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What We Don't Know Cannot Help Us—Understanding Higher Education Advances in Saudi Arabia

Fall 2010

“Education is one of the most important duties shouldered by this country since its foundation. In order to support higher education, I inaugurated King Abdullah University of Science and Technology at Thul in the presence of a top level world audience. Other new universities in various regions were established to raise the total number of universities to twenty-five. All available resources and capabilities were made available for them, with unlimited support. This has ensured that our universities occupy advanced rankings at the level of Arab, Islamic, and world universities. We continued the program of sending students on scholarships abroad to provide the best opportunities and access to the world’s best universities in the most important specializations. The number of students sent abroad now stands at 70,000.”
- King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz (1924- ); Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; From March 8, 2010 Keynote Address to the Majlis Al-Shura (Consultative Council), Riyadh

Bob Smith

As members of the TTU academic community—an institution where global engagement is championed—we should know about the unprecedented higher education investment occurring in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Just imagine: a country of approximately 900,000 square miles (about 3.4 times the size of Texas) with about 26 million people (compared to about 25 million people in Texas), that is investing a total of $50 billion to craft new or totally renovate 25 universities throughout the country. Also, envision a country where all eligible undergraduate and graduate students are paid to go to college through modest monthly stipends in addition to subsidies that pay all tuition, fees, and costs for books. Furthermore, conceive of a country that sends abroad 80,000 undergraduate and graduate students, who are not only placed in highly esteemed universities in Australia, Europe, New Zealand, and the United States, but are also provided with full tuition (including out-of-state tuition costs) and stipend support to the tune of $6 billion per year! These situations are all happening through the education system, (i.e., including the Ministries of Finance and Higher Education) of Saudi Arabia in an experiment that has to be one of the most formidable in the history of international higher education. I had the privilege of experiencing a part of the Saudi Arabian investment recently while contributing to a workshop of national vice rectors (i.e., officials equivalent to U.S. provosts, vice presidents, or vice chancellors for academic affairs, and vice presidents or vice provosts for research and graduate education) in Medina, Saudi Arabia. Medina is one of the two most sacred cities (i.e., along with Mecca) in the Muslim world.

The workshop (Titled: Promoting a Culture of Excellence in Today’s University) was sponsored by the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Higher Education through the national Academic Leadership Center (ALC) located at the King Fahd University (KFU) of Petroleum and Minerals at Dhahran in the far eastern part of the country. The Ministry of Higher Education established the ALC in 2009, to promote higher education leadership curriculum across the Kingdom. Thus far, the ALC has sponsored three workshops for rectors and vice rectors of the country. The workshops have been two-day affairs that go from morning to night and, from all indications, the sessions are helping to build solidarity across the leadership of Saudi Arabian higher education and improving leadership skills and common understanding of a higher education system that is on the move. Indeed, this higher education system is moving on the following fronts all at once:

In 2001, 400,000 to 500,000 books were circulated but by 2009 with the increase in electronic assets, book circulation had dropped to fewer than 129,000.

Pictured are a few of the nearly 100 academic administers who attended three workshops on the “Foundations of Academic Leadership” sponsored by the Ministry of Higher Education of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Medina, Saudi Arabia, April 2010. (Photo provided by Bob Smith)

The ALC is the brainchild of the rector of KFU in Dhahran (His Excellency Dr. Khalid S. Al-Sultan) and Jeffrey Buller (Professor and Dean, Harriet L. Wilber Honor College, Florida Atlantic University) who began the collaborative project with the Saudi Arabian Ministry for Higher Education in 2009. Buller is a classics scholar who has traveled and lectured in countries around the world and directed onsite study abroad trips each year to Egypt involving honor students and faculty from Florida Atlantic.

The ALC vision and mission, aided by Professor Saled Alamondi (KFU of Petroleum and Minerals) and his younger faculty colleagues (who are serving as coordinators), is to offer robust yearly workshop programs for upper administrators and specific university-based conferences for deans, department chairs, and administratively aspiring faculty members. Thus, the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education has mounted a multi-pronged approach to higher education advancement that seems to this observer as unparalleled in the modern world.

Now, you may be asking: Why is the TTU Provost spending a week of his time contributing to higher education in Saudi Arabia? Of what benefit is his trip to Texas Tech? First, let’s be clear that I, the provost, spent no university funds traveling to the Saudi Kingdom. All expenses were paid by the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education. More importantly, I returned from the Middle East not only with first-hand information, but also with prospects for significant new cooperative ventures and partnerships for Texas Tech with several Saudi higher education institutions. What specifically? The cooperative ventures and partnerships that are evolving include:

The advent of electronic resources does not mean that visits to the library are down. In 2001, walk-ins to the building totaled about 700,000. In 2009, the number of walk-ins reached 3.4 million.

Bob Smith joined academic administrators from two Florida universities in presentations in one of the most sacred cities in the Muslim world. (Photo provided by Bob Smith)

How did these positive events occur for Texas Tech and our Saudi neighbors? They occurred primarily because there was the opportunity through the April 2010 ALC workshop to tell the story of Texas Tech and our dedication to strategic planning tied to our ambitions to becoming a great public Tier One research university. Specifically, here are the titles of the four presentations made in the Kingdom last April:

1) Strategic Planning and its Use in Setting Priorities
2) Developing and Promoting the Concept of Faculty as Integrated Scholars
3) Moving From Strategic Planning to Integrated Scholarship and Excellence in Research
4) Promoting Excellence in Research: What difference does it make?

Personal contributions aside, the Texas Tech community and our state constituents should know how appreciative our Saudi colleagues were to hear about the developments at Texas Tech. Our Saudi neighbors have expressed great interest in pursuing a variety of opportunities to partner with the university and its units (colleges, schools, and departments) and faculty members, students, and staff. The alignments should yield significant and measurable enhancements for Texas Tech and our Middle Eastern neighbors. That is good economically, culturally, and intellectually. Thus, in some small way, we may collectively be able to enhance the peace, security, and prosperity of our global community.

In conclusion, our recent outreach efforts in Saudi Arabia are leading to tangible benefits to Texas Tech and our higher education neighbors in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Readers are welcome to share suggestions or pose questions related to any aspect of our emerging Saudi partnerships, by writing to Bob Smith (bob.smith@ttu.edu) or Ambassador Tibor Nagy, Vice Provost and Director of the Office of International Affairs, (tibor.nagy@ttu.edu).



About the Author

Bob Smith serves as provost and senior vice president at Texas Tech University, bob.smith@ttu.edu.

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