‘A delightful fellow’

When he was in the process of being hired by the University of Southern California’s College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, professor Todd Sandler was not only impressed with the attention he received from the college’s dean, Joseph Aoun, but also the attention paid to his 11-year-old son.

“Joseph made a point to get to know not only me but my son,” said Sandler, now a chaired professor of international relations and economics. “When he would call, he wouldn’t just say ‘Can I speak to your father?’ He would speak to my son and ask him how he was doing. That’s a very special quality he has.”

Aoun was described by USC colleagues as a renowned scholar and a driving administrator whose personality helps him to win supporters for his big-ticket initiatives.

“The place has grown a lot,” Sandler said of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences under Aoun’s leadership. “He’s put an emphasis on teaching, research and visibility. In fact, I’d give him the highest marks in all those categories.”

The professional life that has brought Aoun to Northeastern is charted with academic success, followed by an invigoration of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences over a six-year-period as dean.

Born in Beirut, Lebanon, Aoun received degrees in Lebanon and France before coming to the United States to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1978.

The 53-year-old began his career in linguistics after receiving his doctorate from MIT in 1981. Noam Chomsky, the famed scholar who founded the discipline in its modern form, was his advisor.

“Boston was my first home in the United States,” Aoun said. “I lived in Cambridge, but Boston was where I came to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Aoun was hired as a professor at USC soon after he completed his doctorate as a professor. He has written seven books in the field. Before taking on administrative roles in 1993, he authored and co-wrote seven books.

“He is highly respected, and a major contributor in this field,” said Jean-Roger Vergnaud, a chaired professor of humanities and of linguistics at USC. “He is definitely in the top tier.”

According to Language Log, a linguistics blog, Aoun is the first theoretical linguistics professor to become head of a university.

He first started to drift toward administration at USC in 1992, when he was elected president of the academic senate. He later became the college’s dean of faculty, and rose to dean in 2000.

Vergnaud said his linguistics background helped him to pursue one of his major goals after becoming dean – molding majors that involved studies across disciplines.

“Linguistics is really an interdisciplinary field,” he said. “It involves cognitive science, computer science and behavioral science. Sometimes it’s hard to merge the different disciplines, but he has a knack for it, not only because he’s a top-level scientist, but also because of his ability as an administrator. We are sorry to lose him.”

During his tenure as dean, Aoun created a variety of partnerships with community organizations in Los Angeles, including moving the Shoah Foundation, an archive of videos of historic events and a partnership with the Getty Institute that allowed graduate students in art history to study the path of works of art in the museum’s collection. A Korean Institute was also created during his tenure, he said Thursday.

“I feel that what I have tried to build is an environment where my institution is viewed as a resource to the community,” he said.

To pay for all the endeavors he proposed, Aoun also launched an initiative to raise $400 million over ten years. Before departing for Northeastern, he had already raised $40 million in 2006.

“We have seen an astonishing increase in our fundraising from an historical average of $18 million per year to $40 million in 2005 – a milestone we have already surpassed this fiscal year,” he said in a farewell letter to faculty this week. “Our sponsored research funding has risen by more than 50 percent in the past six years.”

Aoun’s high-profile initiatives have met criticism in academic circles. One proposal, which has been likened to Northeastern’s Academic Investment Plan, called for 100 new “star” faculty over 10 years. The plan spent $100 million.

David L. Kirp, a political science professor at University of California at Berkeley, criticized the plan for going after high-profile professors who he said are less likely to teach.

“What’s good for a university’s reputation … isn’t necessarily good for its students’ education,” he wrote in the Oct. 27, 2003, op-ed in The New York Times. “Since the standing of top-rung professors, their bankable asset, depends on what they write, not how they teach, their main loyalty isn’t to their students or their institution.”

Aoun responded in a letter that was submitted but never published in the New York Times.

“Perhaps our idea of seeking out senior professors … has confused Professor Kirp,” the letter said, according to The Daily Trojan, the USC campus newspaper. “Teaching undergraduates in USC college is central to our culture. If that requirement kills a deal, as it has in some cases, so be it. We want teachers.”

In presenting the Academic Investment Plan in 2004, Provost Ahmed Abdelal has faced criticism that professors would bring research dollars to the university, but little time to the classroom.

After USC sent Kirp a note explaining their process, he said he believed USC could make the program work.

Kirp declined to comment Wednesday.

Aoun was a founding board member of Community Initiatives, a civil rights organization in Los Angeles. David Lehrer, the organization’s president, said Aoun brought “brain power” to the organization. He added Aoun was “a delightful fellow.”

“He may have some differences with some of the positions [of other board members], but he agrees with the thrust of our organization,” he said.

Aoun received one of his highest international honors in April, when he was knighted by the French government’s ministry of education.

He said he travels all over the world, and attempts to go to Asia at least once a year.

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