Higher education at a crossroads

North­eastern Uni­ver­sity Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun par­tic­i­pated in a pres­ti­gious panel dis­cus­sion at the TIME Summit on Higher Edu­ca­tion on Thursday in New York City.

The summit coin­cided with a spe­cial higher-​​education edi­tion of TIME and was co-​​sponsored by the Carnegie Cor­po­ra­tion of New York and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Over the course of the all-​​day event, more than two-​​dozen thought leaders from higher edu­ca­tion, busi­ness, phil­an­thropy and gov­ern­ment dis­cussed the litany of crit­ical chal­lenges facing higher edu­ca­tion, including cost, access, glob­al­iza­tion and the impact of technology.

Aoun served on the event’s final panel fea­turing Arne Duncan, the U.S.Secretary of Edu­ca­tion; Eli Broad, founder of the Broad Foun­da­tions; Roger W. Fer­guson Jr., the pres­i­dent and CEO of TIAA-​​CREF; and Louis V. Ger­stner, the former CEO and chairman of the board of IBM. Bill Moyers, the renowned jour­nalist and White House press sec­re­tary for Pres­i­dent Johnson, mod­er­ated the panel, which was titled, “All Hands on Deck: Per­spec­tives From Higher Edu­ca­tion, Gov­ern­ment, Phil­an­thropy, and Business.”

Fer­guson, an out­spoken advo­cate for better K-​​12 edu­ca­tion, argued that the panel—and the nation—should focus on all edu­ca­tion, from kinder­garten through col­lege. Pres­i­dent Aoun took this com­ment a step fur­ther, explaining the national need for working professionals—who already have bachelor’s degrees—to enhance their skills with pro­fes­sional master’s degrees.

“We are in a period of tremen­dous knowl­edge accel­er­a­tion,” said Aoun. “Tra­di­tion­ally, higher edu­ca­tion has focused on two domains: under­grad­uate edu­ca­tion and Ph.D. edu­ca­tion. We need to develop many more pro­fes­sional master’s degrees that align with the needs of industry.”

Aoun also out­lined the ben­e­fits of expe­ri­en­tial learning, par­tic­u­larly during con­tinued eco­nomic uncer­tainty. All of the pan­elists agreed that higher education needs to be more in tune with employers. “We cannot afford to be an ivory tower, or even a bakelite tower,” Aoun added.

President Aoun at TIME Summit on Higher Education.

Sandra Day O’Connor, a retired U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice, deliv­ered the summit’s keynote address. Other panel dis­cus­sions focused on the cost of col­lege; the changing land­scape of higher edu­ca­tion with regard to online learning; and the impor­tance of fos­tering stu­dent suc­cess from freshman year to grad­u­a­tion day.

Pres­i­dent Aoun is known as a higher-​​education thought leader. Ear­lier this year, he was elected to serve a one-​​year term as the board chair of the Amer­ican Council on Edu­ca­tion and was named to a 19-​​member aca­d­emic advi­sory council for the U.S. Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­rity. In June of 2011, Aoun con­vened a group of uni­ver­sity pres­i­dents and offi­cials from the U.S. Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion to dis­cuss the Obama administration’s pro­posal to mod­ernize and expand the Perkins Loan program.