30 profs sought in hiring initiative

For the university to grow academically, it needs to pump resources into programs and research that involve collaborations between schools and departments rather than focusing on traditional academic programs that involve a single field of study.

That’s the message the university is sending to the academic job market and the rest of the university community this week with a new hiring initiative that will target professors who work in the academic crosshairs – between disciplines and, within the structure of the university, between departments and perhaps colleges.

President Joseph Aoun said the university plans to hire 30 faculty members over the next three years at the “senior level” – meaning professor or associate professor – to stretch the interdisciplinary, as they are officially known, areas that currently exist. The project is budgeted for up to $40 million, but that number could decrease depending on recruiting costs and money the university spends for labs or other equipment to provide for the faculty they hire, Aoun said.

“We are saying we here at Northeastern are going to be known for our interdisciplinary centers,” he said. “We are looking at it as [direct] interdisciplinary recruitment, rather than [looking at interdisciplinary programs] as an afterthought.”

The initiative is the first major program introduced by Aoun, who took office in August. He said it grew from a combination of demands from student and faculty constituencies he met with.

“It’s not something that we created out of thin air,” he said.

He remarked on Northeastern’s innovation with the interdisciplinary programs currently in place – such as Middle Eastern studies and behavioral neuroscience – in his first visit to campus in May before taking office, and said four months of observation at the university has hammered home interdisciplinary programs as the area of major promise for the university.

While Aoun is clear about the idea behind the hiring drive, what is not clear is what programs of study the professors hired will pursue. But that’s by design, Aoun said. Instead, the university will remain open to hiring faculty within programs that the university already has, but otherwise remain open to the talent in the job marketplace, Aoun said.

“The beauty of this approach is that we are asking our faculty colleagues and the community at Northeastern to look at the opportunities wherever they are,” he said.

Gerry Herman, director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, which manages interdisciplinary academic programs but not necessarily all of the projects across campus, said the program would have a “major impact” across the university.

But he cautioned that all fields of study where interdisciplinary projects are taking place should be involved in the hires – which run the gamut from engineering to social sciences.

He said the new faculty would start to give the programs he runs through the center the resources they need to sustain themselves, but said the hires from the initiative would only be the start.

“What you’re really doing is building a kind of core, and hoping the disease spreads,” he said.

Interdisciplinary programs are gaining traction nationwide as vehicles for research, as academics find it often takes more than one discipline to produce compelling, innovative work.

“It’s good that the university is taking the risk,” said MJ Paradiso, vice president for academic affairs of the Student Government Association. “It shows we understand where the academic community is going as a whole.”

At his former employer, the University of Southern California, Aoun’s rise through the academic ranks was propelled by his scholarship prowess in linguistics – one of the smallest programs currently in the interdisciplinary center at this university.

Hiring faculty in targeted areas is not a new method for the university. In 2004, then-President Richard Freeland rolled out the Academic Investment Plan, a program to hire 100 “star” professors over five years, increase research on outside grants and bolster several academic programs.

That program will continue as the new one begins. Aoun said the Academic Investment Plan’s focus on specific programs’ functions to offset the interdisciplinary initiative’s broader goal of bringing some of those programs together.

“Essentially they are complementing each other,” he said.

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