Acclaimed Scientist Named New Provost

03/25/2008
By From the Lowell Sun

By Robert Mills

LOWELL ߞ; When Marty Meehan left Congress to become chancellor of UMass Lowell, hiring a new provost was among his top priorities, and in announcing an appointment to that position yesterday, Meehan scored a bit of a coup.

Ahmed Abdelal, who has been provost at Northeastern University in Boston since 2002, will not only head north to take the reigns of academics at a significantly smaller school, he will also likely take a pay cut to do so.

But in the process he gets a new challenge, and the nationally respected microbiologist says that was a big part of his decision. “I've always looked for work at universities that I call ‘aspiring universities.' Not places that have already realized what they want, but rather strive to achieve more,” Abdelal said. “I find that more exciting.”

Meehan said Abdelal has excelled at that challenge before, helping guide Northeastern from about 150th on the U.S. News & World Reports annual college rankings to 98th in less than five years. Abdelal said he also shares Meehan's visions of partnering with business and the community, of improving research opportunities, and making the university a vital part of the region's economic engine.

It may come as no surprise that Meehan says the hire is a coup, but the man who recruited Abdelal when he was president of Northeastern agrees. Richard Freeland, the private Boston school's president emeritus, said Abdelal is a “thorough professional,” and agreed with Meehan's take.

Meehan said salary negotiations are still under way. “It will be less than he made at Northeastern but competitive enough to get him here,” Meehan said of the likely figure. Abdelal will likely make more than $200,000, but a more specific number was not available.

Born in Egypt, Abdelal did his graduate work at the University of California, Davis, after getting a bachelor's in science from Cairo University. His doctorate is in microbiology. He was hired after a nationwide search led by professor Julie Chen and Lowell businessman George Behrakis. Meehan gave them and the entire search committee much of  the credit for the hire. 

“I think the thing that really sealed the deal is that he has experience with being a provost and working across the campus,” Chen said. “He has experience with humanities, and social science, and K through 12, and all the pieces we're looking (for) to pull together on campus.”

Before his stint at Northeastern, Abdelal was dean of Arts and Sciences at Georgia State University in Atlanta, where he also chaired the Biology Department. Abdelal replaces John Wooding, who left the provost position and returned to the faculty on July 1, after Meehan informed him he planned a nationwide search for a new provost. Don Pierson, dean of the Graduate School of Education, has served as the acting provost.

“I'm attracted to the idea of a new challenge,” Abdelal said. “Unless you actually identify challenges that you find exciting, you lose some of your creativity.”

It is an excitement he wants to take not just around campus, but into the community as well. Abdelal said he wants to work with K-12 educators, in addition to local industry. Having worked in both Atlanta and Boston, he sees a difference between schools that are simply in an urban setting, and schools that are actually “urban-oriented.” He wants the latter.

“I find it exciting to work to connect with the community,” he said.

A nationally respected scientist who took part in a collaborative program that got Northeastern, UMass Lowell and the University of New Hampshire one of four national grants to fund nanomanufacturing, Abdelal will be ready to hit the ground running when he joins efforts to build that program, and a planned $80 million nanotechnology center.

Freeland, Abdelal's former boss, said that won't come at the expense of humanities or other programs, though. “He has a balanced view where arts and sciences are involved,” Freeland said. “Most disciplines at Northeastern will tell you he is a balanced provost on the different aspects of the curriculum.”

Meehan said Abdelal will start sometime in June.