At the State of the University on Thursday, university leaders, along with students, faculty, and staff, underscored Northeastern’s successes over the past decade and looked ahead to its future, which will be shaped by the new academic plan.
“Northeastern 2025 is a bold map forward,” President Joseph E. Aoun said of the new academic plan. “Our destination lies beyond old boundaries of learning and discovery. We are charting a new frontier for higher education. To cross it, we will need the talent and the energy of everyone in our community.”
The Board of Trustees last month approved Northeastern 2025. On Thursday, James C. Bean, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, outlined the comprehensive and inclusive process over the past year to develop the academic plan and touched on various aspects of the plan, which will guide the university’s course over the next 10 years.
The plan is designed as a blueprint for empowering learners to succeed in an era of unprecedented technological, social, and economic change, and maintains Northeastern’s core tenets of experiential education and use-inspired research. The new plan centers on building diverse, inclusive networks for lifelong learning and discovery; magnifying the mobility and reach of experiential learning opportunities; creating a globally networked ecosystem for research, innovation, and entrepreneurship; and removing boundaries in order to maximize the power of those networks.
Next, the university’s long-range plan will map out how the academic plan will be put into action. Bean noted that town-hall meetings have been scheduled for Oct. 26 and Nov. 17 to engage with the Northeastern community and seek its input into the long-range plan process.
The academic plan in action
The new academic plan comes as Northeastern prepares to open the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex, a 225,000-square-foot research facility that Aoun said “reflects our place as a leading global research institution. It will foster networks of collaboration in our fields of preeminence, and it is a key node in our global university system.”
Aoun also pointed to two students whose work and experiences exemplify the academic plan in action. One, Devin Shryock, is a Double Husky—but not in the traditional way. She earned her undergraduate degree in 2012 and later returned to enroll in Northeastern’s Level boot camp, which is designed to equip professionals with in-demand data analytics skills. The other, William Tomlinson, is earning his doctorate in computer engineering. A Draper Lab Fellow, Tomlinson’s research focuses on wireless communications and networking with an eye toward interconnecting implantable and on-body sensors for medical applications.
Diane MacGillivray, senior vice president for university advancement, said that as Northeastern looks forward, it’s also important to reflect on where the university has been. And she said no one knows this deep history as well as Kater Pendergast, who joined Northeastern 47 years ago and has served as vice president for human resources management for more than 20 years. Pendergast noted that “Northeastern has always been about new ideas, new initiative, and new solutions, but that nothing in the university’s past matches the remarkable achievements of this previous decade.”
She attributed that success to the campus community. “You are the heart of this great university,” she said.
Success over the past decade
MacGillivray echoed Pendergast in underscoring the vital roles students, faculty, staff, and alumni have played in Northeastern’s past decade of success. In particular, she pointed to the university’s signature differentiation—the co-op program—as a key factor in the university’s unprecedented student demand in recent years.
Throughout the event, university leaders pointed to accomplishments over the past 10 years, from the strategic push to hire more than 500 faculty members—many of whom are conducting groundbreaking research in areas such as marine science and network science—to the launch of a network of campuses across North America that deliver professional education and service as innovative platforms for the entire university. On Wednesday, Northeastern unveiled the Professional Advancement Network—a platform across all colleges offering advanced degree programs, certificates, boot camps, and experiential opportunities tailored to the needs of adult and continuing learners, and to the demands of employers.
Aoun said these initiatives are examples of Northeastern’s commitment to delivering myriad educational opportunities—grounded in experiential learning—to students anywhere, anytime that meet the evolving needs of learners and are nimble enough to evolve in a changing global landscape. The new academic plan, he said, “is nothing less than a roadmap for creating the world’s first global university system.”
Northeastern 2025 is a bold map forward. Our destination lies beyond old boundaries of learning and discovery. We are charting a new frontier for higher education. To cross it, we will need the talent and the energy of everyone in our community.
—President Joseph E. Aoun
One student, Rose Leopold, shared how her Northeastern experiences have helped her grow professionally and flourish academically.
“In my time here, I have been able to pursue my dreams and know that I am but one example of all the Northeastern students who are out there pursuing their dreams every single day,” said Leopold, SSH’17.
Aoun praises ‘passion’ of student protesters
Midway through the State of the University, as Aoun began his remarks, a group of students stood in protest, calling for the university to divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies. The students, many holding signs, chanted for about one-and-a-half minutes, after which Aoun called for a round of applause. “I love your passion,” he said to the protesters. “I respect your freedom of speech. We are all about academic freedom.”
In July, the university announced that it will direct $25 million of its endowment to investments with a focus on sustainability. At that time, the university also indicated that it does not hold any direct investments in energy companies, due in part to the fact that endowments the size of Northeastern’s rely primarily on commingled investment funds that include investments from a broad range of economic sectors.
Over the past decade, Northeastern has made aggressive and impactful efforts to advance sustainability, both through its operations and its academic mission.
Research that solves real-world, global challenges
Faculty members, for their part, spoke about their pioneering research and how it fits into Northeastern’s future. Carmen Sceppa, professor and chair of the Department of Health Sciences, noted how faculty members are changing the world with breakthroughs in health, security, and sustainability. In her own research, which cuts across many disciplines, Sceppa and her colleagues study the molecular and biological pathways of skeletal muscle growth and repair in response to exercise. Their research findings, she said, are currently being used by Novartis to identify novel targets for muscle mass increase.
“This is an example of how we use basic research to translate it into applications that solve real-world problems and have the opportunity to impact society,” said Sceppa, who also serves as Senate Agenda Committee chair on the Faculty Senate.
Alessandro Vespignani, Sternberg Family Distinguished University Professor, directs the Network Science Institute, which features a world-class team of interdisciplinary researchers. Their work measures, models, and forecasts how networks function, and they study subjects ranging from health and epidemiology to language evolution and collective social and political behaviors.
“This work is driven by the major challenges our society is facing,” he said. “It’s called actionable science. One example: We recently developed a model to predict the spread of the Zika virus across the world. No other institute is doing what we do. Northeastern is truly committed to pioneering the field of network science. By building this amazing research engine for discovery, we are transforming the way we understand our interconnected world.”