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Through disruptions, higher ed faces questions, opportunities

09/28/16 - BOSTON, MA. - President Joseph E. Aoun host, College Disrupted, an event featuring Lawrence Bacow, former president of Tufts University, and Susan Hockfield, former president of MIT, to discuss the future of higher education at a time of heightened scrutiny and fundamental change. Photo by: Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

When Lawrence Bacow entered college, it was 1969, the year the microprocessor came about and the year of the moon landing. On Wednesday night at Northeastern, the former Tufts University president made this point to underscore the immense challenge of predicting the future.

“It would have been impossible in 1969 to really foresee the world that we live in today and the jobs that exist as a result of those changes,” Bacow said. “So, if someone said in 1969 that they wanted to be a web designer, you’d say ‘What?’”

Bacow’s comments came as part of a panel discussion with Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun and Susan Hockfield, the former president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who examined the future of higher education at a time of heightened scrutiny and fundamental change.

Bacow stressed the importance of being modest in our capacity to predict the future, which means educating students to be prepared for a world that will soon look different than it does today, one in which the only constant is change, and one in which “they are going to increasingly be called upon at ever shorter intervals to reeducate themselves.”

Hockfield, for her part, said she sees two components of higher education: the furniture of the mind, and the tools of the trade. “In higher education, I think, our most important activity is providing the furniture,” she said. “The furniture of the mind can be rearranged, and what we want to teach our students is how to rearrange it with the greatest agility.” She added that despite concerns that automation will increasingly replace humans on the job, she’s more focused on a future that provides “the next generation with the resources that allow them to think through the next problem and be flexible.” Rapidly changing job descriptions, she said, are more worrisome than robots.

Today you saw the charge, and the charge is that everything we’re standing for is being questioned. It’s our responsibility, at every level, to fight back.
— Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun

The higher education leaders spoke to a standing-room-only audience in the East Village 17th floor event space and to many more who tuned in for the Facebook Live stream. The 90-minute panel discussion, titled “College Disrupted: Charting a course for higher education’s future,” was the latest installment of Innovation Imperative, Northeastern’s thought leadership series on the future of higher education and its relationship to the global economy.

“Today you saw the charge, and the charge is that everything we’re standing for is being questioned,” Aoun said. “It’s our responsibility, at every level, to fight back.”

Aoun is a thought leader on the future of higher education, and an internationally renowned scholar on linguistics. He is a respected voice on global experiential learning and the need to move higher education beyond the limitations of place. Northeastern, under Aoun’s leadership, has dramatically expanded its co-op program worldwide and launched a network of graduate campuses in Silicon Valley, Seattle, Charlotte, North Carolina, and in Toronto.

Bacow, an expert on education policy, has been a champion for universities to engage with their communities and expand educational opportunities. As Tufts’ president, he called for broader access to postsecondary education and increased focus on need-based financial aid, while also advancing the university’s leadership in undergraduate education and deepening its graduate studies.

Hockfield, president emerita of MIT, is the president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Named MIT’s 16th president in 2004, she brought to life her advocacy for the research university as an engine of innovation and economic growth. She championed the breakthroughs emerging from the historic convergence of the life sciences with engineering and physical sciences, in fields from clean energy to cancer.

Both Bacow, H’15, and Hockfield, H’16, hold honorary degrees from Northeastern.

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Throughout the evening, Bacow and Hockfield fielded questions from Aoun as well as the audience in the room and on social media on topics ranging from higher education’s future to the former presidents’ own careers.

When Aoun asked them how they built their management teams, Hockfield said she focuses on “getting people who were fabulous at the task” and who had strong core values and put the institution, not themselves, first. Bacow said he looks for three things: quality of mind, quality of character, and good team players.

I think we can help our students and change our educational structure without tearing everything up from the past and creating anew, but creating layers and turning footpaths into superhighways across disciplines to give people the opportunity to learn from people in another discipline.
— Susan Hockfield, former MIT president

Aoun noted the tension in higher education between a pure liberal arts education and gaining technical knowledge—as he put it, “the traditional dichotomy between learning to live and learning to earn a living.”

Hockfield said this is a critical question in higher education. She emphasized the importance of both, while also pointing to Northeastern’s leadership in experiential education and underscoring the value students gain from getting practical experience.

So, how do you engineer an education for practice? Hockfield recalled MIT’s move to place greater emphasis on creating a sustainable energy future. She said graduate students formed an energy club in an effort to extend their knowledge beyond their discipline-specific education. This inspired the development of an academic minor in which students pair deep study in one energy-related discipline with experiences in energy practice across all of MIT’s schools.

“I think we can help our students and change our educational structure without tearing everything up from the past and creating anew, but creating layers and turning footpaths into superhighways across disciplines to give people the opportunity to learn from people in another discipline,” she said.

The panel also discussed online education, which all three championed the value of but also acknowledged its limitations. Bacow said he doesn’t envision residential education ever going away, noting the value of the in-person experience. To illustrate the point, he compared the experience of listening to a symphony in person to listening to a downloaded file on a smartphone.

Hockfield said lectures have been a primary education method for centuries, and it still works. “As we continue to develop these technologies,” she added, “we will get better at understanding what you can learn online and what you have to learn in person.”