Saudi university takes US partners

March 13, 2008

Faculty raise concerns about limits on academic freedom and 'selling prestige'. John Gill reports

Three US universities have signed deals to help a new Saudi Arabian institution design a curriculum and hire faculty.

The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, a $10 billion (£5.5 billion) research institution due to open next year, has announced arrangements with Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Texas at Austin.

Stanford and Berkeley will each receive $10 million over five years, plus another $15 million to fund collaborative research. Berkeley will assist in the recruitment of faculty members and help to design a mechanical engineering curriculum, while Stanford will focus on applied mathematics and computational science.

The University of Texas at Austin has also signed a deal worth $ million over five years to help establish a programme in computational earth sciences and engineering. Announcements concerning other US institutions were expected as Times Higher Education went to press.

However, some academics are concerned about potential limits on academic freedom in Saudi Arabia, the possibility of discrimination against women and certain religious groups, and the danger that the Saudi institution might be seen to be "buying" prestige from US universities.

The Contra Costa Times, a Californian local newspaper, quoted a Berkeley academic as saying that the arrangement had raised "huge" concerns among faculty members, while an engineering professor told the San Francisco Chronicle that Berkeley was "selling its prestige".

"It is like we are selling our name for the new university to be able to say, 'we have Berkeley-class faculty'," he said. "A public university has no business saying that."

Albert P. Pisano, chairman of Berkeley's mechanical engineering department, acknowledged that concerns had been raised about discrimination in Saudi Arabia, but insisted: "We are going to have an agreement in which any kind of discrimination will be forbidden. This new university will have no discrimination at all."

He also suggested that, as a haven of freedom and equal opportunity, the university would make inroads for the rest of the country. "You get it started on a small scale and get it going from there," he told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Ahmad O. Al-Khowaiter, the Saudi institution's interim provost, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that the concerns were "uninformed criticisms". He said: "The King Abdullah University was established on the highest standards of non-discrimination."

The research collaboration is expected to focus on areas that are mutually beneficial for the Middle East and California. This may include the development of alternative energy sources and improvements to methods of extracting drinking water from seas and oceans.

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