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From Bay Area to Red Sea

From Bay Area to Red Sea
March 5, 2008

Two prominent California universities announced lucrative five-year contracts Tuesday to recruit faculty for and undertake collaborative research with an as-yet unopened Saudi Arabian university.

The University of California at Berkeley is set to receive $28 million and Stanford University $25 million under the five-year agreements with King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a graduate research university on the Red Sea expected to open in fall 2009 with a multi-billion dollar endowment.

The agreements involving Berkeley’s mechanical engineering and Stanford’s computer science and engineering departments are two of five such announcements of international collaborations involving KAUST faculty recruitment expected in the coming weeks. Already, the planned Saudi university has announced collaborations with a number of international institutions including the American University in Cairo, Indian Institute of Technology, Institut Français du Pétrole, National University of Singapore, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud broke ground for the university in October.

Officials at Berkeley and Stanford stress that unlike in Saudi Arabia’s higher education system more generally -- where, for instance, strict gender segregation is enforced -- KAUST will operate as a Western-style institution. In a February 14 letter to the Task Force on Industry-University Relations, Albert P. Pisano, professor and chair of the mechanical engineering department at Berkeley, cited KAUST’s by-laws regarding nondiscrimination: “The admission of students, the appointment, promotion and retention of faculty and staff, and all of the educational, administrative and other activities of the university shall be conducted without regard to race, color, religion or gender. Discrimination, on any such basis, is strictly forbidden.”

KAUST's bylaws also state, Pisano wrote, that it “shall have complete freedom in governing and managing its colleges…. In this regard, the university shall be exempt from those regulations, policies and procedures applicable to other universities in the Kingdom and their respective faculty members. Within the university, the teaching staff shall have the academic and cultural freedom available in international universities.” (Officials at KAUST were unavailable for comment Tuesday afternoon, according to a U.S.-based public relations contact.)

“It’s in large part [because] we see this enterprise as being a very progressive enterprise that there’s been a lot of faculty interest in getting involved with this,” said Peter Glynn, a professor and director of the Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering at Stanford. "We believe that by being involved in this activity we can have a positive impact on KAUST, and that in turn can have a positive impact on the region."

Stanford has agreed to help select KAUST's first 10 faculty members in applied mathematics and computer science and create a curriculum in the two disciplines. Other elements of the agreement include faculty exchange (including visiting fellowships for KAUST faculty at Stanford and one-week courses at KAUST taught by a handful of Stanford faculty), and evaluation of the applied mathematics and computational science programs in 2010 and 2012.

Of the $5 million KAUST will pay Stanford per year, $2 million will go toward research at Stanford done in collaboration with new KAUST faculty, and $1 million for collaborative projects based in Saudi Arabia. Two million are unrestricted dollars, to be allocated, a spokesman said, to computer science and the computational and mathematical engineering institute.

The Berkeley deal, outlined in a contract posted online, is similar, with $2 million per year going toward collaborative mechanical engineering research based in California, and $1 million more for KAUST-based collaborative initiatives. “The collaborative research projects have been chosen to be of interest and importance not only to Saudi Arabia, but to people in the Middle East and people in California. So these research projects that we’re discussing, I anticipate projects like improved methods for obtaining drinking water from ocean water.… We’re looking at new lightweight composite materials for vehicles and construction. Certainly that is valuable for California and Saudi Arabia,” said Pisano, the mechanical engineering chair.

Criticism of colleges endeavoring to build campuses or collaborative agreements in the oil-rich Gulf typically include accusations of undue profit motives (a San Francisco Chronicle article Tuesday cited opponents' fears that Berkeley was “selling its prestige”), and concerns about whether American standards of academic freedom and nondiscrimination will apply in areas where colleges legally practice discrimination against women, gay people and Jews. "We expect the diversity principles to be central, to be honored, in every arrangement the university makes," said Barrie Thorne, chair of the Gender and Women's Studies Department at Berkeley and a professor of sociology. “If they aren’t being honored, they could well expect protest, but nothing to protest yet."

A report from Berkeley's Academic Senate addresses a number of questions along those lines posed by the Senate Task Force on University-Industry Partnerships. Pisano provided written answers, for instance, to questions on the commitment to coeducation at KAUST and the applicability of Saudi laws restricting sexual orientation. In Saudi Arabia, sodomy is punishable by death. In October, two men convicted of it were sentenced to 7,000 lashes each, according to Australia's Herald Sun. Berkeley's Academic Senate report, however, states that “Saudi laws related to sexual orientation and practice will not be applied at KAUST."

Pisano also answered questions on academic freedom and censorship, and protection of e-mail and Internet activity from state scrutiny. (KAUST will have its own independent security and information technology systems, according to the report.)

In considering the responses and information Pisano provided, the task force recommended approval of the proposal. “We also recommend that the campus closely monitor the implementation of this collaboration and have ongoing oversight of our continuing concern about equal opportunity. We were impressed by KAUST’s commitment to maintain a campus culture that provides equal educational access to men and women, and which will protect all members of that community from discrimination or harassment based on religion, political affiliation, and sexual orientation. Of course, for the collaboration to be appropriate, these commitments must be realized.”

In an interview, Pisano noted the 30-day termination clause written into the contract -- an out, so to speak, if KAUST's stated ideals aren't realized.

In Stanford’s case, the Faculty Senate has not yet considered the Saudi collaboration, the chair of the body wrote in an e-mail. But in its press release, Stanford openly acknowledges some of the concerns. It notes that faculty holding Israeli passports would have difficulty entering Saudi Arabia (but adds that little traveling is needed and that, if necessary, short courses can be offered via distance learning).

And, as for women, the press release states: “While women within the KAUST compound will have the opportunity to work and live their lives as they would in the West, once they leave the KAUST compound and residential area, they will be governed by current Saudi laws, which, for example, prohibit women from driving,” Stanford’s press release says.

“[Jean-Claude Latombe, a professor of engineering], however, pointed out that there are ‘very active women's rights’ groups in the country. ‘When I was in Saudi Arabia a month ago, I read in a Saudi newspaper in English that it will probably be hard to forbid women to drive for much longer,’ he said.”

 

 

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