Searching for KAUST: of salaries and future insights

Auriele Thiele loaded up an entry three days ago in her insightful blog (Thoughts on business, engineering and higher education) that reminded me how amazed I am when I see what search terms bring people to GlobalHigherEd.  As Auriele notes, people use a wide array of approaches to searching, primarily via Google, and not all of them make sense. This said something is happening, hence the traffic to our site. Google’s algorithms send people to us, though I have no idea how this formally works.

Now the search terms that people use are interesting in that they arguably identify key concerns, and emerging debates, in the world of global higher ed. “Global university rankings” is clearly an issue of concern, and while we do not have many entries on this theme, the hunger for material on this phenomenon is striking.

Another topic we get a lot of traffic on is KAUST (also known as the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology), pictured to the right in June 2008 (courtesy of KAUST). We’ve developed a few entries on the new knowledge spaces emerging in the Middle East, including KAUST in Saudi Arabia, as have other higher ed media outlets like the Chronicle, Insider Higher Ed, and the Times Higher.

Let’s unpack the nature of the KAUST search terms bringing traffic to us, though, for this is what is most fascinating.

Over time the terms have shifted from “KAUST”, and “King Abdullah University of Science and Technology”, to a significant concern with KAUST + salaries, and now, most recently, KAUST + criticism. I might be over interpreting things, but KAUST’s development strategy seems to have been an enormous success on a number of levels, with the recent KAUST-IBM supercomputer announcement but the latest release stirring up attention in the global higher ed world. In other words KAUST has become a presence before it has become a real university (in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia).

The contrast with places like Quest University – Canada’s first secular private university (and pictured to the left) – is breathtaking, for Quest’s backers, while well connected, have had to incrementally push their new initiative forward, maneuver through several funding-related twists in the development path, and be ultra-efficient and effective to survive. There is no King Colombie-Britannique to secure this new university’s existence.

Now, is the volume of searches regarding salaries at KAUST a worrisome indicator regarding the base priorities of academics who seem to be in search of mammon, much like Daniel Plainview in There Will be Blood (2007)?

Or is this a sign of the challenging reality of constructing new knowledge spaces that generate an impact, and fast. The corollary here is if Canada, or British Columbia, were as serious as the Saudis and the Singaporeans (e.g., see Singapore Management University) about diversifying the higher education system, they would have seriously endowed Quest University from Day 1 to propel it into action even though it is ‘private’.

A third view is that this a sign of what is needed to draw globally mobile faculty and staff to places like Saudi Arabia where rigid social rules cannot help but guide academic life, limits on freedoms (including freedom of female faculty to drive, or fly out of the country to conferences without first receiving the approval of their husbands) will exist, and machine guns will never be far from sight on the protective borders of the KAUST campus. As with the National University of Singapore (where KAUST’s current president, Shih Choon Fong, used to be based), high salaries are a recognized mechanism to tempt ‘quality’ faculty to become more mobile, and transplant, if only temporarily.

But I do wonder what the fixation with salaries will lead to, on the ground, when all of the faculty and some of their families start arriving and living in the Seahaven of Saudi Arabia.  These people will be surfing on top of the oil-fueled development boom, yet never far from the surface, including in the compound being built, a different reality will emerge; a more complex reality of happiness and/or angst about international schooling, relative salary positioning, social cleavages (on the basis of race, ethnicity, and pedigree), leave of absence strategizing (for the tenured), contract renewal uncertainties (for the untenured), transnational family strategizing (inevitably many will leave spouses and children back ‘home’), dual career challenges, competitive pressures to perform, gripes about the time it takes to fly back to city X or city Y, what to do on the one day off per week, the bubble effect, the maid (domestic help) dynamic, teenagers (not) running amok, and so on.

KAUST will continue thrusting ahead given that it is a defacto sovereign wealth fund, prospective faculty will continue sniffing around GlobalHigherEd for salary details (sorry, this is the wrong place to check!), and a new manufactured world will unfold over the next decade. Yet I hope some of the faculty and their families get active weblogs going from the land of KAUST, for we need far more than official representations to really understand what is needed to construct these type of knowledge spaces. It would be a shame if KAUST micro-managed the production of reflective insights on the development process, for this is an experiment worth not only promoting (as they clearly must do), but also rigorously analyzing.

And at another level, is it not time for agencies like the ESF and the NSF to get more strategic, and bring together research teams, to assess the KAUST development process? The pace of change is too fast with respect to this type of initiative – more of a global assemblage than a national university – to merely stand by and wait for proposals from faculty.  The cranes are up, but not for much longer…

Kris Olds

Residential and liberal arts colleges as ammunition in ‘The Global War on Taylorism’?

I continue to be surprised, partly via my intense use of Google Alerts for updates on global higher ed issues, how much thought provoking stuff there is out there betwixt and between ample supplies of detritus.

One of my alerts, today, linked through to a fascinating on-line article titled ‘The Global War on Taylorism’.

Taylorism, for those of you who have not heard of it, is a concept named after Frederick W. Taylor, a mechanical engineer who has been deemed the ‘father of scientific management’. He was the author of the Principles of Scientific Management (1911), which outlines an approach for enhancing economic efficiency via more strategic management practices. Taylorism and the associated concept of Fordism (and Post-Fordism), often go hand in hand. While originally associated with the retooling and scaling up of manufacturing processes, Taylorism has been applied to many other sectors and realms of life, for good and for bad.

While this is not the space for an exposition of Taylorism, or any number of associated concepts, as applied to the management of higher education, it is worth linking through to ‘The Global War on Taylorism’ in the Collegiate Way. The Collegiate Way is run by the evolutionary biologist Dr. Robert J. O’Hara.

This article has been highlighted as we at GlobalHigherEd have been noting the increased interest in establishing new residential colleges, and liberal arts colleges, in a variety of countries that are dominated by standardized public mass higher education institutions. An interest in more nurturing and reflective educational spaces is also emerging in societies (see, for example Hong Hong’s Lee Woo Sing College; Singapore’s new residential colleges, and the city-state’s proposed liberal arts college) where there is pressure to quickly cultivate more creative and critically thinking citizen-subjects. Residential and liberal arts colleges contrast, strikingly so, with mass private for-profit education (the Apollo/Phoenix model), and distance education more generally.

As the Collegiate Way frames it:

[r]esidential colleges originated at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in Great Britain, and they have long been a feature of higher education in Commonwealth countries. The first American universities to establish residential colleges were Harvard and Yale in the 1930s, and in recent years they have spread to institutions as varied as Murray State University in Kentucky, the University of Miami in Florida, Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University in New Jersey, the University of Central Arkansas, Acadia University in Nova Scotia, the University of the Americas in Mexico, and Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany.

This push could be construed as part of the anti-Taylorist agenda, or (more cynically) as a money making venture, or service differentiation vehicle, to create a new niche in the global higher ed world – analogous to the boutique offerings available 1-2 blocks on either side of Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris. In reality there will be many shades of grey, and many complexions, with respect to the motives and effectiveness of new residential and liberal arts colleges around the world.

In any case, as the Collegiate Way puts it, a long-term struggle is underway to distort and destabilize existing practices, either through the creation of new higher ed institutions (e.g., Quest University, in Squamish B.C., Canada, which was favourably profiled this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education), or through the insertion of new learning spaces within existing institutions (e.g., Chadbourne Residential College, University of Wisconsin-Madison).

In the end, perhaps:

[t]he Global War on Taylorism will be a long, generational struggle. But in no theater can it be more righteously fought than in education. And in education it should be righteously fought, because students are not fractional Full-time Equivalents or ethno-economic vectors in Complex Systems Theory. They are individuals. Let us, as individuals, rouse and guide their powers of genius. Let us teach them beauty and truth, art and science, and the unquiet minds that have sought beauty and truth throughout history. Let us teach them to be, not parts but persons, not automatons but agents, not types but worlds.

Kris Olds