Q&A: President Aoun discusses returning to Northeastern, diversity issues

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun spoke with The News in an hour-long, in-person conversation Wednesday about returning to in-person activities amid rising cases of the Delta variant and progress regarding his goals for diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Below is a transcript of the full conversation.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Huntington News: As we head into this new school year, what do you think worked best with Northeastern’s approach to COVID-19, and what would you have changed? 

President Aoun: I think that what worked very well is the guiding principles and execution that followed those guiding principles. We were among the first universities in the nation to declare that we’re going to open. But, it wasn’t enough to say that we’re going to open. We made it clear that the wellness and the health of the community is paramount, so we had to be guided by that. And this is why we established the whole system. 

We had a system of testing, which we did every three days, and we did our own labs. That was a move that was important to us because we didn’t want to be dependent on any other lab because sometimes they may have problems. We wanted to run our own labs, and this served us very well. The first aspect is that the guiding principles were there, and the execution was done by the community superbly well. 

We also reduced the density. We leased hotels, rooms, etc, in various places; we reduced the density in the classrooms and in the labs, everywhere. More importantly, that wasn’t enough — that was the preamble. What worked superbly well is that the community at large, the faculty, staff and students wanted to have a safe environment and made sure that this environment was also conducive to safe interactions. You can put plans, you can put infrastructure, but it’s the people ultimately and the community that will make it successful. 

Therefore, the lesson of last year is put wellness and put health as primary principles and also put also human interaction as a primary principle — continue to refine the ways to increase the interaction, so that people can talk to each other, can eat together, can dance together and can have sports together but in a safe environment.”

— President Aoun

The question is, why did we decide to open? We decided to open because we had many, many interactions with students. And the students said, “Look, we want to come to school. We want to be here with our peers, with our friends, with our faculty, advisers and counselors,” and the message was very strong. The students wanted to be here. 

So, what would we do differently?  For instance, we changed the plan. We didn’t start at the beginning of the year and said, “Okay, it’s all set.” We learned throughout the year that human interaction is paramount. For instance, we set up systems where that, you know, that will ensure wellness and safety and health, etc. But the students said, “We want more interactions.”

As soon as the COVID situation started morphing, we relaxed the situation and the restrictions in order to allow more interaction because the main lesson is that the residential model is paramount and very effective and very powerful for the students because they are the ones who mentioned that. Therefore, the lesson of last year is put wellness and put health as primary principles and also put also human interaction as a primary principle — continue to refine the ways to increase the interaction, so that people can talk to each other, can eat together, can dance together and can have sports together but in a safe environment. This is something very important, and that’s a good lesson.


HN: Why are you still confident in Northeastern’s plan to be on campus and fully in person, despite the rising cases of the Delta variant and reduction of community testing?

President Aoun: The situation this year is different from last year. Last year, we had one tool with us: testing. This year, we have many more tools. For instance, we have vaccines, so that’s why we’re requiring that everybody in the community gets vaccinated. Second, we still have testing. Third, we have something more important, too, is that people lived it. This is Phase Two of COVID. 

Very early on, I wrote an article that appeared in The Washington Post, where I said that COVID is going to be not only a pandemic but it will be endemic, meaning it’s going to last with us for a long time. And therefore, we have to learn to live with it. Well, we learned to live with it. We spent a year living it, and it was a successful year. We had over a million tests, and our numbers are good. The students benefited from being here. The situation is different this year. So, in a way, Phase Two is going to be predicated on the knowledge and the experience that we had in Phase One.


HN: Since many co-op and global opportunities were halted or made remote this past year, what are your goals for this year in improving, restoring and expanding Northeastern’s experiential learning education (given the current COVID-19 situation)?

President Aoun: This is something very interesting, because in some ways, what happened is similar to what happened during the recession in 2008. At the beginning, you saw a decrease in co-op offerings, but the decrease was not across the board. For instance, in telehealth, we had a demand. We received calls from institutions saying we want more students going on co-op. 

By the time a student leaves Northeastern, they know they have lived the experience of the real world. In finding jobs and living in those institutions virtually and physically, we are seeing that the world is hybrid.”

— President Aoun

So what did we learn from that? We learn from that in a period of crisis, whether it’s a recession or it’s a COVID situation, there are domains that become very much in demand: health and remote opportunities. At the same time, the nature of co-op, at the beginning, was transformed, because many things were done remotely. Many of our students did co-ops remotely. Now, we are seeing a shift, where there is more demand for traditional co-ops. Even in a COVID situation and Phase Two of COVID, the world has moved, because the world is saying, “We learned how to deal with and work with COVID, and, therefore, we’re ready to open,” which means that we are seeing more co-op offerings are not only virtual but in person. We are very happy with that. 

The second thing we are doing is constantly making our students and ourselves aware of the change in the demand and in the offerings — that’s the beauty of co-op. By the time a student leaves Northeastern, they know they have lived the experience of the real world. In finding jobs and living in those institutions virtually and physically, we are seeing that the world is hybrid. I think we are in a very strong position here, and we’re seeing the demand increasing dramatically, which is good.


HN: How are you looking to kind of improve upon and expand global opportunities, since they’ve also been limited in the past year?

President Aoun: We, as an institution, have co-op offerings and experiential offerings in 146 countries. Do we want to continue to have them? Absolutely. Now, is it going to be the case that, in September, we will have all these offerings available in the same way as before? No, but the world is opening, but it’s not opening in a uniform fashion. 


HN: Over the last year or so, Northeastern has created multiple positions that involve diversity, equity and inclusion; developed an NUPD advisory board; and put forth different anti-racist initiatives, particularly for Black and Asian communities. How are you measuring the overall progress of these initiatives, and how are they performing?

President Aoun: The first thing to do is to go back to the statement I made outlining goals for the institution. That’s a blueprint of action for us as a community. Now, the leaders we hired are in charge of making the blueprint of action a reality. We have made progress, and we have quantified this. I charged the university to reach certain goals, and we pledged to have a report on our progress, so it is all there. 

This is not going to be a one-year situation. This is going to be a situation that we’ll have to work on for many years. We want every member of the community, whoever they are and wherever they are from, to feel that this is a diverse and inclusive community. So, we have a lot to do and the progress is being made. 


HN: After enacting all of these diversity initiatives throughout the last year or so, what are your biggest takeaways as you and your administration aim to tackle and understand systemic racism on campus? What have you learned? 

President Aoun: The biggest takeaway is that it’s a community effort. It is not an administration that decides, “Okay, those are the goals. Let’s make them happen.” We all have to embrace diversity, we all have to embrace inclusion, and we all have to work to make it happen. 

We saw an increase in the number of recruitment of people of color and underrepresented minorities for the incoming class. In addition, we’re going to have a universal diversity and inclusion training for everybody — students, faculty and staff. We also recruited advisers and counselors, who themselves are people of color, based on interactions with the student community that said we need that. 

This is why I think now we know what the goals are. And now we have to make them happen, and we’re making them happen altogether. So the biggest takeaway is that it’s not a memo, it’s not a goal that you set. It’s really embracing that we all work on it, and that’s what’s happening.  


HN: Northeastern has a university-wide plan related to improving academics and diversity for the year 2025. How have COVID-19 and systemic racism concerns impacted Northeastern’s execution of this plan?

President Aoun: During COVID, many institutions retrenched — we decided not to retrench. So we opened, and started a new strategic plan. The diversity and inclusion dimension was a wake-up call for institutions, including us, saying, “Yes, it’s not enough to embrace it. Now we have to produce the results.” And we have to produce the results in an accelerated fashion, and that’s what we’ve been doing.

With respect now to the strategic plan, the strategic plan is incorporating a very strong statement about diversity and inclusion, while reaffirming our core values. We are seeing a situation during COVID that was very interesting: We received the highest number of applications in our history, 75,500. The demand for Northeastern and for the Northeastern education is high. Why? Because Northeastern is differentiated. Why is it differentiated? It’s differentiated because of experiential education and because it’s a university engaged with the world. We are in a very strong situation because of our differentiation, and we’re going to capitalize on that. We are going to serve our students in the same way that we serve them, and we’re going to continue giving them opportunities. 

We are in a very strong situation because of our differentiation, and we’re going to capitalize on that. We are going to serve our students in the same way that we serve them, and we’re going to continue giving them opportunities. ”

— President Aoun

Let me give you an example. We have a campus in London, which provides opportunities for students to spend a semester or a year in London, studying in a different context and in a different environment with a different curriculum. Then, if the students want to spend a year in Silicon Valley in the Bay Area, they can do it. Now with where we’re at with Mills College [in Oakland, California] that will merge us with a different curriculum and different environment. It will allow the students to have mobility not in terms of traveling and academic tourism, but to have a different experience in a different environment that is provided and offered by Northeastern.

Imagine a situation where we would be the only university that will have comprehensive programs on two coasts, and that is unique. That’s the way we are envisioning the future. We are building a global university system that will be in Canada, London, the United States, different environments and also beyond. 

That’s the global university system. That’s exciting — I think no other university can or has offered that, and we are well positioned to do it. Wherever we are, we have to do it based on the values that we have articulated: diversity and inclusion. 


HN: A component of the 2025 plan is to focus and engage with the communities that surround our campus and be a “national model for community engagement.” How, as a university, are you working with our surrounding communities, especially communities of color, to do so and ensure that students have a diverse, inclusive learning environment?

President Aoun: It’s interesting because our students are very engaged with the community. If you look at the community service or the service-learning activities that the university has, it’s remarkable. This is something that we have to get our students to know more of because we are doing it, but people don’t know enough about it. 

It’s not only about service learning, but it’s also about recruiting from the community and recruiting and providing jobs. We are in a situation that is interesting. We have been asked by the city to add dorms, and that is a project to add a dorm here on Columbus Avenue. The city is the one that asked us to increase the number of dorms, because they said otherwise your students are going to be in communities and will gentrify them. Instead, we are doing it on our land, and we’re doing it at Northeastern. And it will allow us to recruit people from the community to join us to work here. If we don’t do it, the students are going to live in the communities around us and gentrify, and this is what the city doesn’t want. The city wants the students to be on campus. And how do we benefit the community? By having more jobs for the community. So, that hasn’t been understood. Some people say, “You’re gentrifying the community by building.” We’re not gentrifying the community by building something on our campus, quite the opposite. If we don’t do it, then there will be gentrification, because the students will live in diverse communities. 


HN: What’s one piece of advice you could offer for new students who may feel nervous or anxious about this school year given all of the circumstances?

President Aoun: Talk to other students who are here. You are the best ambassadors and the best hosts for any new incoming student. It’s as simple as that. When I walk on campus and I talk to the incoming students, I always say the same thing: Talk to another student who has been here, who is here, learn with them and from them, and have fun with them. Don’t forget the fun.