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Saudi King's Modern University
Partnerships are sought in attempt to establish a world-class institution

By Robert A. Jones
Berkeley

Late in 2007 the Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, Robert J. Birgeneau, took a call from Frank Press. Press is the 84-year-old former President of the National Academy of Sciences, former science advisor to President Jimmy Carter, distinguished seismologist, and an eminence grise in American higher education. When Press calls, university leaders usually pick up the phone.

This time Press was calling with an intriguing proposal. He wanted Birgeneau to consider lending Berkeley's prestige and assistance to a new project in Saudi Arabia, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. The university, known by its acronym KAUST, was about to rise out of the sand just north of Jeddah on the Red Sea. The ambitions for the university were very high and would be abetted by an initial endowment of $10 billion and maybe much more.

Initially Birgeneau was skeptical. Berkeley's reputation for high political sensitivity did not seem a good fit for a partnership with Saudi Arabia where women cannot drive cars, and where holders of Israeli passports cannot enter the country. Birgeneau peppered Press with questions. Would the University be open to all? Would classes be segregated by sex? Would religious discrimination be practiced against non-Muslims?

"These were the obvious questions," Birgeneau recalled. "I knew we could not participate in the enterprise if all groups were not going to be treated equally."

 
Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau agreed to UC Berkeley's partnership with Saudi Arabia in developing a new university. So far, the arrangement has brought Berkeley about $36 million in research grants.
(Photo by Rod Searcey for CrossTalk)
 
But soon, and somewhat to his surprise, Birgeneau found himself convinced by Press that King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, was serious in his attempt to create a modern university in the western mold. Birgeneau agreed to take the next step, and soon a contingent of Saudis arrived to formally propose a five-year collaboration between the premier campus of the University of California and their unborn institution.

The Berkeley proposal was merely one piece of a lavishly funded and unprecedented plan to propel the King's university into the front rank of science and technology institutions. Similar phone calls by Press, and similar visits by Saudis, were made to Stanford University, UC San Diego, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Cambridge, the Imperial College of London, and a number of others.

All of these institutions now find themselves in partnership with KAUST, proposing new faculty, developing research agendas and, importantly, lending their names to the new institution. KAUST has not revealed how much it has spent thus far on the partnerships, but figures available from other sources put the total at half a billion dollars, with expectations that another half billion is coming.

In Berkeley's case, current contracts call for KAUST payments of $36 million. At Stanford the agreements have hit $60 million. At most other institutions the payments will range from $8 million to $25 million. In addition to payments for specific services, such as supplying curricula, KAUST is also underwriting research at the participating institutions and providing undergraduate scholarships at the partner campuses.

American universities occasionally have given assistance to nascent institutions in the Middle East and other locations. In the Middle East, the results have been mixed. A joint project between George Mason University in Virginia and a ruler in the United Arab Emirates proved troublesome, and some other western-assisted campuses have found difficulties attracting qualified students.

But KAUST is a creation of a different order. Never has so much money been available, never have the announced goals been so high, and never have so many major universities agreed to help a fledgling effort.

 
Jean-Claude Latombe, a professor of computational science at Stanford University, said King Abdullah University will attract better graduate students, because they "know they will have an ongoing relationship with Stanford."
(Photo by Rod Searcey for CrossTalk)
 
Sheldon Rothblatt, a former Berkeley historian who has studied the development of universities, said the Saudi strategy represents something new. "I've never heard of anything like it," he said. "New university ventures usually do not have enormous resources. Can the Saudis succeed? Possibly, yes. It depends on how smart they are, whether the money goes to the right purposes."

And what, exactly, is KAUST getting for its enormous expenditures on partnerships with the likes of Berkeley and Stanford? Computational science professor Jean-Claude Latombe at Stanford, who was involved in the negotiations with KAUST, said the Saudi campus will get the benefit of Stanford's accumulated expertise in creating its own computational research.

But there's something more, Latombe said. The Saudis will also be getting the prestige of one of the greatest computer science departments in the world, a place regarded by many as the very birthplace of Silicon Valley. "Candidly, many graduate students will apply to KAUST because of the connection with Stanford," he said. "KAUST will get better students, and the students know they will have an ongoing relationship with Stanford."

Asked if Stanford's honored name had been purchased with KAUST's millions, Latombe shrugged. "If the Saudis did not do it this way, they would fail. These collaborations are essential to building a great university. If KAUST had decided to spend its money merely on itself, on its campus and its research facilities, it would never work."

Certainly, ambitions at KAUST have been writ large from the very beginning. With its first announcement in 2007, the Saudis declared that KAUST would be a "world-class" university. The plan for the campus itself, huge at 17 square miles, would provide some of the most advanced research facilities in the world, as well as residential subdivisions, sports clubs and shopping centers for faculty and students.

Still, the most remarkable aspect of KAUST's announcement was the goals. Universities with "world-class" attached to their names are virtually non-existent in the Muslim-speaking world, and no university in Saudi Arabia comes close. Many explanations have been offered to explain the decline of higher education in the Muslim world, but the fact remains that most Islamic universities are widely regarded as intellectual backwaters, particularly in the areas of science and technology.

A 2003 report by the United Nations recited a litany of academic failures in Muslim countries and referred to "an almost total absence of advanced research" in the Arab region. And in 2007, Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physics professor at Quaid-i-Azam University in Pakistan, wrote a startling article in Physics Today describing the intellectual environment of his own university: "Here…films, drama and music are frowned on, and sometimes even physical attacks by student vigilantes who believe that such pursuits violate Islamic norms take place. The campus has three mosques with a fourth one planned, but no bookstore," he wrote.

Scientific research, Hoodbhoy continued, constantly clashed on his campus with the revealed truth of religion. "In those circumstances, scientific research becomes, at best, a kind of cataloging or 'butterfly-collecting' activity."

So the announcement that KAUST would not only circumvent such handicaps but rise to the top rank of research institutions raised more than a few questions. The wonderment only increased when officials later became more specific, predicting KAUST would reach the top 20 of science and technology universities worldwide within ten years.

The simple fact is that no fledgling university has ever accomplished such a goal. According to Berkeley historian Rothblatt, Berkeley took about 40 years to be recognized as a leading institution, and Stanford took about 60.

For a new university, attracting top scholars and developing intellectual momentum simply takes time. And one particular obstacle for any new institution, especially a science institution, is breaking into the clubby network of scholars that spans the campuses of leading universities. Within the network, researchers trade ideas, pursue joint projects, share publication credit, suggest faculty hires, and generally promote the network's standing. You're either in the network or you're out. And if you're out, your institution will never be regarded as a leader.

 
At first, there was "heated debate" in the Stanford University computer science department about the Saudi offer, "but eventually a consensus evolved," said Bill Dally, the department chairman. "We finally decided the gamble was worth it."
(Photo by Rod Searcey for CrossTalk)
 
In corralling the likes of Berkeley, Stanford and Cambridge into collaborations, the Saudis were attempting to accelerate the process and create a more-or-less instant network. The resulting partnerships may prove lasting, or they may not. But the attempt itself is remarkable for its subtle understanding of how high-level science research proceeds. And it is all the more remarkable because, initially, the Saudis in charge of KAUST knew virtually nothing about creating a university.

The original organizers of the university, in fact, were not university people at all. They were oil people. When King Abdullah decided to establish KAUST in 2006, he pointedly bypassed his own Ministry of Education and instead gave the task to Aramco, the country's giant oil company.

The King called together a small group of Aramco executives and told them he wanted the new institution to operate along the lines of the company's well-known petroleum communities, where expatriate employees live in walled compounds that are separated from Saudi society and operate mostly under western, rather than Saudi, rules. Other than that, the King's instructions were simple: He wanted a university of the top caliber that would operate in intellectual freedom, he wanted it soon, and he would pay for everything out of his own personal accounts. Everything else was left to the Aramco executives.

Ahmad Al-Khowaiter, one of the Aramco executives, said in a telephone interview from Jeddah that the task was so daunting that the group initially operated in a bit of denial. "We told ourselves that this was a giant construction project, just like many others we had done. So we looked around and said, 'OK, where are the sponsors who can tell us what to build? Then we realized there were no sponsors, that we had to figure it out for ourselves."

 
"The department deans are selling the university by the board foot, and resistance is mostly futile," said William Drummond, a UC Berkeley journalism professor who was chairman of the faculty Academic Senate when the Saudi proposal was considered.
(Photo by Rod Searcey for CrossTalk)
 
Scrambling around, the group hit upon two American consulting groups who could offer advice: the Stanford Research Institute and a lesser-known firm in Washington, D.C., the Washington Advisory Group. Small but high-toned, the Washington Advisory Group roster includes Frank Press, former Cornell University President Frank Rhodes, and others of similar stature. Both groups began funneling ideas to the Saudis.

Within a month the basic concepts of the university had emerged. KAUST would admit graduate students only, and would dispense with traditional departments, organizing itself instead around interdisciplinary research centers. The campus would offer the highest quality laboratories and scientific equipment available. It would operate under bylaws establishing western-style intellectual freedom, and would be governed by an independent, international board of trustees.

The Saudis loved the plan and almost immediately embarked on a worldwide tour of universities to announce the upcoming birth of KAUST and, under Press's urging, to inquire diplomatically about collaborations with their new venture. The response was polite rejection.

"Let's say there was a lot of skepticism," said Al-Khowaiter. "The message was, 'Great concept, good luck.' Not many universities wanted to take a risk on us at that point. I think there was this psychological barrier about our region and its stereotype."

In Washington, Press and his colleagues reconnoitered. "They (the Saudis) had high aspirations, and they absolutely needed the help of other leading universities," said Press in a telephone interview from Washington. "It's not something anyone can do alone. So we hatched the idea for some programs that could be offered to other universities."

Ultimately, those programs amounted to the great stroke that got KAUST into the network. The programs bear little resemblance to typical university collaborations and, in fact, were drawn from two non-university models: the National Science Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Both of these organizations make grants for research but do not conduct research themselves. And that is exactly what KAUST offered to other universities. It would fund research at their campuses in return for the goodwill of the university, some advice and counsel from the faculty and, of course, a public announcement of the partnership.

One program known as "Global Research Partnership Centers," for example, makes grants ranging from $5 million to $25 million to establish research centers at other campuses. Another, the "Academic Excellence Alliance," offers roughly $25 million for advice on curricula and hiring in addition to research. Yet another program funds individual scientific research projects with grants of $10 million each.

A key for KAUST was the provision that KAUST-funded scientists would have regular contact with their benefactors. They would visit the Saudi campus, lead seminars, and eventually, perhaps, pursue joint projects with members of the KAUST faculty.

Such a model, of course, could be pursued only by a new university of untold wealth. The first round of collaborations and grants was funded at $1 billion, half of which has now been allocated. And thus far it has succeeded beyond expectations. Press made initial contacts with 12 or 13 universities, and virtually all of them agreed to participate. Some, such as Stanford, are taking part in several collaborations.

For the participating universities, the partnerships with KAUST represent some obvious risks. First and foremost they are gambling that their association with the new university will not end in embarrassment, and that KAUST's commitments to intellectual freedom and non-discrimination will not prove to be temporary.

Indeed, at one level the trust extended to KAUST seems remarkable, given Saudi Arabia's troubled history of political and intellectual repression. Only last month did the authorities release from prison a professor at King Saud University, Matrook Al-Faleh, who had spoken out against the holding of political prisoners in his country. Faleh had remained behind bars for eight months without charge or trial.

Such events are not rare in Saudi Arabia. And the State Department's advisory on travel to Saudi Arabia contains this paragraph: "Saudi authorities do not permit criticism of Islam or the royal family. The government prohibits the public practice of religions other than Islam. Non-Muslims suspected of violating these restrictions have been jailed. Homosexual activity is considered to be a criminal offense and those convicted may be sentenced to lashing, prison or death."

Even so, most opposition to the KAUST partnerships has been muted on American campuses. When the deal between KAUST and Berkeley's mechanical engineering department was submitted to the Academic Senate and to the Task Force on University-Industry Partnerships, concerns were ritually expressed by both groups, and then the contract was given the green light.

William Drummond, journalism professor at Berkeley and chairman of the Academic Senate when the proposal was considered, says the campus has grown jaded by an ever-expanding series of collaborations with industry and outside entities such as KAUST.

Over the last decade Berkeley's political pot was stirred first by a $25 million research collaboration with drug-giant Novartis and then by a $350 million collaboration with British Petroleum.

"Everyone is exhausted with these deals and the wrangling over them," said Drummond. "The department deans are selling the university by the board foot, and resistance is mostly futile. The only motive of the deans is to mollify the critics and get on with it."

Asked if he would have preferred a rejection of the KAUST package, Drummond shrugged, as if accepting the inevitable. "The truth is, we need the money. Sometimes I wonder if the legislature is going to keep the lights on. We have buildings on campus that are so shabby and neglected that professors refuse to use the bathrooms. Instead they walk over to the new buildings that were probably put up with money from a big collaboration."

Ironically, the only meaningful resistance to the KAUST venture showed up not among Berkeley's famous political activists but in its civil engineering department. Even while the mechanical engineering department was promoting its deal in the Academic Senate, its brother department was quietly saying no to a similar deal with the Saudis.

Armen Der Kiureghian, vice chairman of the department, said the opposition amongst the civil engineering faculty grew out of the "bubble concept" on which KAUST will be based. Even assuming that conditions of intellectual freedom and non-discrimination remain steadfast inside the bubble, he said, the repressive rules outside will pose a continuing hindrance.

 
"The reason we took the chance is that it represents an opportunity to have a positive impact on that part of the world," said Albert Pisano, chairman of the UC Berkeley mechanical engineering department. "And we will also learn and grow from the experience."
(Photo by Rod Searcey for CrossTalk)
 
"Top universities exist in a cultural mix with their societies," he explained. "Ideas move back and forth, and they become bound together. In a bubble, that doesn't happen, and you suffocate the growth of the university." Pervez Hoodbhoy, the Pakistani physicist, suggested another risk that might arise from the bubble. In an e-mail, he welcomed the experiment at KAUST but worried of a backlash when Saudis become aware of the liberalized rules inside the university.

"My fear is the public media," he wrote. "If it gains more freedom in Saudi Arabia—as it has in Pakistan—it could well bring out how different life inside and outside the bubble actually is. That could make it all unravel."

Chancellor Birgeneau acknowledged these risks and said he worried that even a single incident of repression could bring down the curtain on the partnership. "Let's say a gay female faculty member goes to KAUST and gets banned. We would have a very big problem," he said.

The department heads at Berkeley and Stanford who have bought into the deals say they are aware that the collaborations could go sour. Those possibilities were debated at length within the departments, according to them, but other arguments prevailed.

"I'll be blunt," said Albert Pisano, chairman of Berkeley's mechanical engineering department. "You never know how something like this will work out. The reason we took the chance is that it represents an opportunity to have a positive impact on that part of the world. And we will also learn and grow from the experience. That's our hope."

At Stanford, Bill Dally, chairman of the computer science department, said the KAUST deal was initially greeted with "heated debate" inside the department. "But eventually a consensus evolved," he said. "We were repeatedly impressed by the KAUST representatives. They were bright, credible, and they had anticipated most of the failure modes that were brought up. We finally decided the gamble was worth it."

At KAUST itself, progress proceeds at a frenetic pace. The first president, Choon Fong Shih, former president of the National University of Singapore, assumed his post in December. Thousands of workers arrive at the construction site each day to complete the campus by September. Yet another development, a high-tech industrial city, is being built nearby. KAUST officials say there has been no slowdown as a result of the worldwide economic crisis or collapse of oil prices.

As for recruiting, both American and KAUST officials say it has gone better than expected. Fawwaz Ulaby, former vice president for research at the University of Michigan, who is KAUST's new provost, says that about 50 of the 100 faculty positions have been filled, with six of the new spots being taken by women.

"We think the quality of the faculty is very high," Ulaby said in a telephone interview. "People will ask why, in Saudi Arabia, we can attract people of this caliber, and I tell them it's simple. Anywhere else, researchers must spend 50 percent to 70 percent of their time chasing money to sustain their research. And many are tired of it. At KAUST they will be provided stable funding from the beginning, they will have access to more funding on a competitive basis, and they will have the best-equipped campus in the world to conduct their research. It's a huge incentive."

Ulaby cited the expected arrival on the campus of one of the world's most powerful supercomputers, being assembled by IBM, as one indication of the technical quality of the campus. Other research tools include nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers-multi-million-dollar machines used to study the structure of molecules. "In the entire state of Michigan we had one such machine that had to be shared by everyone," Ulaby said. "At KAUST we will have six."

The first two classes of graduate students have also been selected. About half come from the Middle East and one-fourth each from Asia and Europe/North America. Roughly 25 percent of the group is female, and students come from 67 different countries.

Much will be riding on the new faculty and students. Supporters say KAUST could have a positive impact on the entire region, or at least other universities in the region, if it evolves into the leading institution that the founders intend. But first the faculty and researchers must show that they can compete with the best from other universities.

That will place special pressures on the early arrivals, and KAUST officials predict the researchers will find themselves in an old-fashioned, western-style race to publish research results in respected science journals.

Asked for the criteria he will use to judge the success of KAUST, Aramco's Al-Khowaiter answered quickly. "Within five years," he said, "I want to see KAUST research on the cover of Nature."


Robert A. Jones is a former reporter and columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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National CrossTalk March 2009

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