ELEVATING STATUS

Abu Dhabi 2016 | EDUCATION | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Dr. Tod A. Laursen, President of Khalifa University, on the growth of the university, focus areas, and prospects for the future.

Dr. Tod A. Laursen
BIOGRAPHY
Dr. Tod A. Laursen earned his PhD and MSc in mechanical engineering from Stanford University and a BSc in the same subject from Oregon State University. He was a member of the faculty of Duke University (USA), between the years of 1992 and 2010, during which time he had appointments in civil engineering, biomedical engineering, and mechanical engineering. He is a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the International Association of Computational Mechanics, and the United States Association for Computational Mechanics.

In 2015, the largest ever intake of students enrolled. What can we glean from that regarding the university's progression and expansion?

In the five years since I started here, the student population has tripled. The university has graduated two batches of students out of the Abu Dhabi Campus; I believe part of what is going on is that people are starting to hire our students. There is good brand recognition now because we have graduates out there. The other thing we did this year was join the National Common Application and Placement Office (NAPO).We had always done our admissions process more or less completely separately from everyone else. It is the standard for applications in the US, and NAPO is a system by which students can fill out one application for anywhere they want to go. Students can then prioritize the university they would prefer to attend. The vision for the university is to be more selective and our board has been consistent with that. It wants to be sure that we are getting the top students; therefore, we do a little more diagnostic work at the beginning, particularly with math, science, and language.

Where do you see the focus of research?

Khalifa University is strongly directed by Vision 2030; it is driven by diversification. In fact, Khalifa University and Masdar Institute form the educational arm of the 2030 vision. If the government is going to take the economy in the envisioned direction, it will need universities here that produce local workers that can be employed in these new industries, as well as do research that will benefit future industries. When we made our research plan, we had the 2030 plan in mind, which is where the five areas come in: ICT, aerospace and technology, energy and environment, healthcare technologies, and security.

How will this group of core subjects develop as the economy develops and continues to change until 2030?

In industry, we are starting to engage with companies like Emirates Steel. Emirates Steel currently has no research staff, though it wants one. Therefore, we are talking about how to collaborate on projects. If there is an intake of our graduates in the next five to 10 years, then we change that situation; however, it takes time. Politically, it is important that more decision makers are technically trained. There have to be more people in government with technical backgrounds; it would make a difference. There is an excellent prospect for that here because the sociological status of engineers in the UAE is strong.

There is a new site being built, adjacent to the current one. How will that enhance the university?

The construction on the site next to the current location is huge for us, literally and figuratively. It is going to add about four times the space available to us. Just in terms of scope, it is really important. Engineering and science are both resource intensive; therefore, we outgrew our current resources pretty quickly, and we, therefore, need more. On the academic side, the expansion area that is most important for us and will be expanding is science. This refers to applied math and statistics. We are looking to develop programs in chemistry, and eventually physics and biology as well. There are certain inter-disciplinary research areas that will benefit from having more scientists on campus; healthcare is an obvious one. In sustainability and climate change, you need to have engineers, but also atmospheric chemists, biologists, and so forth. I expect in the next year or two to grow beyond a single college university (engineering), to one having more comprehensive offerings relating to science and technology.