Asia Universities Summit: KAUST head heralds 'amazing progress'

Jean-Lou Chameau says new institution has established 'remarkable' research record since opening and has not been influenced by Saudi Arabian cultural issues 

June 22, 2016
Jean-Lou Chameau president of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)

Saudi Arabia’s flagship graduate research university has shown “amazing” progress on research in its seven years, while religious and cultural issues in the kingdom have “no influence” on campus, according to the institution’s head.

Jean-Lou Chameau, former president of Caltech and now president of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) – modelled on the California institution – delivered a keynote address at the Times Higher Education Asia Universities Summit.

Questions from the audience asked Professor Chameau whether internationally KAUST draws on talent from the Arab world, and whether Saudi Arabia’s religious and cultural issues affect its operation.

The summit, held at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), focused on the theme of how universities nurture creativity and innovation.

Professor Chameau said: “As a young university, KAUST has seen remarkable progress over the course of only a few years.”

KAUST has 900 students (all graduate students) and 150 faculty, along with 700 postdocs and research scientists. When it reaches maturity in “three or four years” it will have 1,600 students, he added. 

“We are small by design…we were modelled after Caltech – in size, in organisation, in long-term expectations,” Professor Chameau said.

He added that it had a “remarkable record in publications and citations after only a few years”, singling out materials science and energy as areas where it would “compare very well with some of the very best universities in the world”.

This was “quite amazing if you think that less than seven years ago those buildings were built”, he said.

He said that the examples of newer institutions such as KAUST and HKUST, marking its 25th anniversary, “highlight how much can be achieved in just a short window when you have the right ingredients”.

Professor Chameau also argued of the world of higher education: “I believe we talk too much about outputs, about KPIs, in part because we are driven by competition, marketing and possibly rankings. Should we instead talk more about curiosity, excellence, integrity, merit, passion?”

KAUST focuses on “a few things we do very well”, notably research in food, water, energy and the environment, he added. 

Professor Chameau said that he looks for academics who “feel strongly about these matters”, and the focus on a small number of areas means staff work together across different disciplines.

He continued: “Attracting and investing in the right people for your institution is more than important – it defines the great universities.”

And he added: “As a president now of a new start-up research university, as a past president of a very well established one…I keep every day asking one question: how to drive excellence through talent, culture and environment.”

Answering an audience question on whether KAUST draws “on a talent pool from the Arab world, in particular Saudi Arabia”, given it is international by design, Professor Chameau said that 35 per cent of students were Saudis. The student body is “one of the most diverse I know”, he added. 

Professor Chameau was also asked, in a question from the audience, whether “the culture, the religion” and gender segregation in Saudi Arabia “affect the institution’s operation”.

Having said that 38 per cent of students are female in a previous answer, he replied that KAUST had been “designed as a private university, using the US model, which means if you come to our campus, it wouldn’t be very different from being in Pasadena [home to Caltech] or being on a university campus in the US. All the things you describe have no influence…It was by design an environment which is totally international.”­­­­​

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