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Northeastern University president Joseph Aoun (center) talked with the Rev. Martin McLee during a meeting with church leaders last week.
Northeastern University president Joseph Aoun (center) talked with the Rev. Martin McLee during a meeting with church leaders last week. (Bill Greene/ Globe Staff)

Northeastern tries a lighter tread

President lends an ear to neighbors

Soon after he became president of Northeastern University last August, Joseph Aoun made a symbolic, fence-mending gesture to the university's Lower Roxbury neighbors. He moved his office across campus to Columbus Avenue, just over the Roxbury line, changing the office's ZIP code.

Aoun didn't stop there. He has been personally courting clergy and neighborhood leaders and gone door to door to talk with residents to warm an often chilly relationship between the city campus and its neighbors.

At his inauguration in March, he announced a plan to reconnect the increasingly prestigious private university to its urban surroundings. And, at a recent meeting with religious leaders, he lent the college's support for a history project chronicling the 1940s in Lower Roxbury.

Aoun's goodwill mission takes place as the school's aggressive expansion continues to frustrate residents, particularly in the Symphony and Roxbury neighborhoods, and as political leaders call on the university to be more involved in city life.

Aoun, 54, who spearheaded a similar effort when he was dean of the University of Southern California, said the civic campaign is in everyone's best interest.

"You cannot put students in a tower for four years and expect them to be engaged citizens," Aoun said last week at Peoples Baptist Church on Tremont Street. "It cannot work this way."

Northeastern's effort and Aoun's personal investment have won praise from many city leaders and neighbors, who say it marks a sharp break with the past.

"They're being a little more pleasant," said Adline Stallings, cochairwoman of the Mission Main Task Force, a community group. "They haven't always been a good neighbor. They would push, not ask. But now they are listening a little bit."

Michael Ross, a Boston city councilor whose district includes Fenway and Mission Hill, said Aoun's efforts were welcome.

"He really has invested himself in getting to know the community," he said. "If there's one area of investment beyond academics they need to focus on, it's community building."

Northeastern officials say the school has long been active in the community, including sponsoring school programs and scholarships. But critics say the college has overlooked its neighbors as it has grown more selective and national in its outlook. An aggressive building project to house more students on campus has also strained relations with nearby residents.

Some say diplomatic rhetoric won't halt the college's march into their neighborhoods.

"For years, Northeastern has tried to bypass the community when it comes to their developments and not give the residents a voice," said Klare Allen, a leader of the Lower Roxbury Residents Leadership Group. "I think it's a little premature to pat yourself on the back just because you're meeting with a bunch of pastors."

Last week, the group rallied outside Aoun's office to protest high-rise dormitories being built on Tremont and Ruggles streets. Residents in the Symphony neighborhood are also opposing a proposed high-rise for student housing on St. Botolph Street.

"I'll take them at their word that they are going to be more open," said Kerrick Johnson, an organizer for the group. " They've been friendly and congenial in the past, but the concrete decisions about land and development haven't been done as well as they could have been."

Neal Finnegan, chairman of Northeastern's Board of Trustees, said Aoun's charm and conviction is helping strengthen the school's relationships one meeting at a time.

"It's not an act; he really means it," Finnegan said.

At Peoples Baptist Church, Aoun spoke earnestly about knocking down the walls between the college and its Roxbury neighbors. He told the audience he moved his office after Byron Rushing, the state representative for the college's Lower Roxbury neighbors, pointedly told him that Northeastern had always "tried to get out of Roxbury's area code."

"If I have complaints about plumbing or electricity, I'm coming to you," he quipped.

Aoun worked the room with a broad smile and hearty laugh, chatting with the group of preachers. He rose from his chair to greet newcomers, addressed everyone by name, and wished one minister a happy birthday.

"You're just 53? How come you look younger than me?" he said.

In a roundtable discussion, Aoun said he would try to make it easier for Boston students to attend Northeastern, help dropouts attain their GEDs, and look into hiring workers with criminal records.

"Northeastern really has a calling to work on some of these issues with young people," he said. "We should aspire to be not just a mirror for society but a model for what society can be. It's a higher calling, and it's a difficult calling."

The Rev. Michael E. Haynes, pastor emeritus of Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, said Northeastern had over the years upset residents by expanding into their neighborhoods. But Haynes thanked Aoun for "invigorating and inspiring the community."

"I think this bodes well for the future of the university and the community," he said.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.

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