Stanford to help new Saudi university in applied math, computer science

Stanford is joining a team of universities working to build a major science and technology university along a marshy peninsula on Saudi Arabia's western coast.

The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) will be an international, graduate-level research university, sponsored by Saudi Arabia's reigning monarch. The university, intended to be a showcase for modernization, broke ground last October with a lavish ceremony; it plans to open its doors to students in September 2009. The campus will start with an endowment in excess of $10 billion—one of the largest endowments in the world.

Stanford's main role will be to assist in the selection of an initial cohort of 10 faculty members in the fields of applied mathematics and computer science and to help create a curriculum in these disciplines. KAUST, however, will be responsible for the actual faculty recruitment.

"I have been one of the key persons to negotiate this agreement and I am very enthusiastic about it," said Jean-Claude Latombe, the Kumagai Professor in the School of Engineering. "I think KAUST is a visionary project by moderate people in Saudi Arabia. By helping these people, we have a chance to make a big impact in this country, and, since Saudi Arabia has become the most important Arab country—a role that Egypt had had in the past—we can also have a major impact on the region."

"The computer science faculty strongly supports this initiative," said Bill Dally, the Willard R. and Inez Kerr Bell Professor in the School of Engineering and chairman of the Computer Science Department, "because of the positive impact we see KAUST having on the region."

Jim Plummer, the Frederick Emmons Terman Dean of the School of Engineering and John M. Fluke Professor of Electrical Engineering, said the KAUST agreement was not a "top-down driven plan" from the Stanford administration, but was rather initiated by interested faculty.

Stanford will receive $5 million per year for five years: $2 million a year for research projects at Stanford that will involve collaborative activity with newly hired KAUST faculty; $1 million a year for collaborative research projects at KAUST; and $2 million a year in unrestricted dollars to be shared by the Department of Computer Science (CS) and the Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering (iCME). Stanford will recover additional costs for things such as hiring staff and finding space for KAUST visiting faculty in the amount of $1 million for 2008, $1 million for 2009 and $800,000 per year for 2010, 2011 and 2012.

While the main role of Stanford will be in faculty selection and curriculum development, the agreement also calls for sponsoring KAUST faculty as visiting fellows at Stanford prior to the new university's 2009 launch; sending six to 12 members of the Stanford faculty to teach one-week courses, seminars or research presentations annually at KAUST; serving on KAUST thesis committees that are of interest to Stanford faculty; participating in an annual workshop at KAUST; and helping to evaluate KAUST's applied mathematics and computational science program in 2010 and 2012.

According to Peter Glynn, the Thomas W. Ford Professor in the School of Engineering and director of iCME, the new agreement has the broad support of the faculty of both iCME and CS, as well as the leadership of the two groups. He said the basis for the faculty's enthusiasm for the project is the opportunity to participate in creating a world-class university in the Middle East, open to both men and women, with levels of intellectual freedom and diversity that are unusual for the region.

Because Stanford will help select the initial faculty cohort and because many of these faculty members will spend time as visiting scholars at Stanford, "there is an opportunity to initialize KAUST with a faculty that share in Stanford's values and standards."

"The hope is that, through KAUST itself and through the cumulative influence of its graduates, the new university can have a major impact on helping the kingdom and region to develop," Glynn said.

According to Latombe, "This project is extremely challenging because there are very traditionalist people in Saudi Arabia who may oppose it, but it has a unique chance to succeed because it is supported by the king and outstanding high-level Saudis, it receives considerable financial resources and, I believe, the majority of the Saudis are moderate. As so often happens, the political agenda has been partially hijacked by extremists and the king is not all-powerful.

"If the project was not challenging and controversial, or if it had no chance to succeed, I would not be interested."

KAUST planners say they recognize that a world-class university must be an open university, in which nondiscrimination on the basis of religion, gender and race is practiced, and that they are committed to creating a merit-based university.

"There was great care taken in the drafting of the agreement to make certain that Stanford's principles were a central part of the agreement," said Plummer.

King Abdullah has made an earnest attempt to relieve his kingdom from its dependence on oil (it produces 15 percent of the world's supply) and begin a focus on intellectual innovation. He has decried its lack of intellectual achievement.

"Saudi Arabia has a lot to gain with KAUST," said Latombe. "Its population is increasing fast, but education lags behind. It is surrounded by a number of more progressive states and realizes that it is quickly falling behind. KAUST is one initiative to reverse this trend and brings more modernity into Saudi Arabia."

The new university will be embedded in one of the most conservative of Middle East nations. KAUST will have an independent board of trustees and will be governed as an autonomous entity, akin to a private university in the United States. The university will nevertheless reside on Saudi soil and will be subject to Saudi laws—for example, regarding entry to Saudi Arabia. Academics traveling on Israeli passports may have difficulty visiting KAUST.

Latombe said that the KAUST agreement requires little travel to Saudi Arabia and that, in cases where a faculty member cannot get a visa, short courses and seminars can be delivered via the Internet.

While women within the KAUST compound will have the opportunity to work and live their lives as they would in the West, once they leave the KAUST compound and residential area, they will be governed by current Saudi laws, which, for example, prohibit women from driving.

Latombe, however, pointed out that there are "very active women's rights" groups in the country. "When I was in Saudi Arabia a month ago, I read in a Saudi newspaper in English that it will probably be hard to forbid women to drive for much longer," he said.

When it is fully running, the energy-efficient campus is expecting to have a community of 20,000, including students, faculty, staff and their families.

The first president of KAUST will be Shih Choon Fong, the current president of the National University of Singapore and a foreign associate member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering.

Latombe, commenting by e-mail from Singapore, said, "I just met with Professor Shih. He met with King Abdullah in January and is convinced of the king's sincerity. He told me that he was deeply impressed by his vision."

KAUST's core campus is located on more than 36 million square meters (about 14 square miles) on the Red Sea at Thuwal—about 50 miles north of Saudi Arabia's second largest city, Jeddah.