As President Richard Freeland greeted freshmen beginning their Northeastern journeys last weekend, he acknowledged that his journey as university president will soon be coming to an end.
President Freeland announced Aug. 24 that he will resign next August after serving a decade as Northeastern’s president, leaving the board of trustees to form a search committee to find the institution’s next leader.
Board of Trustees Chairman Neal Finnegan said the committee, which will be comprised of faculty, alumni and students, hopes to have a new president in place next summer. Until then, Freeland said he will move on with the main work of his presidency – further transforming Northeastern from a working-class commuter school into a vibrant residential campus.
A central purpose
“Every presidency has a main theme, a central purpose,” Freeland said. “Different presidents have different strengths.”
Freeland’s strength was his strong academic background. He had previously served as an administrator at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and vice chancellor for academic affairs at The City University of New York before being selected for the Northeastern presidency.
Northeastern was a changing university when Freeland stepped in, and his challenge was to improve a university struggling with admissions and retention.
Retention rates were low, with approximately one out of three freshmen continuing on to their sophomore year.
“It used to be survival of the fittest,” Freeland said.
His predecessor, John Curry, began to shrink the class size in order to improve retention. When Freeland came into office, Northeastern had a graduation rate of 39 percent, which made him realize that “we have a responsibility to make sure they all succeed.”
While reducing class size and improving buildings around campus, Freeland redesigned the financial aid program in 1997. Previously, financial aid was cut nearly in half sophomore year with the hope students could support themselves through the co-op program. By the late ’90s, that was no longer possible, so making financial aid constant throughout a student’s college career made “a tremendous impact,” Freeland said.
Graduation rates rose consistently to 61 percent in spring 2005. SAT scores of incoming freshmen have risen over 200 points, applications have more than doubled and Northeastern’s campus has been built up with high-rise residence halls, the Marino Recreation Center and academic buildings such as the Behrakis Health Sciences Center. The percent of students living on campus rose dramatically, with approximately half of the 14,000 undergraduate student body residing on campus today.
But one of Freeland’s biggest goals, reaching the top 100 of the U.S. News and World Report’s annual ranking of American colleges, has not yet been reached. Even though he believes the top 100 is still “two or three years away,” Freeland said he is confident Northeastern will achieve top-100 status without him.
From 162 in 1995, Northeastern steadily rose in the rankings before moving into the top tier in the 2005 rankings with a rank of 115.
“It really made it clear for me when the new rankings came out” that Northeastern would reach top 100, Freeland said.
Even though the final goal has yet to be reached, Freeland has already developed a legacy that administrators said will stick with him long after he is gone.
“He will be known as the president who took ‘smaller and better’ and made ‘better’ a reality,” said James Stellar, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “I think he will be known as the president who transformed NU.”
Pushing through problems
Although Freeland’s tenure has been marked with great institutional change, not all of it has been for the good. As more students moved on campus and into the surrounding neighborhoods, problems escalated with the surrounding community.
Tensions came to a peak after the 2004 Super Bowl, when the brother of a Northeastern student was killed and a student was put into a coma following riots on Symphony Road and Hemenway Street. Since then, Freeland has struggled with the task of making peace with the community while still trying to expand the university. By canceling the planned Springfest concert in the wake of the riots, he infuriated students, but problems within the community continued.
“The issues we’re grappling with in the community are not going to go away,” Freeland acknowledged. Although he said he doesn’t know all the answers, getting more students back on campus is a starting point.
“I believe that we need to have a significantly higher percentage [on campus],” he said, and hopes to eventually have up to 70 percent of students housed on campus.
More recent events, including the proposal of two new residence halls on campus and the university’s purchase of St. Ann University Parish, continue to create controversy in the community. Freeland said he hopes to continue working with neighbors to set the institutional master plan, the layout for further on-campus building, by September 2006.
Former President John Curry said he was pleased with Freeland’s work and that community relations must be a strong focus for the university’s next leader.
“I worked hard when I was president to improve relationships with the Fenway,” he said. “As we seek commission to do new things on campus, it becomes critical.”
Upon hearing of Freeland’s decision to leave next year, community leaders had good things to say about Freeland’s handling of community relations.
“While his task as president was at times marked by great challenges, his efforts to engage in a dialogue with his neighbors, as well as his accessibility to the leaders in the community, made those challenging times all the more manageable,” said City Councilor Michael Ross, who represents the Fenway neighborhood, in a statement.
Moving toward the future
Building new residence halls and settling issues with the community are only pieces of the puzzle, Freeland said. In the year ahead, major steps must be taken to bolster alumni relations in order to push Northeastern up the list of top universities.
“I can make a very long list,” Freeland said with a laugh. “Residential facilities are just part of the story.”
Among all the areas Freeland strengthened in his nine years as president, alumni relations is one that has lagged behind.
“[The university] hasn’t had as strong a program with alumni relations,” Freeland said.
With the addition of a vice president for alumni relations and plans for a new alumni center on Columbus Avenue, Freeland hopes alumni will begin responding better to the idea of giving back to the university. For Freeland, the trick is trying to get the alumni to realize “why the institution needs their support right now.”
Curry also agreed that alumni relations should be a major focus of the next president.
“I think every president hopes to lead the university to a better place than where it began,” he said. “The next president I hope is someone who would concentrate on improving the image of Northeastern with alumni.”
With financial support from alumni, Northeastern’s small endowment can grow, said Mark Putnam, director of planning and research. Right now, Northeastern’s endowment is over $500 million, which is small compared to many other private universities of Northeastern’s size.
“Endowment is sort of the legacy of the institution that is passed on,” Putnam said. Whether it’s one large gift or small gifts given annually, alumni donations “can be used to support that long-term legacy of the institution,” he said.
Putnam said, however, that alumni relations sometimes take generations of students to develop. Students from the ’80s who attended a large commuter school most likely feel less of a connection to Northeastern than students today who live on campus.
“We need to make sure they all understand that this is a different Northeastern than it was 20 years ago,” Curry said.
Although future goals need to be reached, student leaders said they have had wonderful experiences with Freeland, and note that he will be greatly missed.
“He’s been fantastic,” said Ashley Adams, president of the Student Government Association.
Student government leaders meet with Freeland every six weeks.
“He is a tremendous support system, and a big supporter to the student government,” Adams said.
As Freeland prepares for his last months as president, he said he is unsure of where to go next. He will take a sabbatical from Northeastern for a year in order to make his decision, but still holds a faculty position in the history department. He said he would be interested in coming back to Northeastern to write and teach.
“I really want to step back,” he said. “This is a very wonderful job, but it’s also a very intense job. Right now I’m keeping my options open.”
Freeland said as the board of trustees searches for a new president, he hopes to watch and meet the candidates for his position.
“The board of trustees needs to be thinking about where Northeastern needs to go,” Freeland said. “The question is: What do we need now? I don’t know what the answer is going to be.”