Messages & Writings
State of the University Address: Investing in Our Core Values
President Joseph Aoun
September 30, 2009
Good afternoon. I am very glad to be here. First, I want to thank my colleague Steve Morrison and the Senate Agenda Committee. The working relationship between the Faculty Senate and the administration has been very productive and has enhanced the University as a whole.
Three years ago, we all came together to build a common vision and plan for the Northeastern. This process involved students, faculty, the senior team, the deans, some of our trustees, and many of our co-op partners.
We defined our new mission, and we defined a distinctive path for ourselves—one that is focused on experiential education anchored in co-op, research that aims to have societal impact, creativity and aesthetics, and urban and global engagement.
A Look Back
This past year, we faced a tremendous challenge. We were not the only ones who faced this challenge, but we decided—contrary to other institutions—to chart our own path. We decided to go back to our core values, as defined by our mission and strategic plan. We decided it was time for us to reassert those values—not only to preserve our momentum, but also to accelerate it.
Some of you doubted this strategy. Some of you told me you thought that the administration must not have been telling the whole truth. “We’re doing well,” you said. “What’s going on?”
We did well for a simple reason: We decided to do selective cost containment on the periphery, while preserving our central goals of teaching and research.
At a time when we were hearing about layoffs and hiring freezes, we decided to recruit more faculty. We were one of the few universities recruiting faculty, and we did extremely well in this domain.
We have also continued to enhance our campus with the addition of International Village. I want to commend our colleagues in facilities and in Jack McCarthy’s finance and administration operation. They brought the project in on time and under budget—a remarkable feat.
Higher Education Today
Before we go into detail about our accomplishments and vision for the future, let us look at the broader landscape of higher education. First, you have the very, very well endowed institutions that are facing a real problem. Because they allowed their operating budgets to depend on their endowment, when the stock market goes down, the operating budget suffers. Therefore, they faced real issues in the economic climate of the past year. We foresee that they will continue to do so for the next two to three years.
Second, we are seeing that the public higher-education system is being tested dramatically. Look, for example, at the University of California system. The UC system—and many other public universities throughout the country—began furloughing faculty and staff. We have seen tremendous cuts, with more to come. Third, we are seeing the liberal arts schools, many of them in nonurban environments, being tested. Some of them are folding, some of them are being bought, and some of them are merging.
What other trends are we seeing in higher education? In the current economic climate, the expense of college will continue to be a crucial issue for families. The economy has begun to show signs of improvement, but a full recovery is not imminent.
We are starting to hear expectations from students of a shorter time-to-degree option, and more and more colleges and universities are responding to that demand by providing a three-year bachelor’s program.
We are also seeing the launch of ‘no-frills’ universities, where students don’t attend college in a residential setting and they forego opportunities like research and study abroad.
We are seeing the rise of the for-profits, and I advise you not to dismiss this trend. These institutions are far from infringing upon us, but stay tuned. They comprise the fastest growing market in higher education, and there are lessons for us in this model.
The only way we can respond to the changing nature of higher education is to reaffirm our distinctive character and to continue to invest in quality. We have a system of learning—co-op and experiential education—that is unique and for which we are acknowledged as the leader.
On the one side, you have universities that say the way students learn is simply to be in the classroom. On the other side, Northeastern is saying that in order to learn, we need to integrate classroom experience and world experience. We are saying quite simply: The world is too interesting to ignore.
Co-op and experiential learning is where our leadership is, and that is why the students are flocking to us.
I recently attended a gathering of university presidents where many of the attendees wanted to know how we are doing it. How are we continuing to attract so many students? How are we continuing to recruit faculty? I told them the answer is very simple: We decided to say that no matter what we do, we have to enhance the quality of our students’ experience. And that’s exactly what we have done.
We have achieved much in the last three years, and you can read about our accomplishments in your copy of our Institutional Accomplishments booklet. For example, the caliber of the students we are attracting continues to grow. For this we have you, our students, to thank. As our best ambassadors, you have been instrumental in bringing us high-quality students. When I talk to new and prospective students, they tell me that they have met you on campus, that they have talked to you. It is your excitement that makes them want to come here.
We are not here to glorify our achievements, but rather to talk about the future.
Time-to-degree is an issue that we have decided to address, and we do that by first looking at our distinctive model of experiential education and co-op. The students want options. So the provost, the vice provosts, the deans, the Senate Agenda Committee, and the faculty are working on creating a four-year option that includes two co-ops, to be launched next fall.
Our students want the opportunity to explore. We want to give them that opportunity by creating double majors across very distinct disciplines—such as engineering and English or economics and biology. Because we have an educational model that is flexible and nimble, we can do this.
Research has increasingly become a draw for undergraduates. Many decided to come here instead of a four-year liberal arts college or a public university for a simple reason: Here they can be involved in knowledge creation. Research opportunities for undergraduates at Northeastern have grown tremendously in the past several years—just look at the way our annual Research and Scholarship Exposition has expanded. We must ensure that such opportunities continue to grow.
Because the master’s degree has become the new bachelor’s degree, we have launched a number of plus-one master’s programs. These programs allow students to earn a master’s degree in just one year, which positions them very well in today’s marketplace. This is an arena where we will continue to advance.
We also have great examples of honors programs that are attracting top students: the Galante Engineering Management program, for example, and the BSIB (International Business) program. We need to create more programs like these because of the tremendous impact they have on our students—both in fostering superb leadership skills and positioning them well in a global job market.
Co-op on the Global Stage
We have some exciting celebrations ahead of us this year. The College of Engineering will mark its 100th anniversary, and the University will mark the 100th anniversary of cooperative education at Northeastern.
When you celebrate an anniversary, you can do it in two ways. You can celebrate the past or you can celebrate the future. We decided to do both. We decided to celebrate the first 100 years of cooperative education at Northeastern, and we decided to focus on the next 100 years.
I am very happy to announce that this year is going to be the year of Global Experience. We have students doing co-ops in Nepal. We have students doing co-ops in Singapore. We have students doing co-ops in South Africa, in Europe, and on every continent except Antarctica.
We want our students to continue to explore the world in this way, and we want them to increase their involvement in the world as a whole. As you may know, other universities are retrenching from their global involvement because of economic challenges. We view this time as an opportunity for us to increase our global presence—to be in every corner of the world.
That is why, under this theme of Global Experience, we are introducing a very important and exciting innovation: the Presidential Global Scholars initiative.
The focus of this initiative is simple. The Presidential Global Scholars initiative will provide our students with scholarships to take advantage of international co-op. The goal is to double the number of students participating in international co-op. It is an ambitious goal, and it is not a goal that is going to happen by itself. But it is a goal that we are all excited about.
Defining Our Research Opportunities
We know that in order to position Northeastern as a national research university, we need to have a unifying strategy for our growth in research and scholarship. The strategic plan provides that blueprint.
Together, we have decided to focus on several broad research themes that play to our strengths, including sustainability, health, security, and the role of the humanities and the arts in our world. We now must align our efforts with these themes—in terms of faculty recruitment, in terms of building research centers, and in terms of creating PhD programs.
In essence, we are making bets on emerging fields. We have done that successfully throughout our history, and we will continue to do so. Look at our recent success in positioning Northeastern in the network sciences.
Two years ago, the network sciences field was not represented here. We are now the world leader in this area. Here I want to commend my colleagues: the deans and the faculty. They looked at this domain as an opportunity to build leadership across disciplinary lines. We now have joint appointments across the computer science, physics, and political science departments, with others to come.
This didn’t happen by itself. We made a bet. We decided not to play the competition game; instead, we chose to define our own rules. We took a calculated risk, got there ahead of the others, and established the Northeastern Center for Complex Network Research as the leading research center in network science.
This strategy for establishing leadership will help seed our doctoral programs. Our immediate goal is to review the PhD programs we have and determine whether we want to reaffirm them or look to new opportunities. We know that we cannot look at new opportunities without examining what we have. The two have to go hand in hand. As with everything we are trying to accomplish at Northeastern, quality, innovation, and distinctiveness are the name of the game.
Our strategy for building key research strengths will also help us with faculty recruitment. We have had great success in attracting top-caliber faculty to this University since announcing our interdisciplinary faculty initiative. Over the past three years—and in a very competitive environment—we recruited 124 tenured and tenure-track faculty to Northeastern. Last year alone, we were able to recruit 42 new faculty members. This coming year, we’re launching 53 new searches—again adhering to a strategic and interdisciplinary framework.
This economic downturn is providing us with a great opportunity, but it will not last. Two to three years, that’s our window. Our job is to give you the opportunity to make it happen. Your job is to leverage that opportunity. Faculty recruit faculty, so go get them.
Sustainability at Northeastern
Many of you—not only students, faculty, and staff, but also visitors and parents—tell me how great this campus is. That doesn’t happen by itself. It happens because we have a tremendous respect for this campus, and it happens because of the highly innovative facilities and public safety staff that makes us feel at home on a daily basis.
Part of the way we show our respect for this campus is by continually striving to become a more environmentally sustainable community. Sustainability represents a core value of Northeastern, and we are fast becoming a leader among institutions of higher education in this arena.
For example, this fall we celebrated the opening of International Village, not only because of its sleek design and international theme, but because it is a green building. So is the School of Law’s Dockser Hall. In fact, Dockser just earned LEED Gold certification for its recent renovation. International Village, which is about to begin its LEED Gold evaluation, is expected to receive certification in the spring. We should also be proud of the fact that, this past summer, we were one of 15 educational institutions out of 697 to earn a place on the 2010 Green Rating Honor Roll compiled by Princeton Review.
Innovation for Our Times
I’d like to take a moment to talk about the reorganization effort under way at the University. The provost has embarked on this reorganization effort together with the Senate, deans, and faculty, and I want to give credit to Steve Director, Steve Morrison, and the Senate Agenda Committee for making the process so open from the beginning.
This University has embraced change from the get-go. It has defined and redefined itself over the years, and we feel that it is time to do so again. Although change is necessary, it is not a goal in itself. Our goal is to increase the involvement of the schools in the life of the University and to make the schools more nimble, so that they may each achieve their full measure of greatness.
Change is never easy. We often want to stay in our comfort zone. When we send our students to discover a new country on international co-op, it’s not easy for them. But we are telling our students to get out of their comfort zone. We should lead by example, and today we are.
We have a lot to do ahead of us. But what I see ahead is very exciting. We have the right leadership, we have the right faculty involvement, and we have the right student involvement. I truly believe that no one can stop us.