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A conversation with President Aoun Part 1

We sat down with Pres­i­dent Aoun to discuss a wide range of topics. Based on a long list of questions—many submitted by mem­bers of the North­eastern community—the first discussion focused on the president’s personal journey. Another interview—to be published as a second installment—will focus on his priorities here at Northeastern.

What is the best part of your job, and what is the hardest?

The [inlinetweet prefix=”.@PresidentAoun: ” tweeter=”” suffix=””]best part of my job is the human factor. It’s meeting with the students, the faculty, the staff[/inlinetweet], the visitors, the parents, the alumni. That’s really the best part of my job. The hardest part is not to allow today to hijack tomorrow. That means that you should always think about the future and how you position the university, what the opportunities are, so you’re not focusing on the now only. You are focusing on your responsibility for the future of the university.

What would your dream co-ops be?

I would like my first one to be in a place in the country that I don’t know well. So I would choose maybe a place in the South that I don’t know or in the Midwest. I’m very familiar with the two coasts and I’m familiar with the big cities—Chicago, Houston, for example. I would like to understand a different part of this country. I would like the second co-op to be in a country I don’t know, in a part of the world that I don’t know. I’m jealous of the students who are doing it. I believe that no one is perfectly global because you know part of the world, but you don’t know the whole world. So what do you do? If you know Africa, go to Asia. If you know Asia, go to Europe. If you know Europe, go to Latin America, so on and so forth. And now even Antarctica is a possibility. That’s the next frontier. But [inlinetweet prefix=”.@PresidentAoun:” tweeter=”” suffix=””]I really would like to be here long enough to have a galactic co-op.[/inlinetweet] So if people go to Mars, why not have one there? That would be my dream one.

Will you ever get tired of selfies?

Never. Why should I be tired of selfies?

If you could take a selfie with anyone, who would it be?

Somebody who is not living anymore. Somebody who impacted the world in a way that changed the way we think about many things. And there are many people in history and you say, “I wish I had met them”—those are the ones. There are so many, because in a way when you [inlinetweet prefix=”.@PresidentAoun:” tweeter=”” suffix=””]look at people who have changed the world, those are the people who in some ways are immortal[/inlinetweet].

What are your hobbies?

Hiking, reading, music, traveling.

Where do you hike?

I hike wherever I have the opportunity. So I don’t focus on the specific place; I’ve had the opportunity to hike all over the world. Actually now that I think about it, [inlinetweet prefix=”.@PresidentAoun:” tweeter=”” suffix=””]I hiked in most of the continents except one—Antarctica.[/inlinetweet]

Is hiking a solitary activity for you?

No, I hike by myself but I also hike with other people. They make you discover things you didn’t notice. That’s important, especially when you’re hiking in a place you don’t know and they make you discover the plants, the fauna, the flora, everything. You learn about biodiversity, you learn about the beauty of the world, you learn about how fragile everything is. You know, I hiked in the Amazon and what was striking is that you don’t see many animals. Well, because of us. Because we have been cutting the trees, reducing the opportunities for animals to live, we are invading their habitat.

How many languages do you speak?

You know, there was a famous linguist and he was Russian. His name was Roman Jakobson. People used to say that he spoke 40 languages in Russian, because whatever he spoke, you heard Russian. So, I’m like him. I know a lot about languages and I understand many languages and I speak some. But, you know, I’m not the best at it. I had teachers who were way better. [inlinetweet prefix=”.@PresidentAoun:” tweeter=”” suffix=””]Your capacity to acquire language stops after the age of nine.[/inlinetweet] So what you do after that is repair mechanisms.

But some people are different in some ways. We had a faculty member who used to go to Japanese movies, watch Kurosawa and learn Japanese. Similarly for Polish, or for any movie in any language. He used to go to sit down in the Portuguese restaurants in Cambridge and acquire the language. I once traveled with him to Harbin in China—he spoke Chinese fluently. So we used to joke that he never grew up; he’s still a 9-year-old kid, that his mental capacity never matured. And in some ways he was very lucky.

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If you were a 9-year-old child and could pick up any language, what would it be?

Any language is fascinating and interesting. Any language. From an Aboriginal language to a Native American language. That’s the beauty. It’s like we talk about biodiversity, similarly in languages. You know, there are languages that are on the way to becoming extinct. We have to study that, to worry about that, to try to preserve them, because language and culture go hand in hand.

What jobs have you come across that look fun and interesting?

Any profession that is new, that didn’t exist. Why? Because you’re shaping it completely. And we have around us plenty of new professions, plenty of new fields. So that’s exciting; I like that. I like that because it gives you the opportunity not to be saddled by tradition and not to be saddled by norms.

What was your very first job?

Believe it or not, I was a student in college and I started to teach. I did it in order to earn a living, to be independent from my parents. I was interested in languages, so that’s what I taught. But let me tell you, I wasn’t able to be financially independent, though; the pay was not high. But I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it because I saw how young minds were looking at language and how they are acquiring that. So it became part of my interest too; it fed my interest in linguistics.

Were you a good teacher?

I learned and I changed dramatically over the years, and let me tell you what happened. I started learning languages that I didn’t know at all—like Russian, for instance. I had some courses in Russian, and that was a great learning experience because it makes you a better teacher, because it’s a humbling experience. So, when you teach something you know, you say, ‘How come they are not getting it?’ When you learn something and [inlinetweet prefix=”.@PresidentAoun:” tweeter=”” suffix=””]you are on the other side you understand that what’s obvious to you is not obvious to the learner.[/inlinetweet] Therefore that forced me to shift completely.

You can’t just come with your knowledge and say, “I’m going to give you my knowledge.” You change, you start getting it. Your role is to be the facilitator, the catalyst, and let each person learn at their pace, because that’s what I saw. Some people were faster than me—I mentioned the professor who used to acquire language quickly; almost by drinking sake, he learned Japanese and by drinking vinho verde he learned Portuguese—and we had to labor more. So essentially it’s all about learning; it’s not about teaching.

What made you decide to trade the life of a scholar and teacher for that of a manager and leader of a university?

I’m an accidental president. I’m an accidental administrator, and let me tell you why I say that. I was very happy with my scholarship and my teaching and I wasn’t interested in the university as a whole. Why? Because I wanted to focus on my students and my scholarship, that was my goal.

At some point, I had opportunities to go to various places and a dean who took care of me over the years retained me. One day, he had stepped down from the deanship, and he said, “Let’s have lunch together.” And he said, “I would like you to be part of a commission on the future of the University.” I said, “I’m not interested in that.” I was not interested because I knew nothing about the university. So I was very myopic from this perspective. He said, “But that’s why we want you—because you don’t know the university, you can look at it with a fresh eye.”

I couldn’t say no to him because he was like a father figure to me. So I started on the commission. I started learning about the university; I wrote a report on graduate education and research, and then he came back and he said, “Now that we have the academic plan, I want you to be involved in the senate.” So I did it. That’s how I started getting involved in the university.

Then I became president of the faculty senate, and afterwards became a dean. I was on a search committee to select the new dean, and they asked me to leave the room. I started protesting, saying, “I’m the representative of the senate; I’m the head of the senate, I cannot leave the room.” They asked me to leave the room and when I came back they offered me the job.

I panicked when they asked me because I did not want to give up my teaching and my research. Then, I started realizing that, you know, maybe I could do everything. I was a little bit naïve, so I started my deanship, I kept my research, I kept my teaching, but at a different level.

There is a fundamental shift between being a faculty and being an administrator. When you’re faculty, you are trained to brag about your research, about your scholarship, about your students, about your achievements. When you become an administrator, it’s no longer about you. You have to brag about the university, about the institution, about the students, about the faculty, about the staff. You have to learn to disappear, and the transition is not obvious. We were groomed to brag about everything we do, in the best sense of the word. But [inlinetweet prefix=”.@PresidentAoun:” tweeter=”” suffix=””]as an administrator it’s not about you; it’s about the institution, about its people.[/inlinetweet] And no one prepares you for this shift.

Listen to selected clips from the interview with President Aoun:

President Aoun: “A galatic co-op.”

President Aoun: “Why should I be tired of selfies?”

President Aoun: “Any language is fascinating and interesting.”

President Aoun: “I understand many languages and I speak some.”

President Aoun: “What’s obvious to you is not obvious to the learner.”

President Aoun: “The human factor.”

President Aoun: “You learn about the beauty of the world.”

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