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Northeastern honors past leadership, looks to future

When Richard M. Freeland opened an edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education 18 years ago, he saw an advertisement seeking applications for Northeastern’s presidency. On that page, he also saw his future.

Freeland immediately got up and told his wife Elsa that “the best job in American higher education” had become available and he was going to apply—even though he didn’t think he had a shot. The rest is history.

Meanwhile, Jack A. Curry and Northeastern University have been synonymous for more than 50 years, ever since he was an undergraduate working in the office of Carl Stephens Ell, Northeastern’s second president.

Curry (1989-1996) and Freeland (1996-2006) would both go on to lead Northeastern through significant advancements that laid the groundwork for the university’s current and future success.

On Wednesday, Northeastern honored their leadership and achievements at the annual Academic Honors Convocation, where President Joseph E. Aoun presented each with the Presidential Medallion, the university’s highest honor.

Former Northeastern Presidents John A. Curry (left) and Richard M. Freeland were presented the Presidential Medallion at the Academic Honors Convocation. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Former Northeastern Presidents John A. Curry (left) and Richard M. Freeland were presented the Presidential Medallion at the Academic Honors Convocation. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Prior to the presentations, Aoun invited attendees who had worked with Curry or Freeland to stand, signifying that their legacy remains strong on campus today. This was followed by a standing ovation for both men.

“Thank you very much for this honor you bestow on me today by my alma mater,” Curry said. “It means so much to me.”

Both Curry and Freeland thanked Dr. George Matthews, who was the chairman of the Board of Trustees when they were each hired, for his support in their respective candidacies.

“When I met with the search committee, I said this is the only job I really truly want,” an emotional Freeland said of the presidency. “And after I got the job I told the faculty that it was a dream come true.”

Bestowing the university’s highest honor upon these two men, Aoun said, celebrates the many important past achievements that created immense opportunities for the Northeastern community today.

“Each of these men made an impact on this university, and we are all benefiting from it today,” Aoun told hundreds of students, faculty, and staff who gathered in the Curry Student Center Ballroom. “Everything we do is building on the legacy and the opportunities that our predecessors made available to us.”

During his tenure as president, Curry oversaw ambitious undertakings on campus, including a new science and engineering research center, state-of-the-art classroom building, and the creation of a campus-wide computer network. He also strengthened and deepened the university’s commitment to the city of Boston.

Under Freeland’s leadership, Northeastern focused on achieving excellence as a national research university that is student-centered and practice-oriented. He emphasized Northeastern’s leadership in learning through experience by enhancing the university’s flagship cooperative education program and strengthening links between co-op and classroom across many disciplines. His vision helped grow Northeastern into a selective, residential campus with a more geographically diverse enrollment and an enhanced academic stature.

“They made my job both easier and more difficult,” Aoun said. “It’s easier because without them, we would not be where we are today as a university. But it is much more difficult because it is very challenging to follow in their footsteps.”