Meet Northeastern’s new chancellor

On Monday, Ken Henderson takes on a new role as Northeastern’s first chancellor. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

On Monday, Ken Henderson takes on a new role as Northeastern’s new chancellor, leading a broad portfolio of teaching and learning functions.

Henderson, who had been serving as dean of the College of Science since July 2016, was previously a professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Notre Dame.

In this new role, Chancellor Henderson will oversee undergraduate and experiential learning, student affairs, enrollment management, digital and mobile learning, lifelong learning—including our regional campuses—and the university’s PhD Network.

Northeastern’s provost and chief academic officer, Jim Bean, will continue to lead all of the university’s schools and colleges as well as oversee the research enterprise. He will also continue to lead academic affairs, academic finances, and information technology, and will remain chair of the Faculty Senate.

Chancellor Henderson sat down with David Filipov, executive editor of News@Northeastern, to discuss his new assignment and vision for the university.

You are the new chancellor at Northeastern University. Tell us about your new role.

As Chancellor of Northeastern University and senior vice president for learning, I look after all aspects of that learning ecosystem. It is a holistic role that fulfills the strategic plan for learners as it is laid out in Northeastern 2025. The strategy is to look at learners even before they are enrolling at the university, all the way up to lifelong learners in the workplace.

Integration across the university is key. We have an aspiration of one Northeastern that is one brand, one faculty, and it is critical as the chancellor and as the provost position evolve together.

Tell us about your vision for the university’s lifelong learning strategy.

Our differentiation is experiential education. What we look to do for learners is provide them with the opportunity to learn in a real-world context that provides them with a new set of skills in order that they can either advance their career, or, importantly, change careers, which is becoming more and more common as jobs change and as artificial intelligence and machine learning become more prevalent throughout the workforce.

What we bring to the table is new types of opportunities, where learners can actually learn from practitioners. That includes learning from a practitioner in a classroom setting. Or learning through projects where those learners actually work with industry in real-world settings in order to gain skills.

Are employers increasingly looking for additional qualifications that go beyond degrees when they’re looking for talent?

There is absolutely no question. In order for somebody to be able to transition into a new position, they’re actually competing with people coming out with a higher level or a new set of skills. For example, maybe 10 years ago, someone would graduate with a biology degree to work in the biotech industry. Now, in order for that person to progress, not only in their career, but to have transferability between companies, they may actually be looking for a bioinformatics background. Not that they are bioinformaticists themselves, but they can actually do the programming, and understand how to utilize those programs in order to do the job.

So that is more upscaling of existing employees, which is an area that traditional higher education has not focused on.

And what about the learners? Are they increasingly open to the idea of exploring different majors and combining data, technological, and human literacies?

Yes, and especially when we look at the student population at Northeastern. If you look at our undergraduate programs here, by far the fastest growing sector of undergraduate degrees are combined degrees. Those degrees are the essence of humanics. These are combined degrees where we are taking the core content of multiple degrees, or two-degree programs, with an integration piece between those two.

The market is telling us very clearly that is what student learners want now, because they want that combined skill set. They want that depth of knowledge, but they also want to have flexibility and agility as they move into the workforce.

What kind of impact can the humanics curriculum have on a learner’s education and career?

What we are trying to do here is bring humanics to life. And what that means is, do you have skill sets that are beyond only that deep discipline?

The deep disciplinary knowledge is still the foundation of all that we do. But you need to have different dimensions to that, and it’s our role and responsibility as educators to provide that to you. It will be important that you can navigate your career beyond that one dimension. So that will be looking at things that are involving more technical aspects, so that you understand and can assess things like data, or you can assess issues associated with, say, risk, which are complex issues. We should be providing you with the platforms and the knowledge base in order that you can achieve that.

It is not only about employment; it’s about success in life. It’s that you can make well-informed decisions given the complexity of the environment that we are evolving into. So by having those other elements of humanics that involve cultural agility as well as the nimbleness of thought, the ability to be able to use a combination of skills that make us uniquely human, those are the points which are important for you in terms of your career. But it’s also important for you in terms of you personally navigating through your life, so that you are able to adapt as circumstances change.

How do Northeastern’s regional campuses and sites across North America and in London, England fit into this strategy?

They are an integrated part of the university. The concept here is that we are a global university system, and those locations are areas around the world where we have particular expertise or vantage points.

They feed back value into the university. So it is not us exporting our programs to those sites. As those sites are individualized, they are personalized, and they have their own particular value that they can add into the whole ecosystem of Northeastern.

We are going to learn from one another through this network system, as opposed to seeing ourselves as the center of the universe, where everybody needs to come to learn. We are flipping the model on its head, from a centralized model to a decentralized model, and really using those areas, those networks, that are out there, to bring things back that we can’t do on our own.

We’re also going to get talent sets of students who otherwise would not have the ability to move, because of issues associated with the costs of moving, family situations. We will now be able to actually interact, educate, have those people as part of our community, with whom otherwise we would not be able to enrich the whole university system.

Northeastern’s global university system includes locations with booming industries and global tech giants. Take the Seattle campus for example in the backyard of Amazon and Facebook.

That’s an example of where we are looking at developing partnerships with industry, between Northeastern as an entity and Amazon as an enterprise. So having those campuses is not just about student mobility, and it’s not just about programming. Research is a fundamental component of it.

The chancellor and the provost each oversee critical components of the university’s learning and research infrastructures. Tell us about the synergy between the two.

The provost is in charge of the colleges, in charge of faculty life, and is the formal academic officer of the university. And therefore all the approvals, the formalism of academic controls over quality of programs and assessment, that’s the provost. The chancellor’s position is that of an enabler.

So the way to think about this is a matrix. The verticals in the matrix are the colleges and the faculty, they drive the education, they do the research, they teach the classes. The provost is in charge of those verticals. The horizontals in the matrix are the chancellor’s responsibility. So those are experiential and undergraduate education, that’s things like teaching support, undergraduate student mobility, internationalization, those are all independent of colleges or serve the colleges. The Honors Program, undergraduate research, all of those things are independent and cross all the colleges.

I’ll go back to the PhD network, it is a student support service, the horizontal, it crosses across and serves the entire university. Student affairs, athletics, these are horizontals that cross the university.

The traditional higher education model is going through a major disruption. How is Northeastern leading in this space from your perspective?

Once you come here as a student, we are expecting to have you as a learner throughout your entire career, your entire life.

There are different ways and modalities to gain education. Right now the standard model is come for four years, 18 to 22, get a degree, and leave; maybe you do a master’s degree for two years and a PhD for five. That model is being disrupted right now, and we are part of that disruption.

We are providing stackable certificates that allow learners to get educated in specific areas that are of value to them, but allow them to build on that over time in a way that’s flexible to that learner depending on their current circumstances. They can stack those certificates together in order to get things like master’s degrees.

This is a lifelong learning experience. It may be that we interact with a learner only once for a six-week program. It may be, over the course of that person’s life, they’re coming back here for years and years of study. So we want to be flexible in the way that we supply that education to the learners throughout their life.

Is there a correlation between your own life story and the Northeastern story?

I went to university in Glasgow—the University of Strathclyde. Interestingly, its motto is, “Useful learning.” So it has some resonance. It is an urban campus in the middle of Glasgow.

It is a place that really cares about preparing students for life. And this is clearly one of the things that resonated with me when the opportunity for Northeastern came across to me. That component has always been part of my DNA. It is preparing students to ensure that they will succeed. Careers are one piece of it, but it’s also about succeeding in life. That was a really critical inflection point to decide to go there.

Another one was I was fortunate to spend two years at Brown University after I did my PhD. That allowed me to understand internationalization in terms of mobility. It opened up the world to me. If I did not have that opportunity to spend a couple of years at Brown, I definitely would not be here today. I would not have thought about working in a different country.

That’s the type of opportunity that I want to supply to students to ensure that they can see as many opportunities as they possibly can. And that they can continue to take those opportunities as they progress through their careers. And that’s our responsibility as educators.

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