UC Berkeley News


The campus of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology is still under construction in Saudi Arabia, but Berkeley is already engaged in helping it develop a curriculum and hire faculty.

Berkeley to partner with new Saudi university
Department of Mechanical Engineering to receive $28 million over five years for its role in establishing a counterpart in the desert kingdom. Assurances are offered regarding the rights of women and other participants

| 05 March 2008

UC Berkeley will receive $28 million in funding for the Department of Mechanical Engineering in exchange for helping to develop Saudi Arabia's first graduate-research university, it was announced this week.

The partnership with King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), currently under construction on the shores of the Red Sea and scheduled to open in fall 2009, calls for the Department of Mechanical Engineering to nominate the founding faculty of its counterpart department at the Saudi campus, collaborate in the design of its curriculum, and engage in joint research. It will also participate in thesis advising for Ph.D. candidates at KAUST and collaborate on the design and acquisition of research equipment and facilities. Berkeley faculty will also play a role in the ongoing evaluation of the KAUST program in mechanical engineering.

"I am excited and eager to proceed with this agreement," said Albert Pisano, chair of mechanical engineering. "Berkeley has a proud reputation for being concerned with the world at large, and this agreement enables our department to participate on the world stage to solve technical problems of interest not only to the Middle East region and to the state of California but to the people of the world."

Among the collaborative projects being planned at this early stage are research into seawater desalinization, the creation of strong, lightweight construction materials, and development of renewable-energy sources.

Construction of the new Saudi university's core campus, located at Thuwal, a coastal city some 60 miles north of Jeddah, is being funded by a $10 billion gift from its royal namesake, who has ruled the nation since 2005. The fledgling university solicited proposals for partnerships from a number of select universities and colleges worldwide beginning in 2007; among those accepted was the proposal from mechanical engineering at Berkeley. (Berkeley's involvement in what the Saudis term the Academic Excellence Alliance is being replicated by the participation of departments in other technical disciplines from several elite universities in the U.S. and United Kingdom.)

Following Berkeley's proposal submission, several faculty from mechanical engineering (including Pisano) traveled to Saudi Arabia in January; there they toured the construction site at Thuwal and met with KAUST officials to discuss what Berkeley's partnership would entail.

As planning proceeded, Pisano said, the department also surveyed internal opinion about the pros and cons of the proposed partnership agreement and the codification of numerous changes to the original agreement language proposed by KAUST.

"I was not blind to the negatives" raised by the proposal, said Pisano of the reactions of faculty members who proffered objections both to the terms of the proposed agreement and to Saudi Arabia's widely criticized laws and practices in such areas as gender equality, religious freedom, and human rights. "So I said, 'Let's hash out all the issues.'

"Between all the e-mail traffic, hallway conversations, and group meetings, we did a good job of internal vetting. As time has gone by, as people have thought more carefully about it, those who originally opposed the situation strongly have moderated and muted their opposition, so that when the final approval vote came, the proposal carried 34 to 2." (Though there are 45 ladder-rank faculty in the department, three abstained and six did not vote.)

Several changes in the language of the agreement stemmed from the internal debate within mechanical engineering, Pisano said. One significant change was to the language governing how the millions of dollars flowing to Berkeley from KAUST would be distributed. "Our department did a great job of setting things up," Pisano said, "so that grad students outside the KAUST agreement will get funding from the gift proceeds, and so there will be money available for recruiting women to the department." Other funding priorities include scholarships and fellowships, lab-equipment purchases, and curriculum development.

In addition to its approval by the mechanical engineering faculty, the partnership has been reviewed by the dean of the College of Engineering, the Office of the Chancellor, and the university's attorneys. The campus Academic Senate's Task Force on Industry-University Relations also reviewed the proposal and supported the eventual agreement. "Qualified support" was offered by the Senate Committee on the Status of Women and Ethnic Minorities (SWEM), which emphasized the need for "continued commitment to the practices of non-discriminatory hiring and admissions practices in all aspects of the recruitment of personnel to participate in these programs."

Assurances on rights and roles

“This is a huge testament to faculty self-governance at Berkeley — that the vetted issues were heard and the results of that vetting were inserted into the agreement. I’m proud of that agreement, and I stand behind it. It’s a mutually beneficial agreement that will fulfill the social mission that Berkeley assigns itself.”
-Albert Pisano, chair, Department
of Mechanical Engineering
The status of women in Saudi Arabia has been a focus of concern for all participants on the Berkeley side, Pisano and other campus officials freely acknowledge. Though the joint announcement of the partnership agreement was made on Tuesday, March 4, media stories reporting on it began circulating over the preceding weekend, focusing primarily on the question of how KAUST intends to treat members of ethnic, gender, or other groups that enjoy few or no rights in Saudi Arabia, which governs largely in accord with Islamic law. Women, Jews, Israeli citizens, and homosexuals are among the groups mentioned by those who have advocated caution in undertaking this agreement.

Over the past year or so, international press coverage of the new university's development has repeated official assurances that women faculty and students will be free to mingle with men, drive automobiles, and otherwise live in accordance with Western customs while on the campus or pursuing activities in the 20,000-acre new town being constructed adjacent to it. KAUST, In its own promotional materials, emphasizes its independence from the strictures that govern many areas of Saudi life, including higher education.

A joint KAUST/UC Berkeley press release announcing the new partnership asserts that KAUST will be "open to men and women from all cultures around the world, and governed by an independent, self-perpetuating Board of Trustees." In addition, Article 2 of the new university's bylaws appears to provide further assurance: "The admission of students, the appointment, promotion and retention of faculty and staff, and all of the educational, administrative and other activities of the University shall be conducted without regard to race, color, religion, or gender. Discrimination, on any such basis, is strictly forbidden." Finally, campus officials have stated flatly that the campus would not have entered into the agreement if it were not the case that women at KAUST will "receive the same education in the same manner as their male counterparts."

Pisano, for his part, assured the Senate task force that KAUST is "deeply committed to a fully Western-style co-ed institution" and that he had been "assured emphatically and repeatedly that KAUST classes will be truly co-ed," adding that he'd received similar assurances with regard to any potential discrimination against students or faculty on the basis of religion or sexual orientation. He noted at the same time that "one of the attractive features of the KAUST agrement is the ability of the Mechanical Engineering Department to participate in constructive engagement and help effect positive change."

Do these assurances constitute an iron-clad guarantee that women faculty (among others) will find life not just bearable but positive and enjoyable if they are chosen to participate in what Pisano calls "a wonderful mutual opportunity"? Ensuring that outcome is primarily KAUST's responsibility, but its agreement with Berkeley provides further safeguards, including faculty visits to the Saudi campus in 2010 and 2012 "to confirm this and other aspects of the KAUST environment for themselves."

Pisano said that, in acting as a "trusted adviser" to KAUST by vetting applicants for faculty posts on the new campus, "[the department will] recommend the best people, no matter what, and let the administrators there deal with that issue. We hope the list we give them will include some venturesome women. Now, if they go over there and hate it, then they'll leave. And that will be known to all; the entire process is quite public, so we'll know how things are going by the [retention] statistics."

Tacitly acknowledging that some people would have reservations about life in Saudi Arabia no matter what assurances are offered, Pisano added, "There are many ways to interact with KAUST; becoming a faculty member is only one. You can participate in technical meetings, or co-supervise students, for example. The vast majority of anticipated interactions - annual meetings, teleconferences, and so on - wouldn't require you to be physically on-site."

With recruitment of potential faculty already underway, and completion of the KAUST campus more than a year away, newly hired faculty will be hosted here, as visiting scholars, until the buildings that will house them at Thuwal are finished.

For more on the King Abdul University of Science and Technology, visit www.kaust.edu.sa. Berkeley's online NewsCenter (newscenter.berkeley.edu) includes links to the joint announcement of the new partnership and to the full text of Berkeley's agreement with KAUST.

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