Interview with Dr Tod Laursen, President of Khalifa University on the vision and story of Khalifa University. Before joining Khalifa University, Dr. Laursen served as Chair of Mechanical Engineering and Materials and as Senior Associate Dean for Education in the Pratt School of Engineering where he managed all undergraduate and graduate engineering programs at Duke University (USA).
What made you leave a successful university career in the United States to go to Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi? Tell us a bit about your story.
There was an obvious institutional advantage. Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research was a start-up university, and I felt it was an opportunity to become involved with a place that had a lot of potential and – crucially – the resources to realise that potential
Khalifa had the right kind of vision about the education it wanted to provide. The idea of being able to participate in building something new that would have a lasting, positive impact on a region was really very attractive. There was also a bit of interest in the Middle East on my part.
And that is exactly what an early career academic needs to boost their career. You mentioned Khalifa’s positive impact. What is seen as Khalifa University’s contribution to Abu Dhabi since its inception?
Before Khalifa University, there weren’t many high-calibre engineering programmes available to students in the UAE inside this country. The desire of the Board was to set up a sovereign institution – not merely an island campus or an outsourcing solution – but something that was intrinsically an intrinsically Abu Dhabi institution with internationally competitive standards. For me, that was a big selling point. We are not a huge university. The small size and the board’s commitment to excellence were both advantages. The ideal was quality and there was full support from the Board for this. First of all, this involved casting our nets around the world for subject expertise Students receive personalised attention from faculty, and faculty members are research-active.
Going back to your earlier question, I felt I could bring very relevant experience. I had worked at places, albeit more mature, that had the same goal: to build a quality, lasting Higher Education Institution. I was attracted by the model and the fact that there was a space for it right here in the Middle East, in Abu Dhabi. And we have achieved our goals. Our only competition for quality student recruitment is the government funding for UAE students to attend top schools in the United States or the United Kingdom. With local institutions, we’ve already successfully demonstrated that for people who really want to do science and engineering, this is the place to come.
Is Khalifa helping the Middle East improve its academic reputation and quality for local students? Is it competitive with the programs for UAE students to study abroad?
Yes, absolutely. For female students, especially, this is a fantastic opportunity and one they’ve never had before. This is starting to vary from family to family, but often, for these students specifically, travelling abroad just isn’t an option. Yet these are phenomenally talented kids. It is vital for them to have access to quality education here, and Khalifa is providing it. Our student body gender ratio is 50:50 – or maybe even more than 50% female now. That is pretty much unheard of for engineering schools in most parts of the world, let alone the Middle East!
Yes, one of Khalifa’s best achievements – among many. So what are the challenges you face in attracting high-calibre academics to work at Khalifa, if any?
A few. The challenges vary depending on where in the world we’re attracting them from. We have faculty from the United States, from Canada, from the UK, from Europe and increasingly from Asia, particularly Korea, Singapore, and China as well. So people really do come from all parts of the world, and that makes it interesting.
With the US and Canada, our biggest challenge is probably that people don’t always have a good deal of understanding about life in the UAE. I know this was true of me, to a certain extent, before I got to the Middle East. Many people have a mental picture of places like Saudi Arabia, where women can’t drive and sometimes cannot work or travel on their own and need to be dressed a certain way, and impose it on the UAE.
The UAE is quite different culturally, however. There are certainly some commonalities between Islamic cultures, but it is interesting how different neighbours can be too! More often than not, our challenge with academics is to get them over that threshold to begin to listen and say, ‘Maybe this is a place where I could operate culturally and where my family would be comfortable.’ For whatever reason, Europeans and people from the UK seem a little bit more tuned in to this. Once they see it, everyone gets it. But getting them to the point where they are willing to look at the opportunity is the challenge.
What are some of the benefits for people who do choose to work in the UAE and perhaps even stay on there?
The first is my own biggest reason – to be able to build a valuable institution and have a voice in shaping the academic landscape of a country and region.
Another is that our faculty get to work in an extremely multicultural environment. Our count is now well upwards of 200 nationalities in Abu Dhabi itself. Meeting people from cultures that you never would have otherwise can be very eye-opening. It expands your horizons – and that is something academics really value.
Another advantage is the phenomenal opportunity to travel. I am naturally a bit hesitant to over-play that as an employer. You don’t want to recruit people who primarily want to go on vacation all the time – but you cannot deny the advantage the ease of travel is for hard-working staff and faculty!
If you get out a map, you could make an argument that the Middle East is more central than any other region. There are direct flights from here to every continent other than Antarctica.
And as far as professional experience goes, you mentioned earlier it is a place to grow and be involved in the building up of a university, to make a mark on a region.
That’s right. If you ask people why they came here, most will say just what I did. They wanted the opportunity to build something. If you’re an assistant professor or you get a job after your post doc, most places are already established. The curriculum is decided and you’re expected to just get to it.
We find our faculty want the opportunity to shape things as junior academics, something they may not have had in more established universities. Khalifa is a good environment for go-getters. You’re not in a box. Now, it’s not for everyone. It depends on personality, and we see that in the recruitment process. But for folks who are well suited to this, it’s a hugely enjoyable opportunity.
Increasingly, the academic world is turning its sights on the emerging markets. Tell me a bit about your partnerships and faculty development – we know there is a lot of that going on at Khalifa University.
Faculty development is one of our big priorities. We are focused on developing institutional relationships. Not all of these partnerships look the same. There is research collaboration with the University of Bristol – a relationship we have cultivated from our inception. We get our graduate students involved in research teams and have faculty exchange programmes with Bristol. There is one with KAIST (Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) in South Korea which is primarily focused on nuclear engineering.
Faculty mobility and exchange is very significant in the Khalifa University culture. Our partnerships focus on valuable research collaboration and faculty mobility, as with Bristol and Georgia Tech. We look for opportunities for faculty to work together and publish. We try to avoid a top-down approach to driving faculty mobility and encourage resources for faculty to reach out to these opportunities independently to support their careers.
We have had partnerships with places like Georgia Tech that were broader – several of our department chairs and other appointments came from Georgia Tech. That agreement has morphed now into student mobility programmes and collaborative research. We really look for a few specific interests with partner institutions. We are looking for ways to promote student visits to Khalifa University for a semester-abroad experience. We are able to waive all of the tuition and local expenses associated with that, and we’ve had students come here from Georgia Tech, Olin College in Massachusetts, etc. for just the cost of airfare and nominal local expenses.
What are your criteria for attracting international students and faculty?
Our recruitment and partnerships are not based on region so much as on feasibility for the individuals involved. Obviously, we teach entirely in English so both students and faculty must be comfortable studying and – more demandingly – teaching a technical subject in English. Another logistical issue is that the academic semesters roughly align with the semesters in the United States. A lot of the limitations are just practical.
Are there vacancies right now for our candidates and network to consider?
There are also several academic administration positions that we are interested in filling, things like Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning and a Senior Director for Institutional Research and Planning.Yes, as a matter of fact. The university is in the process of building a second college, so we’re going to be looking for someone to lead it. We’ve got senior positions, including department chairs. We offer eight undergrad engineering majors, six of which are fully built out. They may have some needs around the edges, but they have gone through international accreditation, so they’re up and running. But there are a couple of departments that are still to be completely built, including one in chemical engineering that we’re recruiting to fill out.
There are also several academic administration positions that we are interested in filling, things like Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning and a Senior Director for Institutional Research and Planning.
We are also developing a whole range of science programmes, including an applied maths and statistics undergrad program that we’ve opened already, with chemistry, physics, biology and more coming in future years. We will need a dean who is willing to play a strong role in shaping these programmes and the college. We need a team of game-changers who are willing to lead and learn an exciting new development in academia in the Middle East.
Global Academy Jobs believes you could be part of this team and make your mark in the growth of a nation’s intellectual capital. Khalifa has many roles to be filled in the next few months. Watch this space. While you are waiting why not sign up and become a GAJobs global candidate.
Subiksha Krishniah-Davies interviewed Dr Tod Laursen, President of Khalifa University. Contact her to find out more about how we work with Khalifa University and other institutions in the region.