Joseph Aoun, PhD ’81

Northeastern president oversees university’s unprecedented growth

As president of Northeastern University since 2006, Joseph Aoun has been a busy man. During his first four years, undergraduate applications increased 25 percent, and graduate enrollment increased 47 percent. And from 2010 to 2012, Northeastern had more applications than any other private American university. The success reflects what Aoun calls the MIT mind-set: do not do what others are doing; find what is unique and approach it in a fearless manner.

“MIT allows students to unleash their true potential and creativity,” he says. “My work at Northeastern, and my own research as a scholar, has been profoundly shaped by the idea of the freedom to think, the freedom to question, and the responsibility to build ideas.”

Northeastern is known for its pioneering coöperative education program, which requires undergraduates to complete up to three six-month terms of paid full-time work before graduation. Aoun launched NU Core, the first general-education program that requires an experimental-­learning component, and the Presidential Global Scholars initiative, which aims to double the number of students participating in co-op programs abroad.

“Northeastern has always been differentiated by a learning model that integrates classroom experience with world experience,” he says. “Instead of saying, ‘This is our differentiator,’ we’re taking this differentiator and expanding. We now have internship opportunities in 105 countries.”

Under Aoun, the university has created satellite graduate campuses in Charlotte and Seattle, with more planned throughout the world. “The Northeastern of the future is anchored in Boston, with a worldwide network of graduate campuses, teaching opportunities, and research opportunities,” he says. In 2011, MIT honored him with the Robert A. Muh Alumni Award in the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences for his extraordinary contributions to academia. 

Before being named president of Northeastern, Aoun served as dean of the University of Southern California’s College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, where he oversaw more than 11,000 undergraduate and graduate students in more than 60 academic departments and programs. 

A native of Lebanon, he received his master’s degree in Oriental languages and literature from Beirut’s Saint Joseph University in 1975 and his diploma of advanced studies in general and theoretical linguistics from the University of Paris VIII in 1977. He earned his PhD at MIT in linguistics and philosophy. In 2006, the French government presented him with the Knight of the Order of the Academic Palms. Aoun and his wife, Zeina, have two sons: Karim, a lawyer in New York, and Adrian, a startup entrepreneur with offices in Seattle, San Francisco, and London. 

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