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University must become ‘best-in-class’ in strategic areas

In his annual address to the Faculty Senate on Wednesday, President Joseph E. Aoun’s message was clear: Northeastern is in the midst of incredible momentum, but there are more opportunities for reaching unprecedented heights.

Citing the hiring of more than 300 faculty at a time when others retrenched, Aoun emphasized the importance of strengthening teaching and research in strategic areas. In particular, he talked about recruiting faculty in clusters to boost specific areas of research, as well as building ‘best-in-class’ Ph.D. programs.

In his remarks, the president talked about the revolutionary growth of online education, calling it a “disruptive force to the higher-education model as we know it.” He, however, pressed that this change will soon become the new normal so universities must be strategic about their value proposition in order to stand out.

“I believe that online is not going to give anyone a competitive advantage. Everyone has access to online; it’s like electricity,” Aoun said. “If everyone has online, we have to ask ourselves this: ‘What is going to be our differentiation?’”

The answer, Aoun said, comes from Northeastern’s leadership in experiential education, its hybrid approach to online education and its focus on professional master’s degrees.

“We are the leader in experiential education anchored in co-op. So even if you want to take your classes online, we offer something more,” said Aoun, alluding to the integration of classroom and real-world experience.

In the future, Aoun said the university must sharpen its focus on graduate education, including the new graduate campuses in Charlotte, N.C., and Seattle, Wash.

He also urged the university’s colleges and faculty to help identify domains in which new and existing Ph.D. programs can catapult Northeastern to the top of the class nationally.

Though the president predicted the seismic shifts in higher education will surely shake the world of academia, he said Northeastern has and will continue to thrive because the university bucks the status quo and chooses investment over retrenchment.

“Northeastern is an exceptional university. Why? Northeastern had many opportunities to be like others and every time it said no,” Aoun said. “It did that in terms of co-op, it did it in terms of research, it did it in terms of community engagement and it did it in terms of global engagement.”

Establishing best-in-class programs and initiatives is critical to further growth, Aoun said.

More than anything, Aoun said, it is important that the university continues pushing forward on a variety of fronts. Northeastern’s top-notch initiatives, like its signature co-op program, are already being replicated by other universities looking to gain new ground, he said.

“Let us keep in mind that we have the monopoly of nothing,” Aoun said. “Good ideas can and will be copied. We have a great approach to learning; it will be copied. So to keep ahead of the pack we must be best-in-class. Frankly that is an opportunity and a challenge.”