked for an out­side per­spec­tive from her role with the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, Studley said she rec­og­nizes changing cul­ture is hard and it’s hard to manage, and there­fore it is essen­tial for leaders to ask good ques­tions. “The people who seem to be doing an immensely effec­tive job are asking fun­da­mental and core ques­tions that help them focus and help an insti­tu­tion seek new path­ways,” she said.

Aoun was also asked whether col­lege and uni­ver­sity pres­i­dents’ roles will change over the next decade. “The job is going to change dra­mat­i­cally,” he responded, adding that he mea­sures suc­cess each year by whether he’s empow­ering others around him to succeed.

Ear­lier this year, Aoun par­tic­i­pated in a higher edu­ca­tion summit hosted by U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama that focused on max­i­mizing col­lege access, afford­ability, and suc­cess for low-​​​​income stu­dents. Also this year he offered his exper­tise to the U.S. Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion on its new col­lege ranking system.

Last year he con­cluded his term as chair of the Amer­ican Council on Edu­ca­tion, the nation’s largest higher edu­ca­tion advo­cacy orga­ni­za­tion. He also serves on the U.S. Depart­ment of Home­land Security’s aca­d­emic advi­sory council and has led efforts in higher edu­ca­tion to sup­port crit­ical defense and home­land secu­rity research funding, to pre­serve fed­eral finan­cial aid for stu­dents, and to advance expe­ri­en­tial learning as a valu­able edu­ca­tional model.