OUTPERFORMING THE SECTOR

Abu Dhabi 2017 | EDUCATION | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Dr. Tod Laursen, President of Khalifa University, on recent achievements, becoming a leader in the sector, and pushing students to become entrepreneurs.

Dr. Tod Laursen
BIOGRAPHY
Dr. Tod Laursen is the President of Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research, in Abu Dhabi. Laursen earned his PhD and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from Stanford University and a bachelor’s in the same subject from Oregon State University. He specializes in computational mechanics, a subfield of engineering mechanics concerned with the development of new computational algorithms and tools used by engineers to analyze mechanical and structural systems. He has published over 100 referenced articles, book chapters, and abstracts, and has authored or co-edited two books.

Khalifa University recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. What have been the milestones and major accomplishments for the university after a decade of activity?

The last time we met, the expansion of the campus was still under construction, and recently the first phase of this expansion has opened. It is a student hub with student services office, library, and university leadership offices. The second phase is expected to open in 2017 with academic spaces, classrooms, faculty offices, gyms, and recreational campus facilities. In terms of student intake, we were astonished by the number of students that applied for the new academic year as well as the rate at which our admissions offers were accepted. This most recent intake thus became the largest in the history of the university with more than 600 new students. We will also open our College of Science and Center for Teaching and Learning in 2017 with interesting chemistry and science programs. This growth has forced us to grow our services and reflects how well reputed the university has become since we are outperforming our peers, some of whom have struggled with the economic downturn.

How does this expansion match your aspirations to be a leading education center?

We have high aspirations and they go beyond the regional expansion plans we might have; our ultimate aspiration is to boost and support the impact that the Abu Dhabi education sector is having on a global level. What we have managed to do at Khalifa University is great and unprecedented. Now that we are placed in the major leagues, we are forced to do much more intensive benchmarking and figure out how to stay at the top of the game. We are trying to increase in numbers, reach out to more students, and take advantage of the resources the Abu Dhabi government has invested in a great variety of sectors.

How are Khalifa University's plans expected to change with the government's announced merger between KUSTAR, Masdar Institute, and Petroleum Institute?

The merger implies the creation of a single university will have distinguished institutes operating under a single umbrella. Regardless of the details decided for the branding of the resultant university, it will not eradicate the brands of Khalifa University, MI, or PI since they are globally recognized for their tailored offerings, and it is in the best interest of Abu Dhabi to maintain these brands. Plans for the merger are at an early stage and will evolve in the following months once the programs are unified, a new name for the university is decided, and the agreement is properly settled.

How is Khalifa University pushing its students to diversify their choices for career paths and venture into more entrepreneurial sectors?

This is one of the reasons behind the upcoming College of Science, which has been sponsored by the Ministry of Higher Education and is granting scholarships to Emirati and foreign students alike. The Center for Teaching and Learning also focuses on addressing what we see as the biggest challenges in education, such as acquiring the best faculty, developing and maintaining the best teaching methods amongst them, and assuring the modernity and rigor of the knowledge received by students. The Ministry's plan to have more people teaching science and math will contribute to diversify career paths by providing alternatives for students to choose from. On the other hand, we also need to create more entrepreneurs through venture capital and angel capital funds to invest in startups and innovate in those industries where the future lies. We have a great initiative to create the Khalifa Innovation Center through the Khalifa Fund and invest in entrepreneurial projects, invite people to see what students are working on, and engage both through their mutual initiatives. This is a major part of our new five-year strategic plan, and we are creating the necessary facilities, platforms, and research tools to encourage more students to support these projects.