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Aoun: higher ed leaders must be ‘catalysts’ for change

University presidents must be the catalyst for culture change at their institutions and support those who will bring that change to fruition, Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun said Tuesday morning during a panel discussion in Washington, D.C.

“The mistake we presidents make is when we define ourselves as a change agent,” Aoun said. “We succeed the day people take over for us and become the change drivers. We are the catalysts and should let the early adopters lead.”

Georgetown University hosted the event, which was co-sponsored by Arizona State University. The panel discussion, titled “Leadership for the Innovative University,” focused on the skills and attributes colleges and universities will demand from their leaders in the future.

Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun, center, responds to a question during the panel discussion titled "Leadership for the Innovative University." Photo credit: Theresa Keil Photography

Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun, center, responds to a question during the panel discussion titled “Leadership for the Innovative University.” Photo credit: Theresa Keil Photography

Aoun is a national leader on issues critical to higher education. He frequently writes and speaks about innovation in higher education, with particular emphasis on American higher education in a global context.

In addition to Aoun, the panel comprised Benjamin Freakley, a professor of practice at ASU and a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general; Heather Fraser, co-founder of Rotman DesignWorks at the University of Toronto; William Kirwan, University System of Maryland chancellor; and Jamienne Studley, acting deputy under secretary of the Department of Education.

Jeffrey Selingo, professor of practice at ASU and contributing editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, moderated the discussion. When the panelists were asked if they believe leadership is an innate quality or if it’s something that can be taught, Aoun he said he believes higher education helps people determine what type of leader they want to be.

“In some ways education has a triggering effect,” Aoun noted. “It doesn’t create leadership, but it can help you understand what leadership is going to be about.”

He added that leadership is not uniform and leaders at higher education institutions thrive when there is a strong match between the leader and institution.

When asked for an outside perspective from her role with the federal government, Studley said she recognizes changing culture is hard and it’s hard to manage, and therefore it is essential for leaders to ask good questions. “The people who seem to be doing an immensely effective job are asking fundamental and core questions that help them focus and help an institution seek new pathways,” she said.

Aoun was also asked whether college and university presidents’ roles will change over the next decade. “The job is going to change dramatically,” he responded, adding that he measures success each year by whether he’s empowering others around him to succeed.

Earlier this year, Aoun participated in a higher education summit hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama that focused on maximizing college access, affordability, and success for low-​​income students. Also this year he offered his expertise to the U.S. Department of Education on its new college ranking system.

Last year he concluded his term as chair of the American Council on Education, the nation’s largest higher education advocacy organization. He also serves on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s academic advisory council and has led efforts in higher education to support critical defense and homeland security research funding, to preserve federal financial aid for students, and to advance experiential learning as a valuable educational model.