Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun was decorated on Friday with the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award, which is conferred on those who have made outstanding contributions to French culture, international outreach, and collaboration.
Created in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte to recognize outstanding merit acquired in service of the nation, La Légion d’honneur has since been awarded to individuals from around the world who have made outstanding contributions to science, culture, art, education, philanthropy, and the digital economy, to name a few. The aim, in all cases, is to celebrate and promote a vision of global progress: individual merit that contributes to the common good.
President Aoun was awarded the insignia of Chevalier by Mr. Jean-Yves Le Drian, French Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs, in a private ceremony at Northeastern.
“Today you are not honoring me,” Aoun said. “You are honoring my family and every person who shaped, impacted, and supported me on my journey. You are honoring our Northeastern community and our global fraternity.”
The award ceremony was attended by Gérard Araud, Ambassador of France to the United States, as well as French and American dignitaries and close friends and family members of the university and President Aoun. Foreign Minister Le Drian pinned the award, a Maltese asterisk of five prongs, dangling from a bright red ribbon, hung on a wreath of laurel and oak, and centered by a medallion of Marianne, goddess of liberty, visage of the Republic.
Le Drian spoke of Aoun’s lifelong affinity for French language, culture and ideals, and of how his views of education are aligned with those of France’s President Emmanuel Macron.
“When you became president of this university, you wanted to give it higher ambitions and a new momentum,” the minister said. “In order to do so, you promoted a new educational model … You are following an innovative kind of thinking on the future of our educational models and the challenges raised by artificial intelligence.
“That’s why, Mr. president, I’m particularly happy today to be able to recognize you for your remarkable contribution to the promotion of our language, of our culture, and to the strengthening of the academic ties between our two countries.”
Northeastern is a global institution with students hailing from more than 140 countries. The university’s experiential programs allow students to work, study, and do research on all seven continents with a global network of more than 3,000 employer partners.
In France, more than 250 students have done co-op and other experiential learning programs since 2006 with a variety of companies, including pharmaceuticals, engineering, and financial firms. It is a relationship that goes both ways, with 64 students from France currently enrolled at Northeastern.
In addition to educational exchanges and co-ops, Northeastern is also engaged in research collaborations with France. The university works closely with the U.S. Embassy in Paris on strategy and joint initiatives with industry partners, especially related to security research.
The diverse group of American recipients includes inventor Alexander Graham Bell; writers Toni Morrison and Elie Wiesel; musicians Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, and Wynton Marsalis; and filmmakers Steven Spielberg, Orson Welles, and Martin Scorsese.
Aoun was born in Beirut. He earned a diploma of advanced studies in general and theoretical linguistics at the University of Paris. He holds a PhD in linguistics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“I was raised in Lebanon in a bilingual family,” Aoun said. “I used to dream in French and be scolded in Lebanese. I went to a French school from the age of 5. I learned to add in French, subtract in Arabic, divide in Latin, and multiply in English.”
With the medal pinned over his heart, and his family in attendance, Aoun spoke personally of the distances he had traveled. His voice carried through a large 17th-floor hall of picture windows, and their expansive views of Boston to either side of him helped place his life in perspective; as if the ceremony was yet another unanticipated destination for this world traveler dedicated to the understanding of where he had been and where he may yet go.
“France shaped my intellect, my culture, and my values,” Aoun said. “Being accepted in France made me realize that those values are built by, and are a reflection of, a real community. It also made me realize the centrality of fraternity. Fraternity is what unites us, what brings us together. Without fraternity, there is no equality. And without fraternity, there is no liberty.”
Since Aoun arrived as Northeastern’s seventh president in 2006, he has led the university to new heights in multiple dimensions. He has globalized the university’s campus and programs, expanding the breadth of experiential learning opportunities to span the world. International student enrollment has increased from 3 percent to 18 percent. Northeastern’s educational and research enterprise has seen unprecedented gains in terms of external research funding, faculty hiring, and scientific breakthroughs that solve global challenges. Under his leadership, the university has launched a global network of regional campuses in Seattle, Charlotte, Silicon Valley, and Toronto.
Aoun is the author of numerous books, including Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence.
“A university cannot reflect society as it is,” Aoun said. “It is a model of what society can be. In this age of artificial intelligence, we humans have an advantage over machines. We are compassionate, creative, imaginative, empathetic, and diverse. We can laugh. We can cry. We can love. Those attributes cannot be duplicated by machines, and the human fraternity is our greatest advantage. At Northeastern, we strive to cultivate these uniquely human attributes.”