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Interview

Dr. Tod A. Laursen – President, Khalifa University, UAE

Dr. Tod A. Laursen, President of Khalifa University, discusses the recent merger between the University, the Petroleum Institute (PI) as well as the Masdar Institute, and how this will benefit the overall research environment in the country. He also expands on his goals and ambitions for Khalifa University in the future.

How has the recent merger between Khalifa University, the Petroleum Institute (PI) and the Masdar Institute progressed?

“Universities are no different than any other type of organization in terms of getting buy-in from the people who are going to be involved in the merger, and it is pivotal to involve them in the decision-making process going forward.”

This has been a very exciting time, although obviously it has been a lot of work. When you go through something like this there is a phase that is actually pretty silent, and very few people are involved, after which the processes becomes much more public. One of our big challenges now is that we have done a lot of work recently at leadership levels over the last year. Universities are no different than any other type of organization in terms of getting buy-in from the people who are going to be involved in the merger, and it is pivotal to involve them in the decision-making process going forward.

The three institutions coming together I do believe presents the opportunity to do substantially more than the sum of the three would have done on their own. From this perspective, the move that we are making makes a lot of sense, and everyone can see this potential. However, all of this being said, there is a familiarization process that has to go on if you are going to reach the potential. One of the tenets that we have in accomplishing the merger is that we are going to have one faculty, not three. We want the members of all three campuses to feel as part of one institution, one faculty. To accomplish this, all of our faculty needs to familiarize themselves with each other, their teaching styles and their programs. We are entering the phase now where a lot of the big picture decisions have been made and agreed to in principal, for example we have a board in place, and we will be engaging this board directly moving forward. In terms of making sure that the University achieves its potential, it is about building a broader community and getting people engaged with each other.

Have you encountered any challenges in terms of promoting buy-in among the students and staff?

There have been a few. In any of the three institutions, Khalifa University, PI or Masdar Institute, if you are a local employee, you have really put your heart into building that institution up over the last decade or more. For expats like myself, people have done career changing things to come to this region and work at these organizations and people want to feel that their work on building up the institution will not go to waste.

An advantage in this, compared to many mergers, is that the three institutions were built to a certain extent with the goal of them being complementary. So we do not expect a large amount of redundancy in activities and it is more a matter now of optimally allocating human and physical resources to meet a broader mission.

Each of the organizations was very unique. What are the benefits of joining them under one roof?

First of all, this is going to be a research institution, which was true of all three entities before as well, and is something that we want to further intensify. One of the things about being a research institution is that we have global aspirations, and this is something that our new board has been very clear about. We have already been leading within the UAE and the region, and now we want to go global, and be a top 50 institution globally.

If you want to do that in the science and technology world, one of the realities is that you have to attract top quality professors as well as top quality students. One of the things that attracts both is top quality equipment and infrastructure to work with, and this is not cheap. Just to take a couple of examples, you have to have top of the line vapor deposition equipment if you are talking about thin film deposition, and some of the most expensive 3D printing technologies are required for additive manufacturing. A lot of this high end stuff is required to be a technological leader, and you need to have a critical mass of usage and applications to be able to justify such expenditures. This process will be easier after the merger as we will have reached that required critical mass in many more areas than before.

What do you identify as being some of the key differentiating qualities that make Khalifa University stand out as an internationally recognized research institution?

Emerging institutions do have some advantages, and there is a certain amount of inertia when one looks at even very high quality established institutions. Sometimes this can manifest itself in resistance to change. You can see things on the curricular level, that you know as an educator should move. However, faculties can become entrenched, just like any other type of institution. One of the things that we have seen here at Khalifa is the opportunity to try things a little bit of a different way. There is a freshness to the approach that we are taking.

The level of student support that we have gotten historically from all three universities has been quite high. If you are a faculty member at most institutions worldwide, you spend much of your time figuring out how to fund your students rather than doing science. You need to have a faculty that can generate resources to support students. Here at Khalifa, the government’s generosity has allowed us to worry about having high standards and attracting the highest caliber of students.

This is one of the things that is very exciting. We are an example of what can be done, if you have the support of the government, and you are able to attract people who are creative and look to do things out of the box. If you look at the next generation, the real advances in higher education are going to be made in emerging markets.

Recently Khalifa University was ranked 48th the Times Higher Education poll within the BRICS, impressive in 10 years! One of the keys to this success has obviously been government support. What role do you think that Khalifa University plays in the government’s long-term vision?

Human capital development is key to accomplishing this goal, offering programs in sectors and disciplines that have been identified as growth targets for the government. We are a research university, and my hope for the UAE, over time, would be that we end up with a mix of both teaching and research institutions. I do not think that the right answer, in any market, is for every institution to be a research institution. There are going to be some students in some sectors that are going to be better served by being more practiced oriented and teaching oriented.

What we feel good about here at Khalifa University is that, by and large, knowledge creation happens at research institutions. If you do not have the capacity as a nation to create knowledge, you are by definition taking stuff developed elsewhere and making improvements, most of which are incremental, as opposed to paradigm changing evolutions.

The UAE has taken a different approach to this than Qatar has. Qatar has been much more aggressive in certain ways, for example take the Qatar Foundation. They set up a funding agency early, and they funded it very well, arguably maybe it was even funded beyond the capacity of their universities to support when it was first launched. The UAE’s approach has not attacked nation-wide competitive funding as aggressively as Qatar has, and I personally hope that this will change, as it is an important part of the formula. The UAE’s approach, with regards to its universities, has been more oriented towards laying a foundation for the future. They have taken pains to build institutions from the ground up, and now we are getting to the stage where universities within the UAE are showing that they are ready for more research investment to be made, and I hope that this will come.

Bringing things back to the Abu Dhabi 2030 plan, and the various development goals that there are, it is very important for us to be industry responsive and helpful in sectors that have been identified by the government as being of interest. We are industry facing as a university.

Khalifa University has programs across a wide variety of disciplines. How important of a role do petrochemicals, and more broadly speaking energy, play for the institution?

Obviously, this sector is hugely important. If you look at what was happening at the Petroleum Institute, even before the merger, there was a huge investment in what has become ADNOC Research and Innovation Center (ADRIC), which is a huge new facility. That gives you a very strong indication of the direction that both ADNOC and the PI were taking together in terms of a more systematic research presence in the country. One of the real opportunities that I see is that historically, when you look internationally at the MNCs that holds concessions, ADNOC has met a lot of its research needs by partnering with them, and partnering with institutions that are abroad. I do not believe that it is a secret, but one of the plans for PI was to bring more of this activity back into the UAE, and there is no reason that this cannot happen. The new Khalifa University will certainly continue on this path as well.

To take energy more broadly, collectively, Khalifa University was the partner that the nuclear industry had in the UAE, and most of the research done pertaining to the nuclear industry was conducted at Khalifa University. Thinking about differentiating factors, looking at universities around the world, how many have dedicated facilities and programs to nuclear and sustainable energy as well as petrochemicals? We are going to have major institutes active in all of these sectors, and we are going to have the capability to span the entire energy sector more than almost any university can do.

What is your strategy to foster the key partnerships that we have seen be integral to the institution’s success?

There are a few, and there are many dimensions to these partnerships. For us, we have not had a one size fits all to partnerships. For example, one of our early partnerships was with Georgia Tech, focused primarily on faculty secondment, when we were trying to get the college off the ground, and get some departments founded. We wanted an institution with knowhow and collaborative spirit, and this is what we found in Georgia Tech. Additionally, we have worked a lot with KAIST in South Korea for our nuclear program, which was largely a consequence of the UAE’s close relationship with South Korea. Due to this partnership we were able to build a nuclear program in probably about half of the time because of this partnership.

Is there interest to partner with private industry as well, and how will you go about attracting these partners?

Absolutely. What we really have in mind, and it is still early days, is thinking about how to best leverage our physical infrastructure in the country. We would like to put together some type of consortium arrangement, where we could work with a broader range of partners and collaborators. Obviously ADNOC will always continue to be a hugely important partner for the Petroleum Institute, but for this entity to not be fully under the ADNOC umbrella is really going to liberate it in a way.

Obviously, first of all you need some amount of focus. Trying to be everything to everyone is probably not going to be a winning strategy. I think that we will go through an analysis and have a discussion with stakeholders, and with the talent that we have in hand, to really figure out what the best success strategies will be, and where we are best positioned to succeed. For us, to start with, we will identify some early wins, some things that we know we can deliver and effectively and well.

In some ways, the R&D infrastructure here in the UAE is still in its infancy stages. How have you seen this progress over the years?

We have seen progress on this front recently. We are still not in a situation where we have a full blown federal construct in the UAE where we see the levels of funding that you do say in the USA. We are not where we need to be on this front. Despite this, some things have happened. For example, the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) had a hugely successful call, and they were able to identify 30 or 40 million for research excellence awards.

Both Masdar Institute and Khalifa University, about half of the research that we have is coming from external support as opposed to coming directly from the government. That is important as it shows you that people are able to get support for their work from different sources.

Looking forward, what are the key goals and ambitions that you have for Khalifa University?

One goal is to work to continue to broaden the spectrum of technical disciplines that are available here. The UAE has a very strong track record in engineering, yet not such a strong record in sciences. One of the things that we have started at Khalifa University, that I believe the recent merger will benefit, is working to try and build a more public awareness of the importance of sciences. One of the things that we need to do as a university is better position thought leaders in the future to attack some of the important problems that we are facing.

“You do not want to simply create job seekers; you want to create job creators. You cannot have a mentality where everyone assumes that they will work for the government or in the oil and gas industry.”

Additionally, something we have made good progress on is promoting entrepreneurship. You do not want to simply create job seekers; you want to create job creators. You cannot have a mentality where everyone assumes that they will work for the government or in the oil and gas industry. We are going to have to be very intentional about the type of education that we give students so that they develop the knowhow and self-confidence, along with the technical skills, to start thinking about starting new companies. That is what is going to create the new economy here in the UAE!

On a more personal note, what keeps you motivated every day?

What drew me to higher education in the first place really was the students. The advantage that we have in higher education is that we get to know our students, and we get to see them progress over time. What keeps me in the ballgame is seeing my students, and their progress over time, that is very gratifying.

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