TBY talks to Björn Kjerfve, Chancellor of American University of Sharjah (AUS), on key milestones of the university and the development of RTI Park.

Björn Kjerfve
Dr. Björn Kjerfve leads the AUS on a national, regional, and international level. Prior to joining AUS, Dr. Kjerfve was President of the World Maritime University (2009-2014), having previously been the dean of the College of Geosciences and professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University (2004-2009). Prior to that, he was Professor of marine and geological sciences at the University of South Carolina and served as the Director of the Marine Science Program (2000-2004). Dr. Kjerfve holds PhD, MS, and BA degrees from Louisiana State University (marine sciences), University of Washington (oceanography), and Georgia Southern University (mathematics), respectively.

What milestones have you accomplished in the last year?

The most important milestone occurs each year when we graduate the most qualified and high-achieving students and again when they are hired. We are ranked by QS World University Rankings as the seventh-best university in the Arab world, and Times Higher Education in the UK ranked us as the most international university in the world, just ahead of the London School of Economics. Another milestone was the series of six strategic plans I recently presented to our board to transform the university into a research hub. The board has accepted the plan and His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Supreme Council Member, Ruler of Sharjah, and President of American University of Sharjah has approved the funding. This means that while we will maintain our core liberal arts foundation in higher education, the American University of Sharjah is in a transformational state that will result in a rebranded, more comprehensive, and more sophisticated research-based university. We have defined four focal areas for our research: bioscience and bio engineering, the environment of the Gulf, smart cities and the IoT, and materials science. These will be our focal areas but with opportunities for students in design, business, and other subjects to participate in as well. We will also create two laboratories to support our research, one in high-power computing with a major computer facility and a geospatial analysis laboratory applying GIS at different scales for mapping and supportive research. We currently have 380 people in our faculty and will add up to 140 additional researchers and faculty members over the next five years. We seek to be the top destination for research in the Arab world, but it is equally important that we balance our liberal arts foundation, as we want to maintain and improve on that excellence. One of the main objective measures of an educational institution is the student-to-faculty ratio and we are currently at exactly 13 to one. After restructuring and implementing strategic reforms, we aim for 11.5 to one.

What role does AUS Enterprise play in the growth and development of the Research, Technology, and Innovation (RTI) Park?

It is important to note that AUS is a not-for-profit organization. Around 80% of the universities in the UAE are for profit, meaning a student pays a fee and shareholders take a part of that fee. At the end of the year, any surplus is reinvested into AUS and the future generation of students. His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah, gifted us 175ha of land to build the RTI Park. A year ago we created a limited liability corporation, American University of Sharjah Enterprise (AUSE), to act as our commercial arm, to generate an endowment that will be used for research and other university activities. We hope the relationship will help bring in hundreds of companies in the R&D fields of science, biology, IoT, and engineering that want to be located near the university. We have more than 380 professors engaged in some aspect of research, and we seek to establish a synergy between commercial companies and academic research, where our students and researchers can work to develop new products to be introduced to the market. The ambition is for RTI Park to be the Middle East's response to Silicon Valley. Between all the educational institutions in University City, there are some 2,000 PhD candidates working and teaching and 30,000 students. Over the next five to 10 years, if 500 companies establish themselves in RTI Park, we expect to see an additional 9,000 people come to University City, including 2,000 scientists, engineers, and professionals, and 7,000 supporting staff and family members. This academic emigration will encourage tremendous growth and expansion of University City, the surrounding residential areas, and Sharjah.