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January 2012
On the Global Stage
By Zenda Douglas

     The city that has nurtured pioneers in banking, energy and sports leadership now welcomes a fresh, new approach to higher education. Northeastern University, the prestigious institution established in Boston in 1898, has opened its first regional campus in Charlotte.

     With innovation at the core of its history and culture, Northeastern has brought a new way to think about graduate education to Charlotte as it implements plans to further graduate study through a hybrid delivery system which combines classroom and online instruction while extending experiential, or co-op, learning opportunities. It is the first such regional expansion in the nation, according to Cheryl Richards, Ph.D., Northeastern’s Charlotte executive officer and regional dean.

     Classes representing eight master’s degree programs begin in this month. This first set of degree offerings include master’s in finance, business administration, taxation, leadership, health informatics, education, sports leadership and project management. Many of these programs represent the first of their kind for the region, either by discipline or through the online or hybrid delivery format.

     “It’s a wonderful and dynamic city to be in,” says Richards. “One of the reasons Northeastern was so attracted to Charlotte is that it is a very forward-thinking city as evidenced by its economic development efforts and focus on global commerce.”

     The regional campus will partner with companies on areas of research that they have unique strengths in, particularly in areas of health, security and sustainability. “Partnerships with the corporate community here will also serve to strengthen our experiential learning programs here and in Boston,” affirms Richards.

     Charlotte officials and leaders see an opportunity to further build and improve the work force through graduate degree attainment. “Most of the schools here have been primarily focused on an undergraduate market. There hasn’t been a large private, research-based university with a significant presence in Charlotte,” says Richards.

     The Charlotte Chamber of Commerce and Center City Partners were active in recruiting Northeastern. “Both groups were instrumental in helping the Northeastern team understand and navigate the city and connect with the right people,” says Richards.

     The Northeastern team consisted of five to six core individuals who came to Charlotte and met with about 100 leaders in the community representing health care, finance and banking, recruitment and placement firms, education, industry, motorsports, tourism, regional partnerships and more.

     “Our purpose in these meetings was to share perceptions from our market research and hear from businesses if that’s really what was needed,’” says Richards. “It was more than a paper study; it remains a dialogue with the community and investigation into ways Northeastern can add value.”


Rise to the top

     Northeastern’s grand opening in Charlotte was held on October 31, 2011, following a two-year investigation process. “The university looked at many metropolitan areas across the country,” shares Richards. University researchers investigated labor trends, market needs and new emerging economies in these regions resulting in a short list of 15 to study in more depth.

     Next they studied degree attainment, emergence of new industries and new populations that were changing the shape of the city itself. “Charlotte rose to the top,” exclaims Richards. The diversification of local industries was important as was the complete re-shifting in manufacturing that has occurred in the past 20 years.

     There is also a need factor. While Charlotte is on par with other places in undergraduate degree attainment, its work force has only about half the graduate level workers in other cities such as Boston and nearby Raleigh, which is two-thirds the size of Charlotte.

     “It makes more sense to be in Charlotte where there is a demand for higher level degrees,” says Richards. For instance, Charlotte is one of the regions with a robust health care sector in need of more highly educated professionals in healthcare IT. The Northeastern program in health informatics, which was one of the first in the country, could address that need.

     Similarly, the need for project managers crosses multiple industries from finance to manufacturing, health care to sports and non-profit organizations. Northeastern brings the only master’s degree in project management to the region helping fill needs in a variety of industries.

     Northeastern made a commitment to Charlotte in April of last year and its applications for licensure in North Carolina were approved in October. Additional licensure for a doctoral program in education is anticipated sometime this year and applications have already been submitted for additional master’s and doctoral programs for 2013.


Sprawling into cyberspace

     Northeastern has turned the dominant corner of Trade and Tryon Streets into an address for a sprawling university campus— not in acreage, but in state-of-the-art classroom facilities and cyberspace connections across the country and around the world.

     Occupying the 11th floor of the Independence Center Plaza, the campus has a sci-fi feel but its communications capacity is very real. “The university has made a significant commitment in technology so that the students are connected to Boston, but also around the world via video technology,” explains Richards.

     For example, guest speakers and renowned faculty can be brought in from around the world to interact with students and also the community.

     “We’re not just giving our students access, but also the executive across the street who wants to hear more about the latest trends in a given field,” says Richards. In November, the university launched its speaker series with a highly regarded faculty member expert in the area of airport technology scanners to help give the community a perspective that was broader than Charlotte. The university also hosted the recent Summit on Creative Industries, organized by the Chamber of Commerce.

     Computers are set up in the Technology Lounge and the Student Meeting and Resource Area. Laptops and iPads are available for students to check out. The entire campus is wireless.

     An uptown location is important to the regional campus and follows Northeastern’s main campus which is in the heart of Boston and engages with the community and employers around it.

     “We wanted to be at the heart of where commerce is done and you can’t get any more central than the corner of Trade and Tryon,” says Richards. “We wanted to have a convenient place for the conversations we will have with both student and employers here.”


Significant stature

     Northeastern University is a well-respected and well-known institution which has witnessed remarkable growth in the past several years. Last year the university had the highest number of undergraduate applications of any other private institution in the United States, according to Richards. Over 43,000 applicants sought admission among its nine colleges; 2,800 enrolled with 10 percent of its enrollment represented by international students. There are over 203,000 alumni.

     Over the past five years, Northeastern has made the greatest leap in the U.S. News & World Report rankings of any university.

     Northeastern’s co-op or experiential education is highly regarded. “We now have students in 85 countries on all seven continents,” says Richards. “Most graduate students are already professionals and their employers can provide a working laboratory within their place of employment that makes them more valuable to that company,” says Richards. “It’s really about integration of best learning practices and real world experience.”

     Northeastern has invested approximately $60 million in its regional campus system at large. This includes both start-up costs and a significant investment in expanding the full-time, award-winning faculty. While Charlotte faculty will initially come from the Boston campus, the university has hired 261 tenured and tenure-track faculty over the past five years, primarily to meet the upcoming needs of regional campuses, according to Richards.


A familiar face

     Richards, over the past several years, has come to call Charlotte home. Moving from Denver in 2004, she landed in a business development role with Central Piedmont Community College. For the past three years she had served as the dean of the Cato Campus. She has been actively involved in the community and has served on numerous boards and committees.

     Richards officially joined Northeastern University last June. “I see this as a perfect blend of my previous experience working with adult professional populations, knowing the community and understanding what the needs are and being able to work with an institution that is doing what no other private university has done before,” says Richards.

     Raised in Denver, Richards completed her undergraduate degree in communications from Colorado State and continued there to earn her master’s degree in student affairs. After moving to Charlotte, she was married with children, had a full-time job and was heavily engaged in the community. Pursuit of a doctoral degree which required a seat-based classroom schedule was not realistic. Instead she enrolled in Capella University, an online university with accredited doctoral programs and completed her Ph.D. in higher education leadership.

     “I knew this was the trend of where higher education was going and I wanted the firsthand experience of knowing when you are in a quality online or hybrid program and how to translate that into an educational environment,” says Richards.

     Within Northeastern’s hybrid approach, a student can be in class one week and work online the next. “If I had the opportunity, this is exactly the kind of program I would have selected for myself,” says Richards.

     Joining Richards on the staff is Julia Walton, formerly with the Chamber and a native Charlottean. Walton will serve as the senior director of business and community relations. The regional campus is not replicating an admissions office, registrar, career services or student life centers but will leverage these, and other support services, from the main campus in Boston.

     Admission standards for graduate students vary by program and consider professional experience. “It’s an amazing opportunity to have access to a high-caliber faculty and education for people who didn’t think it was possible without giving up their career.” says Richards. “

     Graduate studies are rarely easy on the wallet and Northeastern doesn’t pretend to be inexpensive. Northeastern is not a state-supported institution. It is predictably more expensive than UNC Charlotte, but on par and in some cases less than other private institutions.


Down the road

     The next regional campus for the Northeastern will be in Seattle, Washington, and similar processes are underway there to achieve an opening in the next year. Several other cities are currently being researched and evaluated.

     “We think there are some great opportunities to partner with health systems,” says Richards who is looking forward to bringing Northeastern’s health informatics curriculum into the region and possibly expanding in the areas of nursing, physical therapy and pharmacy.

     All of the Charlotte operations are contained in the North Tryon Street address but that doesn’t mean the university’s reach is limited to uptown. “We were very deliberate in calling this a regional campus instead of a Charlotte campus,” says Richards. “In the next couple of years, we will likely expand our reach across the region through programs, research and the extension of corporate partnerships.”

     “I want Northeastern to help the city grow to the next level. We’ve made great strides in Charlotte; now we’re on the cusp of the global stage,” says Richards. “I’d like to be here five years from now with Northeastern having played a very active and civic role in realizing that dream for the city.”


Zenda Douglas is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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