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President Aoun honored with MIT alumni award

Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun addressed the global challenges faced by American higher education in the Muh Alumni Award lecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology Wednesday evening, declaring that “globalization will be profoundly disruptive to fundamental aspects of our system.”

Those aspects, ranging from an exclusionary admissions approach to a costly research culture, are increasingly out of step with what the emerging world needs from higher education, said Aoun.

As a result, he noted, some U.S. universities seeking to expand globally have struggled when they’ve tried to transplant American academic models and values to other countries. But they can seize this moment as an opportunity, Aoun said, to innovate and become “more flexible, adaptable, and attentive to local needs.”

Prior to the lecture, Deborah Fitzgerald, the Kenan Sahin Dean of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences presented Aoun with the 2011 Robert A. Muh Alumni Award. She lauded the Northeastern president as “a distinguished scholar and education leader.” The biennial award is given by the school to honor an alumnus or alumna who has made extraordinary contributions to one of those fields.

Aoun, who received his PhD in linguistics from MIT in 1982, joins the ranks of previous Muh Alumni Award winners, including former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz and Nobel laureate in economics Robert Merton.

The Muh lecture is a popular event, and more than 100 faculty, students, and staff from MIT and Northeastern heard Aoun describe the rapid-fire changes to the worldwide education landscape that make global expansion so enticing—and challenging—for American universities.

Demand for higher education in emerging countries like India and China is exploding, Aoun explained, overwhelming the existing physical infrastructure and academic resources. Increased investment in universities developed on the American model has driven up competition, with the result that the United States is no longer the destination of first choice for some international students. And new technology is enabling the global delivery of educational content at extremely low cost.

Universities in the United States see in this opportunities, said Aoun: opportunities to open up new markets and increase their revenue sources, be more innovative with their curriculum, or advance their research enterprise.

As a result too many schools are rushing into other countries with “a Sesame Street mentality,” he said. “They thought they could just translate Sesame Street into 63 languages and it would be a worldwide hit. It didn’t work.”

Likewise, in higher education, “we are seeing the beginnings of a backlash to this gold-rush approach,” Aoun said.

Aoun, who has lived and studied on three continents, gained some new insights at a recent U.S.-India educational summit sponsored by the U.S. State Department. At the event, an advisor to Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh said bluntly that the existing model of American higher education is “not scalable, not affordable, not adaptable, and not what we really need.”

Expanding on the point, Aoun said the American model, with admissions based on excluding most applicants, poorly serves the needs of countries where it is urgent to expand educational opportunities. Likewise, our system’s focus on full-time attendance shuts out students in other countries where part-time education has greater cultural relevance.

It is the same story in research, said Aoun, where U.S. universities pursue what they consider global research priorities, generally without regard to cost—while academic researchers in countries such as India have an urgent need to discover low-cost solutions to local, rather than global, challenges.

Even values that we believe contribute to making the American system of higher education the best in the world, said Aoun—such as academic freedom, greater equality of opportunity, and the merit-based approach to faculty hiring and promotion—cannot blindly be transplanted to other countries and cultures.

So how can American institutions of higher education become relevant players in the global marketplace?

“What has helped make ours the best system in the world is the social compact we’ve entered into with society, to educate our citizens and to create research for the betterment of all,” Aoun said. “That’s what justifies the investments that society makes in us.”

American universities need to reaffirm that same social compact with each country they enter into, but one tailored to local needs and conditions, he said. “That’s the only way to ensure acceptance and a sustainable partnership.”

Aoun was introduced by his former MIT classmate—and later, a faculty colleague at the University of Southern California—David Pesetsky, now the Ferrari P. Ward Professor of Modern Languages and Linguistics at MIT.

Pesetsky read a letter of congratulations to Aoun from Noam Chomsky, the globally acclaimed linguist and cognitive scientist, who cofounded the linguistics program at MIT.

Speaking of Aoun’s numerous accomplishments in the field, Pesetsky noted Aoun’s groundbreaking research that showed a “deep underlying unity among properties of different languages thought to be distinct.”

“Since then,” he continued, “I’ve seen the same devotion to a deeper unity in his insights on the world, analogous to those that underlie his work in linguistics.”