State of the University Address: Innovation in a Time of Retrenchment

President Joseph Aoun
Northeastern University
October 15, 2008

Video

First, let me start by thanking my colleague Steve Morrison and the Senate Agenda Committee. Their work has been exceptionally productive this year, especially in terms of helping our new provost, Stephen Director, to learn about our culture, and about what we are doing and what still needs to be done. So I thank you, Steve, for the positive and constructive relationship you have created.

We have many new faculty and staff in the room. Let us all recognize them. I would like to ask them to stand and be recognized. [applause]

This booklet you received on your way in summarizes our collective accomplishments. Each one of us played a role in those accomplishments in one way or another, and I thank you. I will not be able to cover all of them, but before you leave, there will be a test. If you pass this test, I think Steve Morrison would be happy to invite you to another free lunch.

I would like to focus, though, on a few highlights before I move on to my main remarks. I’ll begin with student recruitment and the wonderful advances we are making in this arena. And as you know, we achieved “most selective” status last year among schools in Boston, and we continue to maintain that status. This year, we also received a record 36,000 applications for 2,800 seats. The average combined SAT score of our students for our incoming class is 1268.

Really, we have our students to thank for these achievements. Our students have been our best ambassadors in recruiting such high-caliber applicants. When prospective students visit, the first thing they do is talk to the other students to see how they feel about the place. So I want to thank you, our current students, because you have been great ambassadors. I also want to thank Philly Mantella and her staff. They are doing a superlative job. And I want to thank the faculty who have been involved in the recruitment process. Your involvement is key for our ongoing success in recruiting the best students possible.

Let me now draw your attention to the exceptional year we had in terms of faculty recruitment. You see from the recent special edition of The Voice that we have had the best year ever, quantitatively and qualitatively. We recruited 50 faculty for a net gain of 30 tenured and tenure-track faculty. This is quite an achievement for all of us because we competed with many other institutions. Our ability to attract such high-caliber faculty is due to a lot of hard work and a lot of cultivation. But the real success driver in this arena has been the momentum of this great institution, and everyone in this community plays a part in that momentum.

In terms of research, I’d like to highlight a few examples. You have all heard about the Homeland Security Center, the Center for Information Assurance, and most recently the ADVANCE grant we received. Take those examples of research successes—along with what we are doing in enrollment and faculty recruitment—and they represent what you are doing, what you are doing very well, with respect to fierce competition. This is what I mean when I speak about our University’s momentum.

I also want to congratulate us all for the great work we are doing in fundraising. Over the past two years, we increased our fundraising by 97 percent, nearly doubled it. We have done this with a collective involvement in fundraising efforts. This collective involvement is new for us, but you can see that it is very effective.

Challenges of the World Financial Crisis
I could spend an hour talking about last year and our accomplishments, but I think what is on your mind—what is on all of our minds—is the current financial crisis. The other day I sent a memo to our community trying to capture what we have been doing since this worldwide crisis began to unfold.

Let me start by reiterating that we don’t know on a short-term basis the impact—the full impact—of what’s going to happen. But one thing we know is that the shrinking pool of federal financial aid is going to be an issue for us—for us and for every institution in the country. So we have to double our own efforts to increase the supply. We have to find ways to continue to support our students and their families.

But on a long-term basis—and this is why I want you really to engage in a kind reflection with me—it may be time to think about the current model in higher education, and its vulnerabilities within shaky economic times. Indeed, we have the best higher education system in the world. We are the envy of the world in this respect. However, the questions are: Is this model going to be fully sustainable as it is? And what can we do now to position ourselves with respect to the current financial situation? I ask that you indulge me for a moment while I take you through a brief historical perspective.

We imported the current residential model of higher education from Oxford and Cambridge. This residential model was invented for the aristocracy in England. It didn’t spread, for instance, in Continental Europe. Yet, this expensive model has been very successful in the United States because we have had a very strong middle class that was able to afford this model.

Now you see that the middle class is being challenged financially by tough economic times, and we are being forced to address the question of how higher education can be made more affordable. But there are also opportunities for growth—to find ways to augment the model itself with other revenue builders that would support it. What I would like to do is to engage our community in a reflection that begins today on what is happening in higher education, and what the opportunities are moving forward.

Our History as Innovators
I feel that we as a University are very well positioned to deal with the current economic turmoil. Why is that? Because it’s simply true that Northeastern, throughout its history, has been very receptive to change and innovation, and in fact, has been a leader in these arenas. When you talk to colleagues about Northeastern, and you explain the model of education that we have— experiential education anchored with co-op—we are reminded that this model is unusual in higher education. This model gives us a competitive advantage. The fact that we now have experiential education in 88 cities in the world is a plus for us. No one else has that. We have a leadership position in this domain. And as more universities begin to talk about the value of experiential learning, we want to maintain that leadership position.

We have also been innovators in research. At a time when academia despised—and I’m using this strong term deliberately—applied research and translational research, we embraced both. In fact, we focused on fundamental research, and we focused on applied research, and we focused on the interface between the two. Only recently is this becoming a trend that people accept. More and more universities are talking about translational research.

We have been ahead of the curve in these two fundamental aspects of what we do at Northeastern—in teaching and in research. That has naturally positioned us well as innovators—a characteristic that will serve us well during these financially trying times.

Our Short-term Goals
So what I would like to do now is talk about the financial crisis and its implication on a short-term basis. Let me acknowledge the work of two superb officers we have working for us at the University—literally working day and night. Jack McCarthy and Sam Solomon. They have already helped us dodge several bullets, which leaves us in a good position on a short-term basis with respect to our cash flow, the Common Fund, and several other key financial factors. Jack, Sam, I thank you both for this magnificent work.

In my message to the community, I talked about the importance of maintaining our momentum and our core values and our leadership. Going forward, we will need to practice cost containment, but not in an across-the-board fashion. The goal must be to contain costs in ways that strengthen our core: in experiential education, in research leadership, in our commitment to diversity, and in our engagement with the community. Now is not the time to retreat from these core strengths; it is time to redouble our efforts.

For example, the Stony Brook Initiative is now taking off. Many of you—as well as our community leaders—have been involved in its launch. We have made a commitment to this initiative and to the community at large. We cannot turn our backs on that commitment. We also made a commitment to the environment and greening our campus. These efforts towards increased sustainability are not considered a luxury. They are necessities, and we must continue our good work in this area. These are examples of our core values. Whatever we do on a short-term basis, we have to do to strengthen those values.

What about the long term? You have heard about some institutions starting layoffs and initiating hiring freezes. We are not there. I want to reiterate, we are not there. But like every other responsible institution, we are looking at this rapidly changing financial situation and trying to discern the implications for us. That requires a collective effort—of the faculty, the deans, the administrators, the Senate, and every constituency—to look not only at our present, but also at our future. We may be forced to take more drastic measures eventually. I hope that we will not be forced to face this situation. But I promise you one thing: is we are, you will hear it first, and it will not be a surprise. As of today, however, we are not planning any such drastic measures.

Our Long-term Opportunities
So what are these innovations? I will categorize them within three separate arenas. The first is a curricular innovation. More than ever, we have to look at our offerings and justify every move we make as a means of justifying our tuition. We have been doing a good job with this. Last year, for example, we introduced the Galante Engineering and MBA Program, which is the kind of program that will really attract students. Why? A program like this recognizes the need to focus on more than one domain, and that will make graduates of this program very distinctive among the competition. We want to continue to explore more multidisciplinary curricular opportunities like this.

Another curricular innovation we must look at is the issue of time-to-degree. We have already taken measures to reduce the time-to-degree for our students. We want our students to finish. Our retention is at an all-time high, but we want that retention rate to continue to rise. To do that, we will need to look at more options for students who want to complete their degree in a shorter time. Some years ago, the Senate and the community talked about moving to a four-year degree program. The Provost is also going to review this opportunity with you. We must look more closely at this issue. We have to engage our community in another conversation about this issue.

The expansion of professional master’s degrees is another potential curricular innovation for us. Professional degrees are in high demand. Some of you have been moving to do a plus-one program, and we must continue to build upon such opportunities. The plus-one program need not be limited to the major that you started with, for example. It can be in a different field. We should be able to afford students the possibility of a humanities major moving into another field, such as economics, or business, or psychology. The options are wide open.

Creating a landscape for lifelong learning is going to be a necessity, as well as an avenue for curricular innovation. We have, for example, a new GI bill, that will mean that thousands of veterans will be seeking opportunities in higher education. We have to position ourselves to play a leadership role in this domain. We also have to continue to play a leadership role in terms of global opportunities, so that our students can learn how to negotiate the unknown long after they have graduated from Northeastern.

The second arena where we have many opportunities to innovate is in setting our research and our academic priorities. We are a University focusing on applied research and on fundamental research. We are focusing on everything across the spectrum. Now we have to bring our focus to another level by looking at our academic priorities. The Provost is going to talk about this in greater detail next, but essentially this sort of focus demands that we ask ourselves some hard questions: “What is it that we do well? What is it that we should be doing? What are the academic foci that we need to really maintain and increase our leadership? What are the emerging domains that we haven’t talked about, but that we should be involved in? How will our PhD programs reflect our strengths, ranging from the translational to the experiential?”

So the first innovation was a curricular innovation. The second innovation was what I called the research and graduate education innovation. The third is a management innovation. Here is where we are going to spend some time; Steve Morrison already mentioned it and the Provost is going to talk about it in his remarks.

To begin, we must ask ourselves, “How are we organized? What is it that we want to accomplish? And will our model of management enable us to realize our goals?”

I believe that this University has been too centralized. I said it last year. I said it the year before. We need to distribute the responsibility, the decision-making, and the ownership throughout the University. This process starts in the schools and colleges. But it needs to be not only at the faculty level, but also at the staff level.

One area where we have already had much success under a distributed model of responsibility and decision-making is fundraising. We will have to continue our efforts there, even during this time of nationwide retrenchment. But, you ask, how is it possible to do that? People are broke. Nonprofits are suffering.

Fundraising is about friend raising first. It’s about being present. In the same way that we cannot turn our back on our greater community, we cannot turn our back on our parents and on alumni. Fundraising is a long-term proposition that involves support. We support our communities—our friends, families, alumni, and whoever needs us. Therefore, we will continue to work on developing many programs with them, including, for instance, the opening of career centers for Northeastern families—students, parents, and alumni. We have a great network of alumni and parents. We want to use it by exploring as many networking avenues as possible.

A Stronger and More Nimble University
We are, I believe, at a turning point in higher education. You are going to see that some institutions will go under, and we are already seeing signs of that. I believe that they simply aren’t positioning themselves well for the future. I have the utmost confidence—given our history and given our present—that we will be able to come out of this situation strengthened and more nimble. We will be able to affirm and reinforce our leadership. It’s not going to be easy. But it is time for all of us together, working as a community, to bring our best values to the fore. Thank you, very much.