Lecture Hop: Taking Saudi Education by Storm

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Riyadh Bureau Chief David Hu grabbed a seat in a surprisingly comfortable Mudd Room to hear from APAM Professor David Keyes about his sabbatical in Saudi Arabia.

The atmosphere in Applied Physics and Mathematics Professor David Keyes’s talk did not feel like that of a traditional lecture or formal presentation. There was free pizza, drinks, and a generally relaxed environment that felt more like you were hearing back from an old friend rather than attending a presentation by a Columbia professor. Which, if you know anything about Professor Keyes, is just the kind of setting he would want after being away from Morningside Heights for three months. 

Since August, Keyes has been on sabbatical leave in Saudi Arabia, serving as the inaugural chair for the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a brand new university in Saudi Arabia that has its eyes on being one of the leading technology education institutions in the world. Keyes’s presentation focused mainly on the founding of the school, its goals, and its impact on the Middle East and Saudi Arabia.

To better understand KAUST, it’s first necessary to learn a little recent Saudi Arabian history. King Abdullah has been in power since 2005 and has been a relatively progressive leader, aiming to reshape both his own country and the region in general. For this mission, it helps that the man has money. Lots of it. You know, from the whole “oil” thing. Combine this wealth with a median age in the 20s, and a scientific community that had previously been woefully underfunded, King Abdullah, as Keyes eloquently put it, wanted to give his people the “ultimate gift”—a university.  

Enter the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, a graduate school situated in a gated community right on the Red Sea. Keyes detailed the university’s three goals: “to be a leader in science and engineering research and development, to diversify the host economy, and to transform the host society through Western ideas.” With a $10 billion endowment from the King himself and over $1 billion dollars in cutting-edge “science toys,” the university wants to become one of the premier science institutions in the world, taking the best practices, people, and even curricula straight out of Western higher education.

In a region so entrenched in conservatism and Muslim culture, it may be startling to note just how Western KAUST is. For starters, the school is run independently, open to both men and women, and teaches all its courses in English. There is a “self-perpetuating Board of Trustees” that manages an endowment that would even lead Harvard to raise an eye, and said Board includes big shots such as the former President of Cornell and the current President of Princeton. The school has also adopted the traditional Western two-semester system with an MIT-like instructional winter break thrown in there. KAUST spent a significant amount of money hiring top professors from leading science and technology universities such as Stanford, UC Berkeley, and UT Austin to design the curricula for its 11 majors.  And in a branding move that could only be trumped by Apple, the whole Eastern side of campus is dubbed the “Innovation Center.” 

This is not to say that the Western nature of KAUST hasn’t turned some heads in the region; there’s a reason the university is gated and the King’s own bodyguards line the border. “Many Fatwa’s have been issued against the school, and al-Qaeda has decreed against it,” said Keyes. However, he doesn’t feel threatened in the region. He says, “Americans and Brits are highly respected there,” and anecdotally speaking to citizens, “many think [the university’s policies are] a good thing.”  

So what impact does this have on global politics and dynamics? Clearly, the university has already received reactions from around the Middle East, but its ultimate impact remains to be seen. KAUST has only been open for all of two months, and it currently only has 400 graduate students, well short of its eventual limit of 2000. As for Keyes, he’s got the majority of his sabbatical left. But even though he has been enjoying his time living right on the Red Sea, he proudly declares he is still American, and alluding to the fact that America’s scientific funding could still increase, he hopes that there is a reaction to KAUST “like the United States had to Sputnik.”


1 Comment

  1. ABM

    Please don't forget that the center of science, medicine and math was in the middle east. Many centuries ago, the Islamic world was leading these fields. The Arabic countries may be back again since we have been paying too much attention to the collapsible MBA.

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