During a pre­sen­ta­tion to an archi­tec­ture class on Monday, North­eastern Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun dis­cussed every­thing from how higher edu­ca­tion has changed in the past decade to the vision that brought the soon-​​to-​​be-​​completed Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Sci­ence and Engi­neering Com­plex to life.

The class, “Under­standing Design,” led by George Thrush, pro­fessor and founding director of the School of Archi­tec­ture, focuses on preparing stu­dents to inte­grate design-​​oriented thinking in their everyday lives. During a Q&A in Blackman Audi­to­rium, Thrush asked Aoun how he does the same. Although there may not appear to be much overlap, Aoun, in response, high­lighted the myriad ways the inno­v­a­tive thinking required of archi­tec­tural design per­me­ates the many facets of run­ning a university.

Here are some of the high­lights from the conversation.

George Thrush: This course has evolved into one that is about teaching stu­dents who might not be majoring in design, the ben­e­fits of design thinking and how that can help them solve prob­lems. What I hope that we can talk about today are two issues that I know are very close to your heart, and I think you have employed some of these tech­niques implic­itly or explic­itly.  

The first is inno­vating in higher edu­ca­tion, which is a huge topic. And the other is your role as the client for the new Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Sci­ence and Engi­neering Complex.

So you’ve been here 10 years now. In higher edu­ca­tion, which has been such a changing playing field, what would you say has changed the most in the past 10 years?

President Joseph E. Aoun & Professor George Thrush

Pres­i­dent Aoun [Addressing the stu­dents]: What has changed the most in higher edu­ca­tion is you. That’s the first and most impor­tant aspect of the change, because your expec­ta­tions are dif­ferent. You are the dig­ital gen­er­a­tion; you want things now and you want them any­time and any­where. And higher edu­ca­tion has yet to adapt. And that’s an aspect that we are now going to build: per­son­al­ized edu­ca­tion. You’re going to see an enor­mous shift from the teacher-​​centered envi­ron­ment to a learner-​​centered environment.

Per­son­al­iza­tion of higher edu­ca­tion is not new to North­eastern. Co-​​op is the ulti­mate form of per­son­al­ized edu­ca­tion because you are there, you are looking in your co-​​op environment—whether it’s for-​​profit, whether it’s not-​​for-​​profit, whether it’s a startup, whether it’s in Shanghai, or Cape Town, or Sin­ga­pore, or London—you are looking at the world and you are looking at your­self, trying to under­stand what you like, what you don’t like, what you’re good at, what you have to work on; and that is per­son­al­ized education.

No one is dri­ving co-​​op but you. When we started looking at per­son­al­iza­tion, we knew that we already had a great asset, which is co-​​op and expe­ri­en­tial edu­ca­tion. So now the next evo­lu­tion is going to focus more and more on pro­viding you with oppor­tu­ni­ties to have a per­son­al­ized edu­ca­tion not only when you are here, but also for life. You may ask, “Why do I need it? Why do I need to have access to learning for life?” And that’s some­thing we’re going to discuss.

But to go back to pro­fessor Thrush’s ques­tion: You are dif­ferent from your pre­de­ces­sors in your expec­ta­tions, in what you do and how you do it, and how you learn. Yet, higher edu­ca­tion is not talking about per­son­al­iza­tion. It is still talking about pro­viding the clas­sical, curriculum-​​based approach. 

Thrush: In the 25, 26 years I’ve been here, the trans­for­ma­tion of North­eastern has been absolutely unbe­liev­able in every respect: expe­ri­en­tially, phys­i­cally as well. We are now expanding—we now have four regional grad­uate cam­puses [in Sil­icon Valley, Toronto, Char­lotte and Seattle]. How do we nav­i­gate the space between the acces­si­bility, let’s say of online courses that allow you to do it as a dairy farmer in Ver­mont, with the need for this kind of com­mu­nity connection?

Aoun: Look, people are social beings. We all are. If you look at the courses that are purely online, the grad­u­a­tion rates are very low. It’s around 6 per­cent. People who are on their own drop out. We need to com­mu­ni­cate; we need to interact. We need to talk to each other; we need to learn from each other. We need to look at the person in the eye and under­stand her body lan­guage. Is she bored? Is she excited? Is she inter­ested? Is she pas­sionate? Does this person stay always in the back in every class­room in order to [be on social media]? We need this con­nec­tion con­stantly, phys­i­cally and virtually.

The campus is essen­tial not only in giving you these connections—it’s giving you a way of learning about others, who are not you.

Let me give you an example. When we started glob­al­izing North­eastern, the first thing we did is bring more inter­na­tional stu­dents because inter­na­tional edu­ca­tion starts at home. No one is com­pletely global. I’ve lived on three con­ti­nents, I’ve trav­eled all over the world, and I don’t con­sider myself fully global because there are places you know and places you don’t.

Inter­na­tional edu­ca­tion starts at home for every­body. When you are in the same community—whether you’re born in Ver­mont or in San Fran­cisco, or in Dubai, or in Cape Town, or in Shanghai—you are meeting and get­ting com­fort­able with people who are dif­ferent from you, and you are learning from that. Then it becomes matter of fact that the next step is to go on a Dia­logue of Civ­i­liza­tions or another global expe­ri­en­tial learning program.

What has changed the most in higher edu­ca­tion is you. You are dif­ferent from your pre­de­ces­sors in your expec­ta­tions, in what you do and how you do it, and how you learn.
—Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun

We couldn’t have become a global uni­ver­sity if we didn’t have a global mix of people. Now, if you’re asking, “Why do we need a global mix?” it’s because whether you work in Boston, or in Chicago, or in London, or in Nairobi, you are going to be impacted by global forces. And you have to under­stand them. It also gives you the cul­tural agility you need.

How many of you remember the Ice Bucket Chal­lenge? In other coun­tries, for instance in India, some people were appalled. Why were they appalled? They were expe­ri­encing a drought and it was a waste of water. So what did they do? Instead, they gave away rice. So you see, you have to under­stand at all levels—whether you’re doing social entre­pre­neur­ship, whether you’re traveling—you need to under­stand where people are coming from. You have to always cal­i­brate that in the same way that you try to under­stand other cul­tures, and that puts you in a great situation.

So, going back to your ques­tion, the notion of com­mu­nity is impor­tant, the notion of a diverse com­mu­nity is impor­tant, the notion of an inclu­sive com­mu­nity is impor­tant, and the notion of a global com­mu­nity is impor­tant, and that’s what a campus gives. We don’t live in iso­la­tion. If you think you live in iso­la­tion, you’re going to dis­cover that you are missing a lot.

Thrush: You know, the analogy between the phys­ical and the global is one that I rec­og­nize. I have a startup com­pany called Building Conversation—so I’ve learned many things about that world, which is so dif­ferent from higher edu­ca­tion. There are a couple con­cepts in my work there that are very related to this course, one of them being the con­cept of ‘fail fast.’ I’m curious to know how you think about an idea like that in higher education.

Aoun: Let’s start with the first change that you are going to face—and you are the gen­er­a­tion that’s going to face it, and the gen­er­a­tions after you will face it even more: We expect that because of robots and because of intel­li­gent sys­tems, nearly half of the jobs that we know—it’s around 45 percent—will dis­ap­pear in the next 15 to 20 years.

And if you think that it’s only because of self-​​driving cars, think again. It’s going to be more than that. It’s going to be white-​​collar jobs—lawyers, archi­tects, engi­neers. There will be a real impact on all of us. There­fore, you cannot afford to con­sider that you’re edu­cated once and for all in your life.

So, what you are building now is a robot-​​proof life. And what we need to do with you is to build a robot-​​proof edu­ca­tion. So what does that mean? It’s easier said than done.

Being robot-​​proof, you have to focus on what makes human beings unique: this wild cre­ativity, this inno­va­tion, this entre­pre­neur­ship, this ability to work with other people.
—Pres­i­dent Aoun

In a robot-​​proof edu­ca­tion, we have to focus on what humans do that robots cannot do: think cre­atively, work with others, think about ethics. For instance, sup­pose a sce­nario where a self-​​driving car can either hit three people and hurt the pas­sen­gers, or save the pas­sen­gers but hit 10 people. What is it going to do? Who’s going to pro­gram that? Who’s going to decide? You.

Cre­ative thinking and inno­va­tion, entre­pre­neur­ship, crit­ical thinking, thinking in a diver­gent way, ethics—that’s the purview of the human being. But that’s not enough, so edu­ca­tion has to pro­vide you with the oppor­tu­nity to be robot-​​proof. How many of you code? The next gen­er­a­tion will come to uni­ver­si­ties already knowing how to code. Data ana­lytics: how many know about Big Data? That’s going to be some­thing that you need to under­stand in the same way you under­stand math. That doesn’t guar­antee that you’ll be robot-​​proof, but it gives you the oppor­tu­nity to interact and under­stand what is hap­pening with your computers.

In addi­tion, I have news for you: If you think you are robot-​​proof once and for all, think again. We always have to repo­si­tion our­selves. Why? Because robots and intel­li­gent sys­tems will get better and do more.

So that’s why we’ve cre­ated those cam­puses you men­tioned. We are now in Seattle, in Sil­icon Valley, in Char­lotte, and in Toronto—and I’ll tell you that we’re going to be in Europe and we’re going to be in Asia. Why? Because you need to always be robot-​​proofing your life­long journey and expanding our global uni­ver­sity system responds to the increasing demand for life­long learning.

Being robot-​​proof, you have to focus on what makes human beings unique: this wild cre­ativity, this inno­va­tion, this entre­pre­neur­ship, this ability to work with other people.

Take, for example, engi­neering. I’ve met many engi­neers in my life. The engi­neers I interact most with are those who make it into lead­er­ship posi­tions. Why do you think that they become leaders? Do you think it’s because they are good engi­neers? That’s not enough. They are good with people. They can under­stand people. They can move people. They can inspire people, because when others see prob­lems, they see oppor­tu­ni­ties. That’s entrepreneurship.

Thrush: Let’s switch gears and talk about the Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Sci­ence and Engi­neering Com­plex and your role as the client. The reason I want to talk about it is not just because I like cool archi­tec­ture, which I do, but because it seems to me a very clear example of how dif­ferent stake­holders would have defined the problem very differently.

If you had asked the trea­surer, they would have said we have this much need and this much cost per researcher. If you’d asked Facil­i­ties, they would have come up with some­thing else. If you’d asked the researchers them­selves, they might have come up with some­thing else. Can you tell us a little bit about what you talked about with the archi­tects? Because you seem like the ideal client to me, someone who under­stands that archi­tec­ture is not mere building. What were your ambi­tions for this thing from the start?

Aoun: We’re going to open this great new sci­ence and engi­neering com­plex. Already we have other uni­ver­si­ties coming here to visit it. Why? First, look at cam­puses at the macro level: You have cam­puses that are monot­onic in their design, for instance all their build­ings are Italian Romanesque. There’s nothing wrong with that, they tend to be in a bucolic envi­ron­ment. North­eastern is an urban envi­ron­ment. You have West Vil­lage, Inter­na­tional Vil­lage, and East Vil­lage, so what we wanted is to reflect the fact that we are daring, to reflect that we are inter­ested in new mate­rial, in new architecture.

We started working together [with Boston-​​based archi­tec­ture firm Payette] to look at the sci­ence and engi­neering com­plex as a state­ment. You saw the archi­tec­ture, we pushed to make it a statement—a state­ment about design, a state­ment about inno­va­tion, a state­ment about being part of Columbus Avenue and opening Columbus Avenue to the com­mu­nity, too.

Then, when we started looking at the inside, we wanted the users—the stu­dents, the faculty—to be bumping into each other as opposed being con­fined to their rooms. All the labs are on one side and all the offices are on the other side, so, when you walk from one to the other you have to interact with others. We made it com­pletely open. The sci­ence and engi­neering com­plex is a mag­nif­i­cent symbol of who we are, and that’s essential.

Editor’s note: This tran­script has been edited for length and clarity.