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Saudi University Joins UC in Controversial Partnership

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday March 14, 2008

King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia—which entered into a $28 million partnership with UC Berkeley last week to collaborate on research, curriculum and hiring of faculty—announced Thursday an $8 million grant to Paul Monteiro, professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Berkeley. 

Monteiro was one of 12 scientists around the world to win KAUST’s Global Research Partnership Investigator competition. The grant money will be awarded over five years. 

The 12 KAUST investigators will spend up to three months annually on the KAUST campus to conduct research and give talks on desalination, creating stronger but lighter-weight composite materials and developing renewable energy sources. 

KAUST, which will open its doors to students in 2009, is a new international graduate-level re-search university being built on more than 36 million square meters on the Red Sea at Thuwal, Saudi Arabia. 

According to the UC Berkeley website, KAUST officials invited select world-renowned universities and colleges to submit proposals for partnerships in 2007.  

The proposal submitted by UC Berkeley’s Mechanical Engineering department was accepted by KAUST, following which the department’s professors voted 34-2 to support the agreement, with three abstaining and six choosing not to vote. 

Reactions to UC Berkeley’s deal with KAUST have been mixed.  

Some have said that the deal would help the university to offset state budget cuts while others have objected to a public institution partnering with a country which discriminates against women, homosexuals and Jews. 

UC Berkeley’s civil and environmental engineering department declined to join KAUST. 

Monteiro told the Planet that his application for the investigator competition had been independent of the $28 million deal with KAUST. 

“It was a truly international competition,” he said. “As to why the department declined to join the $28 million partnership, you’d have to talk to the department chair.” 

Department chair Lisa Alvarez-Cohen could not be reached Thursday. 

Monteiro said his research—which would focus on green concrete to cut down carbon emissions—would be based in Berkeley. 

“I will visit KAUST for four weeks to share information and give lectures once the campus is built,” he said. “I want to share information all over the world. It’s a wonderful opportunity for my research group to have an impact on sustainable construction. I have never been to Saudi Arabia before so I am looking forward to it. 

Although a UC Academic Senate committee was concerned about the possibility of discrimination against female, gay and Israeli faculty members, they decided that the partnership would help the university. 

“The task force, while regretting these laws and customs, received enough information regarding KAUST policies ... that we recommend approval of this proposal,” an Academic Senate report stated on Feb. 19. 

A press release on the UC Berkeley website stated that KAUST officials had decided that the university would be open to men and women from all cultures around the world. 

Article 4 of the KAUST bylaws states that KAUST “shall have complete freedom in governing and managing its colleges, institutes, schools and departments without any intervention by others. In this regard, the university shall be exempt from those regulations, policies and procedures applicable to other universities in the Kingdom and their respective faculty members. Within the university, the teaching staff shall have the academic and cultural freedom available in international universities.” 

Al Pisano, chair of UC Berkeley’s mechanical engineering department, said in the press release that the partnership would allow the department to work on mutual areas of interest and benefit—such as sea water desalinization, creating stronger but lighter-weight composite materials and developing renewable energy sources—as well as being a positive engagement in the Middle East. 

Pisano did not return calls from the Planet Thursday. 

Igor Tregub, an undergraduate in the university’s mechanical engineering department, said he was pleased with the agreement. 

“I believe that the partnership with KAUST is the latest step in recognizing that the pursuit of knowledge must have no geographical or cultural boundaries in order to meet the global challenges we face in the twenty-first century,” he told the Planet. “As a Jew and a citizen of Israel, I recognize that problems do exist within the framework of Saudi Arabia's hostile stance towards this nation, as well as the numerous documented instances of discrimination against women and gays by the Saudi Arabian government. Yet, since UC Berkeley’s agreement with KAUST demands that the partnership be conducted free of any attempts to hamper the free pursuit of knowledge on university grounds, I think this hurdle will be overcome.” 

Nick Smith, a recent UC Berkeley graduate who championed the Sweatfree Ordinance as chair of Berkeley’s Labor Commission, said that the university should refrain from partnering with entities that were engaged in exploitation, or an extreme unfairness of some kind. 

“If this is approved, it would mean that American taxpayer dollars would be sent to a country that we clearly disagree with in terms of treatment of many of its citizens,” he said. “I would support an international non-profit entities engaging in these efforts, but not a taxpayer-subsidized university such as Berkeley ... Berkeley benefiting financially smacks of the tunnel vision that helps maintain discrimination and division across the world.”