Q&A with President Aoun

This week, The News sat down for a 45-minute on the record interview with President Joseph E. Aoun. Editor-in-chief Laura Finaldi, managing editor Todd Feathers and deputy news editor Miharu Sugie asked Aoun a series of questions.

Huntington News: What’s your favorite place to eat in Boston?

JA: My favorite place to eat in Boston, I have two places. One is International Village. I love International Village — you don’t like International Village? In the whole city. The other place I like to go to is — I’m going to do an advertisement for them — uhh, there are two other places. Can I have three? You know Anna’s Taqueria? You know? Taco? Okay, and there’s a place called Market in the W Hotel. So those are my favorite places.

HN: What do you usually order when you go to Dunkin’ Donuts?

JA: You know, I was a student here, and I used to pay a quarter for coffee and rarely you go to Dunkin Donuts so I start with coffee. And I’ve now switched from donuts to bagels. I order a bagel. So I order a coffee with a bagel. Why Dunkin’ Donuts? Why did you focus on Dunkin’ Donuts?

HN: It’s based in Massachusetts, so I just wanted to ask.

JA: I like coffee, it reminds me of the student days. I like it with cream, no sugar, never … it’s already too sweet. Life is too sweet, why do we keep on adding sugar?

HN: What’s the most recent place you went on vacation?

JA: Most recent place I went on vacation, so I have to remember where I was … it was in, we were in Asia. I’ve been going to Asia since 1982, so I know Asia very extremely well. So we had a couple of activities in Singapore, so we stayed afterwards.

HN: I wanted to ask you if there are any big changes that we should be expecting in the next year along the lines of a large donation in a sense of the D’Amore McKim Business School, new institutes opening, satellite campuses, anything like that?

JA: Yeah, I mean, you know that I’m going to announce tomorrow, and I like the fact that we’re meeting the day before because you have a kind of insider view of what I’m going to announce tomorrow, we can now say that we’re going to go for the new science and engineering building that will house classrooms and research both, you know, so we finalized, we just had board retreat, you know the whole board went to that, management had strongly recommended that, so tomorrow I make the first official announcement of that.

HN: So, kind of along those lines, there’s been some backup in the IMP process, the BRA hearing had to be cancelled, it’s been this ongoing — I don’t know if conflict is the right word — between the community and the school. People in the neighborhood want more on campus housing, students, the administration are eager to get facilities, do you think you’re going to be able to proceed on schedule with the other projects?

JA: Yeah, so we hope to proceed, because, first of all, look, you know, what you said, you know, the community, we are surrounded with several communities, as you know, and ranging from the Fenway to Roxbury, Mission Hill, et cetera, Dorchester, whatever we have, we are part of the community, we’re surrounded and we’re part of the biggest communities. And, you know that we are finishing on, were you there when we did the top off of the building on Friday? On Friday, the mayor came and we did a top off of the Y, the building that we’re constructing behind the Y, and you know, that is something that is going to provide not only beds, but it’s also going to provide many opportunities for new positions, new jobs for the community. So you know that we have been involved with the community and engaged with the community, we collectively at many levels. The students, you know all the community service, the faculty, in terms of teaching, in terms of wellness, etcetera, and we have been also very actively engaged in furthering that but also providing jobs for, providing and recruiting from the community, the students from the surrounding communities. So now to your point, you know, whenever you go into a process like that, in a master plan, this is a process that is going to you know involve the future of the university for the next 10 to 11 years, and various communities will look at it differently. So what you want to do is balance you know the community various requests you get, because we’re not getting one request, we’re getting many requests, several requests at many levels, so you want to balance that and bring it to the level of agreeing, so that’s what we’re doing. So to answer your question,  am I hopeful that it will be done? Yes. Otherwise, you know, we put our future on hold, and that’s not good. That’s my answer.

HN: Okay, I have a question about financial aid. So last year when you talked with Todd and Colin and Zack, you said that rises in tuition costs are offset by increases in financial aid, but then the White House’s college scorecard in February still ranked us, they gave us an F, for affordability and that does take financial aid into account, so how do you respond to that?

JA: You know, let me tell you something that’s very important. The White House sent us also — not the White House, the Secretary of Education — tweeted about our achievements in terms of diversity – I don’t know whether you saw that, the tweet congratulating us about our diversity — I brought you here, our achievements every year, we’re going to give it today, uh tomorrow sorry, at the meetings. Today you’ll have it before the others and you can look at it, so you haven’t followed the tweet about Northeastern, how it, Northeastern, increased the diversity and the graduation of that. So let’s go back to your question, now. We have something that is called the Northeastern promise. Are you aware of that? Are you aware of the Northeastern promise?

HN: I couldn’t recite it to you.

JA: Okay, that’s very important for the community to understand, especially you, because you are the voice. Whenever a student comes here, he or she has a promise from us that the financial aid package will remain the same for four years. Last year, we added something else. We said that, in addition, in addition, if tuition changes, the financial aid package will change commensurately, okay so that’s the promise. So for four years you will be taken care. Second, if you look at the increase of our tuition over the last period, seven or six years, and both my colleagues will sit down with you if you need, the rate of increase of financial aid was double the rate of the increase of tuition. Okay.

HN: So over the past couple of years?

JA: Six. Not two years. So when you increase financial aid at double the rate of the increase of tuition, your net price actually goes down. So, you know, we’ll give you the details. We’ll give you the details on the net price going down. Third, you know, the university is committing now over $200 million every year of its own budget, not the government, to get financial aid. Those are outright financial aid, not loans. So what we have done, as you see, the trajectory is there, and you see, and they will give you, that, you know, the results of that. And we will continue to do that, but let me mention something about the score card, per se. The Scorecard has been now viewed as a blunt instrument and the government itself is trying to think about it in various ways, because it hasn’t captured, for instance old outcomes, but the government wanted to think about outcomes, when we have a major outcome here that differentiates us from others, and it’s the value of an education that will lead you to have jobs. If you look at the last six years, we have the best job placement in the country. So, from this perspective, and you will see it here,  if you put them combined we will constantly rank number one, number two, etc, in the country for job placement, and you have 90 percent of our graduates were employed full time or enrolled in graduate school within nine months of graduation, you have it here. So, when you look at the government, the government, by definition, is looking at it in a kind of very, very crude way, and they’re trying to refine it. You know I was at a time at a higher education summit and the Secretary of Education spoke there, and we ourselves had organized in Washington, did you hear about the survey we did, do you have a copy of the results?

HN: We had a story out.

JA: Yeah, we brought those, so we will  give you both before you leave here. Yeah, so, and then this one, take a look at that. What makes higher education in the United States so important and so powerful, and keep that in mind, I lived and studied in three continents with three models, what’s unique about higher education in the United States is that the government doesn’t tell us what to do, we create our own curriculum, we create our own approaches—for instance, Northeastern’s co-op experiential education—we take risks, we go for different domains of research, and I don’t expect the government to be the ones that are shaping us. And as a matter of fact, the government is saying, look, our first approach has to be refined. So whatever you think about Scorecard or not, you know, when students go to a college, they have to look at outcomes of jobs, and this is where we are. So stay tuned, because the government itself is looking at other ways of refining the Scorecard situation, but independently of that we’re not a society driven by government, because the education you receive here at Northeastern is different from the education you will receive at Tufts, or at Wellesley, or wherever, take your pick, and in other countries, governments decide on your curriculum, decides on your approach, decides on your research, that’s different. And that’s why the university system in the United States is the best, why, because there is a culture of innovation, competition, and collaboration. That’s where we are. Any other questions?

HN: What’s the whole idea behind the possible future changes in CAMD?

JA: Let me tell you something. I receive tweets about it saying the president wants to do something, correct? You saw the tweets. So some people said the president wants that. I haven’t received so far any recommendation, any official recommendation, and the provost has not received any official recommendation. Why it’s important to say that:  I believe that there is a process the dean has initiated in the school and what the dean wants is engagement in the dialogue, you know. Let me be very blunt with you about that. Any restructuring can be good and can be bad … so far I have not received anything from the dean that is official. I know that he has engaged in a process, it is the beginning of the process. I am not going to support it until I have a proposal. But it has been initiated in the school. There is a dialogue. In an academic community people will diverge. I love the fact that people diverge because that means that people are expressing their views. But what i don’t want is that suddenly people say oh we’re not going to do journalism. An organizational discussion doesn’t entail that we’re not going to do journalism or communications for that matter. So my position is very clear:  I don’t have anything on my desk. The provost before you came, I called him, I said do you have any proposal, any official proposal? No. Are there discussions? Yes. The discussions will have to be open, will have to be transparent, will have to be based on the community, then a recommendation will have to be made based on this. That’s where it is. Now, the process has started. Let it continue. Let people discuss it. Let’s see the pros and the cons. Now if you ask me a step further, I’m going a step further, i say do i feel favor the restructuring? No. Am i against the restructuring? No. I don’t know the rationale yet. That’s it. I’m very clear about it. Not everything starts with the president and it’s not healthy for a large organization to think that everything starts with the president. This has been an issue that affects everybody at the school. Let the school have a healthy discussion. We all believe in our community, our academic freedom. So, stay tuned. I haven’t received anything. I don’t know the rationale so I’m not in favor of, I’m not against. Let the school run it’s process and see where it goes. And stay tuned, once I’ve received a recommendation and you want to ask me questions you are more than welcome. You come and talk to me about that, you’re welcome any time. But the last thing i want is for people to say stop the discussion. That is not what, you know, the school has decided to have a discussion, the discussion is starting. That’s good. Let them do it.

HN: The university is in the midst of a transition into a very, very top-tier research university. What is the university doing to bolster some of the liberal arts, areas like music, areas like history, sociology, that don’t receive a lot of outside funding?

JA: That’s a great question, because you can help the community of students realize that there are two domains of research in academia. One is called the funded research, ok. And it has to do with the science, engineering, health, et cetera. And there is a domain that is not heavily funded by the various sources, government, et cetera, foundations, et cetera. My domain is such a domain. I’m a linguist. It’s not a heavily funded domain. The field of linguistics is not heavily funded, you know. It’s more theoretical, more mathematical, etcetera. So now to your question. The university, we’re not a university of science and engineering and health. We are a comprehensive, global, research, experiential university. The last thing we want is to reduce the comprehensiveness of this research to one area. That’s one. Second, let me repeat it, we are a global, experiential, research university. We didn’t say we are an institute of technology. We could have said that years ago. The boat has left the waterfront. The second thing that’s very important to me, no matter what we do, excellence is going to prevail. Number three, to go back to the humanities, social sciences, unfunded research, we have great strength in computational social sciences and computational humanities that we’re building. That’s great. We have a great strength in music industry in the school, architecture, traditional journalism, etcetera, I can list them. The last thing we want is to stop excellence. We have to build and become more stronger by the minute. We cannot afford to be good, we cannot afford to be very good. We have to be excellent in the fields that we have. That’s it, that’s my marching order for myself. So I don’t, personally i don’t look at the restructuring as ensuring excellence or ensuring (unintelligible). It’s as simple as that. That’s how I look at the world. We need to build excellence, to build leadership. Leadership. In whatever we do (phone rings) we have to be on top otherwise we shouldn’t do it. And so now, for instance, to go back to the example of computational, the field of computational in the social sciences and the humanities …(phone rings). I’m sorry it may be the mayor, may I take it for a second? … Sorry. And so that’s where it is. When we say, for instance, our focus is on health, security, sustainability that’s a focus for the funded fields, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to forget about the non-funded fields. As a matter of fact you know the D’Amore-McKim School of Business is in such a situation, too. So please help us explain that to the community. That’s an important point you raise, an important clarification.

HN: Are we still going to be focusing on health, security and sustainability as the main areas of more research?

JA: Funded research. More funded research. Absolutely, you are absolutely right. But the key term is funded. Now this is research that is heavily funded by the federal government, by the foundations, etcetera. Absolutely. Funded. Make sure every time you talk about health, security, sustainability you say funded.

Mike Armini (university spokesman): The field of digital humanities, which is the one you’re talking about … those thrusts are not meant to exclude other things. The dean of social sciences and humanities here can explain a lot about the whole field of digital humanities, which I think we have some leadership potential. That’s my understanding.

JA: Yes. And the computational social science. We have recruited over the years the premiere network group and network theory group in the nation, as you know. They are impacting the sciences, they are impacting the engineering, they are impacting the social sciences, you know. You presumably are taking courses on that, you know, David Lazar, et cetera. You know, I think that you can help us clarify that. Your question is important.

HN: So you mentioned the business school.

JA: There is no business school, we do not have a business school.

HN: I’m sorry, the D’Amore-McKim School of Business.

JA: You got it! Absolutely.

HN: So you mentioned the D’Amore-McKim School of Business. The entrepreneurship program was just rated very highly, top 10 in the country, so what do you think that’s due to and can we expect any major changes or initiatives within that program?

JA: Let me tell you something that is very clear to us, to all of us in the community. The rankings are a recognition of the strategy. The rankings do not validate us, you know. They are the byproduct of our strategy. We’re not chasing rankings in the same way we’re not chasing government approval, or we’re not chasing x y and z. Why? Because of a simple reason. There are multiple rankings and they are not mutually coherent. What is coherent is the strategy the university sets for itself and pursuing it. The fact that we are recognized as you said as a top university in the nation, one of the top universities in the nation, is a great recognition. But that’s a recognition that is due. The fact that entrepreneurship, same thing, they don’t validate us. Let’s be very clear, whether it’s the scorecard, whether it’s great ranking in this domain, they don’t validate us. We’re big boys, it’s a great institution. We have great women and men driving this institution, students, faculty, staff. So, we’re not saying please come and tell us that we’re good. No. We’re good. We’re confident. Throughout the recession, you know, when people were retrenching, we didn’t retrench. We said lets move forward. Over its history, Northeastern said you know we are going to be differentiated. We have an approach to education today that is very differentiated. You know, the experiential approach centered on co-op, grounded on co-op that involves integration of the classroom experience with the work experience. You know, let me tell you, for many years the world didn’t recognize the power of that. Did we change it? Now, the world is saying that’s the right model. Why? Because that’s leading us to outcomes, to opportunities for the students. Higher education created the dichotomy between learning to live and learning to earn a living. They focused on one, we focused on both. That’s it. Now people are saying wow, my god, this model is powerful. So let’s be careful. An external recognition is an external recognition, it doesn’t drive us. What drives us is our strategy, our governing focus, our vision, collectively. So I don’t want us to be in a situation where, oh, we want an external person, an external party to validate us. No. We have the self confidence to do it. The second aspect of your question, and that is why has the university been entrepreneurial. Not only in the D’Amore McKim school. The university is entrepreneurial everywhere. You are entrepreneurial. In what you do, the way you think about positioning the news, your publication. You’re entrepreneurial. You’re not trying to say, you know, I’m going to copy another student publication … you always think about your own angles. The way you approach it. So why is it a case that the university as a whole has been entrepreneurial. Let me venture an answer, because I have been thinking a lot about that. This university is very different from other places, from other universities. And believe me, I know many other universities because I am slightly older than you. I visit a lot, I lecture a lot of places. I talk to many places, to many presidents, deans, faculty colleagues in many places. What is different about this palce is that co-op is in fact engaging you with reality. We didn’t build a tower and say, ‘we’re closing ourselves to the world.’ So by definition our students ae more in tune with the world, are more in tune with reality. The community at large, faculty etc are more in tune with reality. If you look at our alumni, our alumni have been very entrepreneurial. Egan, Marino, Shillman, Kariotis, the names that you see, Behrakis. All these are entrepreneurs. Self-made. Self-made entrepreneurs. Why? Because, essentially, co-op puts you in tune with reality. And you see the opportunity everywhere in the reality, and what is an entrepreneur, an entrepreneur is a person, is a woman, who sees things that sees things that others didn’t see and says, ‘I can do that.’ So that’s why the place has been entrepreneurial. And that’s why the place not only has been entrepreneurial but has been engaged. The number of entrepreneurial endeavors are not only in the for-profits but also the not for profits. Both. And we celebrate both. Look at the number of, you know, NGOs or not for profits that we launched, look at the social entrepreneurship, we celebrate both. So that’s very precious. The place is entrepreneurial – what I am trying to say is entrepreneurial is because its DNA, in its DNA there is co-op, and co-op gets you to be in touch with the world to see opportunities, to see reality. So the way I look at it – and this is very different from other places – go visit other places, I’m sure you’ve visited other places, you’ve talked to your friends. It’s not the case. What’s the ingredient, the ingredient has been co-op. Co-op is the leading differentiation that is taking us to look at opportunities wherever we are, and to shape them. Not only to grab them but to shape them. Entrepreneurship is not about seeing an opportunity, but shaping it. And that’s what – frankly, it’s very exciting to me. Very special. So your question, yes, that’s why we are entrepreneurial here. And that’s wonderful. You know, the number of activities of companies of not for profits, of engagements that our students have, at all levels, worldwide, beautiful. Any other questions?

HN: Yes, regarding co-op. The co-op program that we have here has received quite a bit of national, international recognition. Myself, I know many students came here in large part because of the co-op program. As other universities, institutions see how successful it is, many are trying to adopt similar programs, are you at all worried that students who may have come here will go elsewhere? Do you worry that other schools will be able to compete with our co-op program?

JA: Look, we live in a period, as you know, where competition is there, change is there, and you can never rest on your log. No. We are the acknowledged leader in co-op and experiential education. But, leadership – and you’re going to hear me talk about that tomorrow, so you have an advance on this – leaderships is not given once and for all. Leadership has to be reaffirmed on a constant basis. So the fact that others want to emulate our model, yeah, let them be our guest. They come here, they are visiting, we have delegations of other universities – international especially, but some national also visiting … does it worry us? What worries me is not the fact that they want to do it. What would worry me, if we say, ah, we’re the best, and we have nothing to do. We don’t say that. We’re the best and we look at always perfecting. So remember, five years ago, six years ago, we started thinking about taking co-op globally, correct? Well, that’s a major endeavor. The students wanted to have the global experience, wanted to have global co-ops. Similarly, the students said, ‘look, we want flexibility in the program.’ So, we said, oh, that’s fine. You can stay here for five years and have three co-op options, or you either have the option of having four years and two co-ops. We want you to be navigating your own situation. The students are telling us, look, we like the four plus two because if we stay a fifth year we want to be able to have a master’s with a third co-op. That’s fine, we’re working on that.  They say to us, some want to go to a graduate school, here or elsewhere, so let me finish, you know, and shape my own destiny, my own journey here with you. I said fine. We don’t stay still. There is another dimension that has been important. We have now a top team working with Susan Ambrose, do you know Susan Ambrose? She’s a vice provost for undergraduate education and learning and instruction. She’s a world specialist on learning. So what we are now building is research, experimentations, analysis to show what the models will be. So you always have to be at your edge – at the edge, sorry. We cannot –whenever you have a good idea, it is going to be copied. The life of a great idea that is a great idea in isolation is short because why, people say that’s a great idea, let me copy it. Which means that you always have to work, perfect and never take your leadership for granted. We never take our leadership for granted, that’s what worries me. We can never take what we have for granted.

HN: You mentioned some of the work that Susan Ambrose is doing, could you give us just a couple quick specific ideas or projects that you’re working on to keep advancing?

JA: I would really invite you to meet with Susan Ambrose. She has been here now with us for two years. She is a world specialist in learning, you can take a look at her publications or books et cetera on that and her publications. But essentially, you know, we are now at a stage where we can see how we know that experiential education based on co-op is a superior form of learning. You know, she is running research experimentation to demonstrate that. So you can talk to her about this. How to show that this model is superior not only because of its outcome but it’s a superior learning model. That when learners learn, they learn better by integrating the classroom experience with the world experience. So that’s the type of research. If you want the specifics, she has it. I would be happy to do that, but I don’t want to steal her thunder.

HN: Is there any particular student group that you think is doing something really interesting, or something really innovative that you’ve noticed?

JA: Let me tell you, as you know, I tried to even today, walk with the students, I try to do that on a daily basis. And to walk with the students. Why, to learn. Ok. I learn, What I really like, for instance, last week, we had a group meeting, and we signed with the slow food – you saw that. You know they tweeted about it [the Real Food Challenge, a promise that at least 20 percent of the university’s food will be purchased from local and sustainable sources by 2020]. I don’t want to single out any group. But what I like, and this is really heartening, is the multiplicity of engagement. You see, look. We are in a situation where diversity is very important to us. We celebrate diversity in all its forms. And if we are diverse, then people are going to look at their interests in a different ways. You have an interest in journalism. You may have an interest in other aspects, I don’t know. I know that you have an interest in journalism but I don’t know the other interests. You have fellow students who may have an interest in music, and music industry, and at the same time in launching a not for profit, or launching a for profile. What I like is the fact that the students are constantly innovating, launching new clubs, initiatives, new opportunities. So the measure for me is engagement. And the students here at Northeastern the students here are very engaged. And the students are engaged not only with Northeastern but with the world. You know when you have students who launch a not-for-profit, because in order to have Africa, or to be engaged in projects all over the world – India, Cape Town, Dominican Republic, whatever it is. They engage locally, they engage nationally, they engage globally. So that’s my measure, it’s engagement. And this is a very vibrant community, you see that. You see that on a daily basis. Just walk on campus. And you see how vibrant the campus is. This is a special community, it’s a great community. But what brings us all together is the fact that you are engaged with the world. We’re not closed, we’re not separated. We’re not a tower. That’s – frankly, it makes us unique in higher education. There is no other university in my mind, in my book, as engaged with the rest of the world. And you’re welcome to come any time. We’ll continue the dialogue any time. By phone, or virtually, or physically.