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NU is set to appoint USC dean as president

Linguist seen as prolific fund-raiser

Northeastern University's next president will be a dean from the University of Southern California who helped the school vault into top national rankings, a move Northeastern aspires to make, sources familiar with the university's decision said yesterday.

Later this week, Northeastern's board of trustees plans to announce the selection of Joseph Aoun , a linguist and dean of USC's College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, the sources said yesterday.

Professors and community leaders in the Los Angeles area describe the 53-year-old Aoun as a savvy and dynamic leader of the university's largest school. They say that during the last dozen years he had a hand in helping USC, a private, urban campus in Los Angeles, rise from a football powerhouse derided as the University of Second Choice to a respected research university ranked 30th in the US News & World Report survey.

As dean the last six years, Aoun has been a successful fund-raiser, who simultaneously courted wealthy donors while prodding faculty to apply for grants, said William G. Tierney , director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at USC. Last year, for example, he snagged a $10 million donation from a Los Angeles businesswoman.

``Joseph Aoun is an individual who can move the university faster than others," Tierney said. ``He has the vision and energy to move quickly and rally support behind him."

Aoun, who did not return a call seeking comment, will replace Richard M. Freeland , who plans to step down in mid-August after 10 years at the helm.

Raised in Lebanon, Aoun earned degrees at universities in Lebanon and France before coming to the United States to earn a doctorate in linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He went to USC in 1982 as a professor and was elected president of the Academic Senate in 1993. After that, he took on several administrative positions before rising to dean.

In 2002, he began a $100 million initiative to hire 100 world-class professors to boost the university's prestige; Aoun raised some of the money himself.

As dean, he oversees approximately 8,000 undergraduate and graduate students out of 33,000 overall at the university. As president of Northeastern , a private institution, he would oversee 23,000 and be expected to raise more money for hiring and expanding academic programs.

During Freeland's tenure, Northeastern was transformed from a commuter school with mainly local appeal to a popular, nationally-known university. Applications doubled, SAT scores of incoming freshmen rose, and the graduation rate improved. Freeland's goal was to help Northeastern rise into the top 100 universities of national rankings, and the school leaped from 150 in 2002 to 115 in the 2006 rankings.

Freeland was applauded for that jump but was seen as a weak fund-raiser. Some students and faculty viewed him as remote and inaccessible.

USC faculty and others yesterday described Aoun as warm, erudite, and accessible.

``He's smart, and he's not the kind of disconnected academic guy," said David A. Lehrer , president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los-Angeles-based civil rights nonprofit where Aoun is a founding board member. ``You could have a conversation with him about just about anything."

Aoun joined an ambitious effort to push USC out of the shadow of the larger and more prestigious University of California, Los Angeles. USC was in a rough neighborhood that visitors once were fearful of visiting after nightfall.

Aoun and other USC officials during the past five to seven years worked to boost security in the neighborhood, Lehrer said. Aoun, with the university president, reached out to the Jewish community of Los Angeles and other groups and helped turn USC into a more prominent voice in the city.

Faculty members said Aoun was adept at recruiting top-notch faculty.

In 2000, he recruited geophysicist Thomas H. Jordan , a longtime professor at MIT who was being courted by three universities, including one far more prestigious than USC, Jordan said in an interview yesterday. He said Aoun made a powerful case over dinners and on telephone calls: The university was expanding, ambitious, and competitive -- all traits research scientists want.

Jordan said Aoun's listening skills and infectious energy helped propel the university forward and would doubtlessly do the same at Northeastern.

Northeastern's search committee, comprised of trustees, faculty, a student, and an alumnus, presented the names of three finalists to the board of trustees, which voted in early May to make Aoun their choice, according to one of two sources familiar with the search.

An announcement was delayed in part because the school had to negotiate Aoun's contract, and because he was traveling overseas.

Few people on campus were aware of the choice yesterday, but some who were told of the decision reacted with enthusiasm.

``They are an absolutely first-rate university, and I think it speaks well for Northeastern that it's been able to attract someone of that caliber," said Stephen Burgard , director of the School of Journalism, who spent years working at the Los Angeles Times.

Burgard said USC has the kind of avid alumni loyalty and community presence that Northeastern needs to build.

Ashley Adams , president of the student government at Northeastern, said she was hoping the school would name a female president. ``But if it's someone from a top-30 school with fund-raising experience, that's going to be invaluable to Northeastern."

Adams added that many students didn't even know what Freeland looked like, and she hoped Aoun would make an effort to let students and everyone else on campus get to know him.

Globe researcher Elizabeth Grillo contributed to this report. Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com; Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com

Joseph Aoun was raised in Lebanon and earned a doctorate at MIT.
Joseph Aoun was raised in Lebanon and earned a doctorate at MIT.
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