Thursday, July 05, 2007

$10 Billion endowment for a university in Saudi Arabia

A graduate university in Saudi Arabia has been launched with a $10 billion endowment! This is the 6th largest endowment in the world - well above such universities as MIT, Columbia, Cornell, etc. (check out the list here). According to Science (June 8):
The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2009, will have a $10 billion endowment--the sixth largest in the world. Although the university won't open for more than 2 years, officials said this week that they will prime the pump by awarding some 500 undergraduate scholarships this year and next to students around the world, with the understanding that the recipients will form KAUST's inaugural classes. They are also launching a $100-million-a-year global research partnership program to fund work by scientists who agree to become affiliated with the new university.
But how free will it be from government interference and how much critical thinking will be allowed on campus? At least on the face of it, they are trying to keep it outside government's influence (but under Aramco??):
The project, which includes constructing a surrounding city of 15,000, was given to Saudi Aramco, the government-owned oil giant, and is being overseen by the Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources. But once completed, the university will be financially and administratively independent of the Saudi government, says Al-Nasr, who's on leave from his post as vice president for engineering at Saudi Aramco.

"KAUST will have its own governing board of trustees as well as its own endowment," he explains. Government officials also decided to place it outside the purview of the ministry of higher education. "The kingdom is in the midst of reassessing its entire system of higher education," Al-Nasr explains. "So it would not make sense to try to build KAUST within the existing bureaucracy."

Ok...we'll have to wait and see how these things shape up.

The university will be organized around multidisciplinary research institutes. The initial ones will encompass energy and the environment, biosciences and engineering, materials science and engineering, and applied mathematics and computational science. Accordingly, the first round of global partnerships will lure faculty members by tackling challenges such as desalination, carbon capture and hydrogen-rich fuels, and computational linguistics.

But with $10 billion endowment, I would hope that they go beyond these applied fields. Yes, engineers are necessary, but for substantive development, you also have to spend money on pure science research (yes, on astronomy too). I know this is a science and technology university, but real change will only come if universities in Saudi Arabia start including humanities and social sciences and provide an intellectual environment where all kinds of ideas can be openly discussed.

For the time being, lets hope KAUST has a positive impact on Saudi education. You can check out its website here. And if nothing else it will have a spectacular setting:

The campus site is in a unique coastal location near the fishing village of Thuwal, 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Jiddah. The total area is more than 36 million square meters, including a unique coral-reef ecosystem that will be preserved by the University as a marine sanctuary, and will be a focus for research.