Joseph Aoun is possessed of a restless mind. In 2017, the seventh president of Northeastern University published Robot Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. At first blush, that may seem an unlikely subject for a noted scholar of linguistics who has spent his life as a university educator and administrator, but his book—in both tone and content—dispels any notion of siloed thinking. Instead, he nimbly captures our current economic context and the state of higher education in a little over 200 fast-paced pages, tying the current displacement of humans by machines to the agrarian and industrial revolutions of previous centuries. He proffers a new model of learning that “enables learners to understand the highly technological work around them and simultaneously allows them to transcend it by nurturing the mental and intellectual qualities that are unique to humans— namely, their capacity for creativity and mental flexibility.”
Aoun calls this model “humanics.” As robots surpass humans in cognition, precision, and power, he contends that three new literacies (technological, data, and human) will form the foundation of content knowledge and mastery. These literacies will be facilitated by new pedagogical approaches that develop four cognitive capacities (critical thinking, systems thinking, entrepreneurship, and cultural agility)—a sort of reframed trivium and quadrivium for the modern age.
“Education has always served the needs of society,” Aoun writes in Robot Proof. “It must do so now, more than ever. That is because higher education is the usher of progress and change. And change is the defining force of our time.”
Trusteeship recently sat down with Aoun to talk about his book, some innovations that have been introduced at Northeastern, and the critical collaborative role the university’s board played with university leadership and faculty in shaping a new strategic plan that puts Robot Proof’s ideas to the test.
Trusteeship: Robot Proof has stimulated a lot of interest nationally, particularly in the higher education sector. What was the impetus for the book?
Joseph Aoun: Essentially there were two reasons we started thinking about the topic of artificial intelligence (AI) and robots. One is the fact that the research being done at our university and other universities is a reminder of the impact AI and robots are having and how they are having an impact on the workforce; you can see it on a daily basis. Clearly, people have been writing about it, and I was affected by that as well. So, the science itself and the impact of the science were important considerations.
The second is really the students. [They] are aware—ahead of me—that the world is changing and the world they will inherit will be changing. The conjunction of the two led us to build a strategic plan for Northeastern based precisely on this issue. Over the years, I have written various articles on how robots and AI would have an impact on jobs and the implications AI would have for higher education. I began seeing other articles in the education media before we even started embarking on strategic planning here at Northeastern. It’s a maturation process that led me to writing this book. It’s a maturation based on the fact that the reality was becoming more and more present and the awareness is high with respect to that.
Trusteeship: It does raise the question: Do people know what AI is? How do you define it?
Aoun: I mean, look, the way I’m looking at is the human implications of AI. Robots are displacing human beings, and that is a cultural and economic shift that has precedent in earlier evolutions of technologies. The robots, like the cotton gins, are displacing human beings, and they are replacing jobs. Up to 50 percent of the jobs we know are predicted to disappear in the next 20 years. That’s enormous. Some people will tell you 50 percent, some will tell you 40 percent, some will tell you 30 percent, but they’re moving in the same direction. So I don’t spend time defining what AI is because it is part of a continuum, and it’s changing rapidly. I spend time thinking about how we as a society are going to adapt to these changes and how colleges and universities are going to be a part of this new reality.
Yes, there would be other jobs being created, but no one really knows whether the new jobs being created will be enough to replace the jobs that are disappearing. But no matter what, the major implications are forming. New jobs are being created, and people need to educate themselves, need to retool, and need to reskill themselves. It’s happening worldwide. For instance, people in Europe are very uneasy about the power of big tech when it comes to holding big data and holding information. Society at large, in the United States, in Europe, and elsewhere, is asking who owns the data. Is it the case that the big companies that cull the data from us own the data, or do we own the data? Some people think this is our right; we own the data. We are seeing an uneasiness with respect to that, which manifests itself in many ways. Some people are suggesting we should tax robots. All these reactions are the manifestation of the fact that we are in a transition; we are seeing the onset of the new world. People are realizing that the impact is with us and is bound to increase. The impact is going to be on human beings, from losing our privacy to losing jobs.
I see all of this as a golden opportunity for higher education to reaffirm its relevance. I suggest that in this new world where jobs are changing, where people will lose jobs, where inequality will increase because of that, higher education needs to provide a robot-proof journey for the learner.
Trusteeship: Your description of humanics seems to lend itself to the work that higher education governing boards should be considering as they carry out their fiduciary responsibilities. How do you see that in your own board, and do you see it as something boards generally need to start incorporating into their regular thinking?
Aoun: Boards are entrusted with the intergenerational well-being of the institution. Therefore, boards must keep the institution relevant in this new world, which means that they are thinking about the future and the new reality with us. In other words, boards need to be very clear about their responsibilities: We are not specialists of education. We cannot construct a curriculum called humanics. We cannot build an experiential learning model. We don’t know how to build a lifelong learning apparatus. But we do know that the world is changing, and we know that our responsibility as trustees is to keep our institution relevant in this new world. Short of that, the institution can become obsolete and possibly disappear. If the world is changing, how can we make sure we are all working to keep the university, the institution, and higher education at large relevant? History tells us that society has gone through many transformations, from the agrarian revolution to the industrial, from the information age to what is quickly emerging as the AI evolution. Every time, higher education has had to adapt in order to lead, in order to continue to be relevant. I feel that this is another moment where higher education has to reassert its relevance. I feel that boards and university leadership have a golden opportunity to reaffirm higher education’s relevance, and each institution has this opportunity.
Trusteeship: Do you think the pace of changes in society is increasing, and if so, can a sector that values the careful advancement of knowledge be nimble in responding?
Aoun: I don’t buy the idea that colleges and universities have to move slowly, and most trustees don’t either. The mistake we make in higher education is that we wait for consensus before we do anything. At Northeastern, we try things. We experiment. And trying new things is part of academic freedom. And when the early adopters of a change need support, we support them. We empower them. They become the exemplars and bring the rest of the community with them. You cannot make change from the top down, by fiat, but you cannot wait for total consensus either. If you stop moving, you become irrelevant.
Trusteeship: You recently partnered with Gallup on a report about public perception of the impact of AI. What surprised you most about the findings?
Aoun: What surprised me the most is the fact that people recognize the need for a lifelong learning, but only a third of them said they will turn to higher education to provide us with the opportunity to educate ourselves, to reskill ourselves. That’s very, very damaging for us in higher education. We have to be the provider of education. What we are seeing is that companies are launching their own universities, and you wonder why. Then when you talk to them, they tell you, “We’re doing it for two reasons. One is that we’re helping our employees understand the culture of the place.” That’s fine. But they said the second reason is “higher education is not meeting our needs. That’s why we have to do it ourselves.” But then they add: “We prefer not to do it because it’s not our core competence.” That worries me. It worries me that higher education has not embraced lifelong learning as the core mission of what we do.
Trusteeship: The report showed that respondents of all ages, education levels, and job types believe AI is going to eliminate more jobs than it creates and may create greater economic inequality. How does higher education need to respond to lessen economic gaps between haves and have nots?
Aoun: I think the only way we can reduce inequality is to provide people with opportunities to educate themselves, to reskill themselves, and we in higher education have to do it. That’s why lifelong learning is a necessity. Otherwise, you are going to see more inequality. That to me is the opportunity— and the responsibility—for higher education to reaffirm its relevance in this new world. Higher education is here to educate people for life. It’s not here to educate people from ages 18 to 22 only.
Trusteeship: How does higher education create greater access for a new cohort of learners that might extend beyond the traditional-age college student?
Aoun: Today our financial aid models are primarily designed around traditional degree programs, particularly undergraduate degrees such as a BA or BS. Increasingly, lifelong learners are going to be retooling or upskilling themselves in short bursts, not necessarily seeking full degrees. We need to add flexibility to the way to administer financial aid—including at the federal level—so that lifelong learners have the opportunities they need and have financial aid dollars available to them.
Trusteeship: Tell us about the concept of multi-university networks. What should boards consider when thinking about that possibility?
Aoun: At our university, we’re building a global university system. We have regional campuses in Charlotte, Seattle, Silicon Valley, and Toronto, and we’re launching in other places. When we started working on that, the board was key in working with us on shaping the strategy, [asking these questions]: Why are you doing that? To what goal? Are you pursuing this goal or this goal? What is the cost? What is the opportunity? What is the risk when you go to a different city? Are you going to duplicate what you are doing here or are you going to look at it based on the different urban environment needs? The board, by definition, has [created these networks]. They are heads of institutions that are in various cities in the United States and throughout the world. Their expertise is to help us with the questions they raise, because they lived it, they know it. They don’t know education, but they know how to move to a new city and how to shape the offerings so you become relevant and responsive to the city and to the employers there. That also helped the board and management to assume joint ownership—with the community and the institution—of the vision and the plan.
Trusteeship: Given the historical independence and the distinctive identities of different universities, how do you make this model work among institutions that are not related to, say, one central mission?
Aoun: In some ways, every institution has partnerships with other institutions worldwide. You have notions of building dual degrees. You have notions of building exchange programs— and we have them— where you send students to Shanghai, and Shanghai sends students here or to Europe. You don’t need to go build your own campuses. Our campuses, in all these places, are campuses that are not duplicating what we’re doing here. We’re not building a residential environment everywhere, for example. And, as I mentioned in the book, the notion of building a multi-university system is not something I’m advocating for every place. But we are beginning to see the onset of that. On a global level, you have various universities—U.S. universities, our universities— that are building campuses overseas. We are doing the same, and we’re focusing not so much on the undergraduates, but more on the professional. To say that every college and every university should do that? That’s not what anyone can advocate. What is important is to understand that we live in a new world, the AI world, and then ask ourselves, as an institution—and this is a call for each institution—how can we reassert our relevance in this world?
Trusteeship: You must have a very supportive board.
Aoun: The board is forward-looking, and it’s exciting to work with this board because it’s looking at the future with us. We spend a lot of time looking at change. We spend a lot of time looking at how institutions, companies included, have changed over the years. We even read articles together and discuss them because, ultimately, the board is here to work with you to shape the future and then to empower the president, management, and the community to make this future a reality and to help realize that shared future. It’s what I call ownership.
Trusteeship: Any closing thoughts?
Aoun: Going back to what we discussed at the beginning, the board is not here to manage the place but instead to help ensure the long-term viability of the institution, in collaboration with leadership, the faculty, and other stakeholders. Therefore, the board members need to be very cognizant of the changes in the real world. They live it. They are CEOs, they are heads of not-for-profits and for-profit organizations, and they’re on the front lines of the significant changes we are seeing in the ways we work and in the work itself. They are an enormous resource that can work with the president and management and the community to look at the future. That’s a very, very important dimension that the board must bring.
When I look back at the process we went through at Northeastern, it became an invitation for the board to work within committees, across committees, and at the board level as a whole. It unfolded over a year, and it created a kind of fluidity and unity in the board that has been very impactful.
I recall something a board member told me: “The value of a planning process is in the process also. Let’s not forget that. Because the process brings all the constituencies together.”
That was gratifying and very, very exciting.