KAUST: Tilghman’s Gamble

by Kerry Brodie ’12

On October 6th, President Shirley Tilghman announced that she will be joining the Board of Trustees of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Expected to open in September 2009, it will offer degrees in eleven fields of study. With an internationally acclaimed Board of Trustees and a $10 billion endowment, KAUST aims to be a major research university and depicts itself an important step in dealing with Saudi Arabia’s economic and educational woes. Explaining her decision in an interview with the Tory, Tilghman cited “the commitment of King Abdullah to begin to move the Saudi education system into the 21st century.” But despite Tilghman’s high hopes for this coeducational, graduate level university, questions about its future remain.

KAUST’s defenders point to its relative autonomy from the Saudi government as a sign of its progressiveness. KAUST does not work within the framework of Saudi Arabia’s state education system, and is thus exempt from Shariah law. There are, however, limits to the autonomy that the Saudi government offers. Because it is providing a large portion of KAUST’s endowment, it can indirectly pressure KAUST to change its policies and to further integrate elements of its repressive social policies. Indeed, we have already begun to see signs of this in the form of a campus alcohol ban. Given the government’s level of financial influence, there is no guarantee that policies grounded in Islamic fundamentalism will not be imposed in the future.

The private Saudi oil company Aramco is another major source of KAUST’s funding. According to Tilghman, a relationship with Aramco will help westernize and modernize the university. She argues that Aramco is even something of an example for KAUST to follow, because it “functions on a Western model that is as far as I know utterly unique in Saudi Arabia.” Like Aramco, however, KAUST, for all its claims to “international” status, will undoubtedly serve Saudi interests; King Abdullah has made it clear that the university’s focus on scientific education and research is aimed at diversifying the economy of Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia certainly faces major economic problems. Its dependence on the ebb and flow of oil prices, particularly in an age where alternative fuel is being developed, is very problematic. And diversification and resulting economic growth and stability may help liberalize Saudi society and move it in a more democratic direction. However, as the experience of China has shown, economic growth in a repressive society can often serve to strengthen a despotic regime rather than undermining it. There is no guarantee that the technological and economic advancement that KAUST may promote will lead to the kinds of fundamental changes that Saudi society needs.

The very nature of the education provided at KAUST also seems to preclude the possibility of positive democratic change; indeed, it seems tailored to serve the interests of the regime. Conveniently, the Saudi government’s investments are focused on science and technology education, rather than the humanities or the social sciences. This creates a system in which those Saudi educational institutions at levels below KAUST generally remain under strict control, while institutions like KAUST, for all their autonomy, do not present students with the kinds of political and philosophical ideas that might inspire them to reshape Saudi society. The Saudi educational system as a whole thus remains extremely retrograde, casting doubt on the top-down model of reform presented by KAUST’s advocates. As Nina Shea, a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, explained to the Tory, the real advancement Saudi Arabia needs is in education at the elementary level. She argues that KAUST’s value is limited unless it is part of an overall change in Saudi Arabian education. “If this is the first step in the bigger plan to liberate the kingdom,” she says, “then this could be a positive move. But I have not seen any other further plans.”

The weaknesses of the Saudi educational system also raise the question of how many Saudi students will actually be able to benefit from KAUST. With few undergraduate universities in Saudi Arabia up to the standard that KAUST’s expected level of rigor requires, many college-educated Saudis will find themselves unprepared to attend KAUST. KAUST has acknowledged this problem, and is creating scholarships for Saudi Arabian students to study abroad at the undergraduate level and to return and study at KAUST. However, the amount of money available for these scholarships, the way in which this money will be distributed in a nation not known for economic and political transparency, and continued problems with Saudi education below the undergraduate level remain important concerns. KAUST appears to acknowledge these concerns, and is only aiming for one third of its students to be native Saudi Arabians, many of whom will no doubt be members of elite segments of the population. The benefit of having a world-class research university will likely not reach most of Saudi Arabia’s youth.

When it comes to those Saudis who do enter the university, there is also a possibility that, however troubling, must be acknowledged. Because KAUST’s reforms are not part of a comprehensive change in the Saudi educational system, and because the Saudi ministry of education is not updating and liberalizing its curriculum, the combination of a science and technology university with a lower level education steeped in Wahabbist Islamic fundamentalism is a disturbing one. Shea agrees, asserting that that “promoting science and technology on top of their current curriculum could be dangerous.” She argues that pairing technological knowhow without changing the fundamentalist emphasis on Saudi Arabia education may be giving students the tools to act upon the reactionary lessons they are taught.

KAUST’s purported gender and cultural openness forms another central part of its self-presentation. According to Tilghman, one of the factors that attracted her to the university was “their commitment to educating women in science and technology in a country where men and women currently are not educated together.” If realized, this could present a new face for women’s education in Saudi Arabia. However, KAUST is not the first university founded in Saudi Arabia claiming a mission of coeducation. Alfaisal University, founded in 2007, had also promised that it would be a coeducational institution. Today, however, its website offers only the euphemistic claim that “[t]here are still quite a few logistics to be considered and finalized before we can admit women.” Even if KAUST does manage to live up to its promise of a coeducational policy, the grossly unequal treatment of women in Saudi society and in the Saudi educational system casts doubt on the actual changes that any such policy will make.

The issue of Israel further undermines KAUST’s claim to tolerance and openness. KAUST claims to be a “global” university, “merit-based and open to men and women from around the world.” But Saudi Arabia has no formal relationship with Israel, and Israelis cannot be granted visas to enter the country. In addition to excluding students, Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic policy also precludes the possibility of cooperation with Israeli universities. As KAUST spokesman Mohammed Mulla told Nature, “Saudi Arabia cannot cooperate … with countries with which it does not have diplomatic relations — which would mean no formal collaboration between KAUST and Israeli institutions.” The exclusion of a major source of scientific research in the Middle East will seriously hamper KAUST’s ability to work as an effective research institution.

To be fair, KAUST is not responsible for this policy. And it may be true that, as Dean of Yeshiva University David Srolovitz told the Tory, KAUST is “really trying to make a difference in the way the Arab world interacts with the rest of the world,” and is simply trying to do so in a way that “will not bring the entire enterprise to a screeching halt.” But Tilghman’s attitude towards this situation is troubling nonetheless. She claims, rightly, that the visa issue is a political one that is beyond the scope of KAUST. But this obfuscates a basic truth: while KAUST has no control over Saudi Arabia’s visa policy, Tilghman’s decision to join the board is her own. Her decision to lend her name and work to the board is, in part, a decision to accept the present situation. Indeed, she admits that the board itself excludes “individuals with Israeli passports,” and attempts to minimize this by pointing out that Jews, per se, are permitted – a distinction that, while true, is not particularly reassuring.

KAUST may turn out to be a major catalyst of progress in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. At this point, we are in no position to judge. But it is absolutely essential that Princeton students question its high-minded claims, and ask whether Tilghman, in deciding to join the board of trustees, has placed more stock in these claims than is merited. According to the article on the Princeton website announcing the decision, Tilghman has been “very selective in taking on outside responsibilities.” One cannot help but wonder why she has chosen, of all possible “responsibilities,” an initiative so wrapped up in unresolved issues of state repression, radical religious fundamentalism and religious discrimination- an initiative that may ultimately serve to bolster a corrupt and reactionary regime. We can only hope that, in her capacity as a trustee, Tilghman will serve not as a figurehead, but as a check on the regime’s influence. We hope she will demand that KAUST live up to its ambitious claims. For now, however, many doubts remain.

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