Northeastern University plans to spend $75 million to hire 100 new professors over the next five years in an effort to boost the academic standing of the former commuter school.
The ambitious hiring plan, to be unveiled by NU president Richard M. Freeland at a faculty meeting today, is being launched after a decade in which Northeastern has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to improve its physical campus, including new student housing and a marquee fitness center.
The goal now, Freeland said in an interview yesterday, is to sharpen the intellectual quality of its education and to bring the school's student-faculty ratio in line with the top 100 national universities in the US News & World Report rankings.
"We have to keep building," said Freeland, who has made the quest for a top-100 spot by 2010 his main mission since becoming president of Northeastern eight years ago. "Now we have terrific students coming here from all over the country, very different from the students who came here before, and we want to be sure the quality of the experience meets their expectations."
The faculty expansion will raise the number of tenured and tenure-track professors from 580 to 680 for Northeastern's 15,000 undergraduates, about one professor for every 22 students, a ratio similar to those of the University of Florida, Texas A & M University, and the State University of New York at Albany.
Florida was ranked 48th in the nation last year by US News. Northeastern, by contrast, was lumped together with about 60 other universities in the rankings' third tier. It has edged up in a decade from 164th to 127th, school officials said. The rankings have become an important, if controversial, shaper of college reputations, with observers from high school counselors to alumni tracking the slightest movement.
Northeastern's hiring will focus on majors in which student demand is growing, including communications, business, and health science. It will also be used to beef up such graduate programs as business, engineering, and computer science. Professors will be added in four key research areas, said Freeland: biotechnology, nanotechnology, sensing and imaging, and urban policy.
The plan will be financed in part by a parallel push to increase outside research funding. To afford the hiring, Freeland said, the university will need to increase by 43 percent over five years the amount of research funding it receives from the government and other sources, while more than doubling reimbursement for overhead costs related to research. At the same time, graduate enrollments must grow slightly, and the school must keep more of the students who enroll, to fortify the stream of income from tuition.
"There's a challenge built in, to raise performance," Freeland said. "To accomplish what we want to accomplish, we need to raise the level of our game."
Told about Northeastern's plan for faculty investment, Robert Atwell, the president emeritus of the American Council on Education, said the plan's heavy emphasis on research suggests the university wants to compete with top research schools, a move away from the campus's traditional emphasis on practical training for undergraduates.
To hire the best professors, Northeastern will have to go head to head with competitors with larger endowments and better-established reputations. Harvard University, a powerhouse in attracting federal research funds, has said it plans to increase its faculty by 10 percent in the next decade.
Freeland said he is confident that upcoming searches will be successful, and he plans to improve research infrastructure, such as hiring staff to work on grant proposals.
Economics department chairman Steve Morrison said he had no trouble selling Northeastern to candidates for five faculty openings in the last three years.
"After people hear the story, they recognize it as a place that's on the move," he said. "The intellectual vitality is changing fast."
Northeastern's plan bucks the recent trend at universities, which have generally been trimming full-time faculty appointments in favor of lower-paying nontenured and part-time positions. Between 1975 and 1995, colleges saw a 12 percent drop in professors hired with the possibility of tenure, and a 92 percent jump in positions without possibility of tenure, according to a 2002 study commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Freeland said the school would assess its progress year by year to determine how much hiring can be done. Northeastern's research spending increased 41 percent, to $44 million, in the last five years. Already, the university is closing deals to pull new researchers on board. One recent hire, yet to be announced, will bring $2 million a year in federal funding, said Ahmed Abdelal, Northeastern's provost. In some ways, Northeastern's self-improvement blueprint seems counter-intuitive: Instead of first making heavy investments in faculty and using top-notch professors to lure high-quality applicants, the university took the latter step first, transforming its applicant pool through a blend of aggressive marketing and deep investments in campus facilities. The school spent $477 million to improve its campus in a dozen years; the results helped swell the applicant pool by 50 percent in five years.
Last year, 21,500 applicants vied for 3,000 spots in the current freshman class. Northeastern has shrunk dramatically and become much more selective since the 1980s, when 50,000 students attended.
Those who enrolled this fall were more qualified than any class in school history, said Freeland; their mean SAT score of 1201 represents an increase of almost 200 points since 1992. The number of freshmen who remain for sophomore year has jumped from 70 to 88 percent in the same period.
"There's a new Northeastern student, and the university is going to have to do new things to retain that student," student government president Michael Romano said. "Students want faculty who are the best of the best. They want big names, who carry big weight. It makes you proud to be associated with Northeastern."
Jenna Russell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.