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New Northeastern president getting thumbs up

BOSTON --Seated at a conference table, Joseph Aoun looks every part the academic. With legs crossed he leans back casually in his chair, pouring tea from a stone kettle. Words such as "interdisciplinary" and "translational research" glide off his tongue with ease as the seventh president of Northeastern University discusses his vision for the school's future.

But Aoun, who has been in Boston less than six months, is just as quick to talk about affordable housing and the poverty in the neighborhoods that surround Northeastern's campus as he is the more esoteric topics of academia.

His willingness to involve himself and the university with Boston's Roxbury, Mission Hill and Fenway neighborhoods has suited him well during his first semester at Northeastern as, in addition to expanding the school's research and work-study programs, Aoun works to repair the often tenuous relationship between the school and the neighborhoods it inhabits.

"Many universities ... create an enclosed environment, it's referred to as an 'ivory tower,'" Aoun said, leaning forward in his chair.

"Here, there is no tower and certainly there is no ivory."

But that is not how the university's neighbors have seen it in the past.

"It would be hard to recall a year when we didn't have an issue or two," said state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, whose district includes Northeastern University and the surrounding Roxbury, Mission Hill and Fenway neighborhoods.

One of the ongoing concerns of these communities has been the overflow of college students into the rental market -- driving up property value -- in communities that have historically low ownership rates.

Northeastern is "fast growing and they're sitting in the middle of an urban community in transition, and much of that transition is caused because they're sitting in the middle of it," said Wilkerson, who has protested university expansion with picket signs and a bullhorn.

Wilkerson said residents and local politicians have been cautiously optimistic since Aoun came to Boston. He held a public meeting with residents in August, "sooner than any of us thought we'd be sitting with him," she said. Soon after, he announced plans to move his office to Columbus Place, a central location in Roxbury. The decision led to a few raised eyebrows among skeptical residents, she said.

"They're surprised with a wait-and-see attitude. That decision was a substantial statement and a first step, but the issues go a whole lot deeper than the place on the campus where the president sits."

The challenge for Northeastern, Wilkerson said, is to create a peaceful coexistence with the communities it inhabits. "If President Aoun is able to successfully conquer that challenge, he will be the first. If he doesn't get all the way there, he's on the right track."

Northeastern is known for its co-op program, which matches students with companies that put their skills to use. Ninety percent of the school's 12,000 undergraduates participate in co-op, which typically consists of three- and six-month stints at companies around the world.

Aoun's predecessor, Richard M. Freeland, worked to transform the university from a commuter school to a more selective institution. He made considerable strides -- in 2004, the school made the U.S. News & World Report's top tier rankings for the first time -- attracting not only a wide range of students, but top-tier professors and lecturers.

Aoun wants to go a step further. He envisions co-op as more than placing students in offices around the world; he wants it to go hand in hand with research. He calls this vision "translational research," a model where students who do co-op in a laboratory are encouraged to work on problems with real-world applications.

"Many universities -- research universities -- don't want to involve themselves in translational research. What I like about what I see at Northeastern ... you don't divorce studies and applications and study and practice."

This model is thriving in the school's Electronic Materials Research Institute, which is at the forefront of nanoscience research.

"Our students do research at companies like Boston Scientific, the hospitals, they're on papers, they have patents," said Srinivas Sridhar, the director of the institute. "Co-op is there to provide experience and research is a great experience. Aoun has brought some new ideas to the process and some new energy to the process. He's a very dynamic man."

One of the changes already implemented is the nature of academic appointments at Northeastern. In 2004, Freeland announced an initiative to hire 100 professors by 2007. Aoun has added a dimension to that plan; newly appointed faculty will be interdisciplinary hires -- professors who can teach different subjects. There has already been a joint appointment in biology and pharmaceutical sciences and one in pharmaceuticals and chemistry.

Sridhar says these kinds of hires are important in cutting-edge fields like nanomedicine where "most of the latest work is very interdisciplinary. You can see, not just scientists and engineers, but health scientists and social scientists, interacting in many of these areas."

Aoun (pronounced AY'-oon) is also forging connections throughout the greater Boston area. The 53-year-old native of Beirut, Lebanon, spent six years as the dean of the University of Southern California's College of Letters before coming to Boston.

As opposed to California, where the premier industry is entertainment, "the premier industry in Boston is the education industry," he said. "You're given, from day one, the opportunity to play a role in the civic agenda, and you're expected to do it."

Boston Mayor Tom Menino took him on a personal tour of the city and he is already a member of several local institutions, including a committee member of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and a trustee of the Boston History and Innovation Collaborative.

His enthusiasm to participate in life outside of the university is one reason for his popularity among the faculty, Carol Glod, chairwoman of the Faculty Senate said. "He's been able to foster a relationship with the city, he's doing a very good job at that."

But what's really got faculty excited, she said, is his commitment Freeland's hiring initiative and his ideas about expanding it.

"We wanted a proven academic who would listen to our concerns," she said. For him to look at Freeland's initiative "and to say yes, I want that and I want to build on that ... is I think exactly where we want to be."

And students are impressed by the personal attention Aoun has given them.

"He's outstanding," said Rogan O'Handley, president of the Northeastern student government.

The 21-year-old was impressed with a forum Aoun held in mid-October where he met with students to discuss their concerns and expectations for the future. He also wanted to know about the people that make up the student body.

"He hung out afterward, shook hands and wanted to know what everyone was studying." Since then O'Handley said he's heard from students who have bumped into Aoun at the student cafeteria, where he often eats. Surprisingly, O'Handley said, Aoun remembers students he met months ago; what they studied, where they're from. "It's so refreshing," he said.

Aoun says being new to the city, he understands the frustrations and apprehensions new students face. But there is also an excitement, the university is growing -- in 2003, 21,500 students applied for 3,000 freshman spots and this year for, the first time U.S. News & World Report's America's Best Colleges ranked Northeastern University in its top 100 -- the school shot up 17 slots in a year, to number 98.

Although Aoun said rankings are secondary to the quality of education students receive, he thinks Northeastern will continue to climb the ranks.

"This university has an incredible momentum," he said. "What drives me is really the aspirations of the place, and the aspirations are great."


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