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Higher education at a crossroads

Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun participated in a prestigious panel discussion at the TIME Summit on Higher Education on Thursday in New York City.

The summit coincided with a special higher-education edition of TIME and was co-sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Over the course of the all-day event, more than two-dozen thought leaders from higher education, business, philanthropy and government discussed the litany of critical challenges facing higher education, including cost, access, globalization and the impact of technology.

Aoun served on the event’s final panel featuring Arne Duncan, the U.S.Secretary of Education; Eli Broad, founder of the Broad Foundations; Roger W. Ferguson Jr., the president and CEO of TIAA-CREF; and Louis V. Gerstner, the former CEO and chairman of the board of IBM. Bill Moyers, the renowned journalist and White House press secretary for President Johnson, moderated the panel, which was titled, “All Hands on Deck: Perspectives From Higher Education, Government, Philanthropy, and Business.”

Ferguson, an outspoken advocate for better K-12 education, argued that the panel—and the nation—should focus on all education, from kindergarten through college. President Aoun took this comment a step further, explaining the national need for working professionals—who already have bachelor’s degrees—to enhance their skills with professional master’s degrees.

“We are in a period of tremendous knowledge acceleration,” said Aoun. “Traditionally, higher education has focused on two domains: undergraduate education and Ph.D. education. We need to develop many more professional master’s degrees that align with the needs of industry.”

Aoun also outlined the benefits of experiential learning, particularly during continued economic uncertainty. All of the panelists agreed that higher education needs to be more in tune with employers. “We cannot afford to be an ivory tower, or even a bakelite tower,” Aoun added.

Sandra Day O’Connor, a retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice, delivered the summit’s keynote address. Other panel discussions focused on the cost of college; the changing landscape of higher education with regard to online learning; and the importance of fostering student success from freshman year to graduation day.

President Aoun is known as a higher-education thought leader. Earlier this year, he was elected to serve a one-year term as the board chair of the Amer­ican Council on Edu­ca­tion and was named to a 19-member aca­d­emic advi­sory council for the U.S. Depart­ment of Home­land Security. In June of 2011, Aoun con­vened a group of uni­ver­sity pres­i­dents and offi­cials from the U.S. Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion to dis­cuss the Obama administration’s pro­posal to mod­ernize and expand the Perkins Loan pro­gram.