The Business Year

Dr. Tod A. Laursen

UAE, ABU DHABI - Health & Education

Teach & Nurture

President, Khalifa University


Dr. Tod A. Laursen earned his PhD and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from Stanford University and a degree in the same subject from Oregon State University. He was a member of the faculty of Duke University (US) between 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 industry, we are starting to engage with companies like Emirates Steel."

In 2015, the largest ever intake of students occurred. 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; therefore, I would suspect that 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 that we did this year was join the national common application and placement office (NAPO), and we had always done our admissions process, more or less, completely separately from everyone else. It is the standard for application in the US, and so here, what NAPO really is, is a system by which students can fill out one application for everywhere they want to go. Students can then prioritize which university they would prefer to attend. The vision for the university is for it 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 bit more diagnostic work at the beginning, particularly with math, science, and language. All of our staff are expected to be involved in research and they are all expected to be able to teach both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Roughly two-thirds of our faculty, when they join us, have their terminal degree from a top-100 institution. Hence, we are aiming high; we have more than 40 nationalities among our faculty, so it is an international institution in that regard. The idea was really to provide the students with a representative, international, quality experience, although most of those students will be Emirati. At the graduate level, we have just over 1,500 students today. More than 200 of those are graduate students and amongst the graduate students the demographic is about 50-50 expatriate to international. However, at the undergraduate level, the mix is about 80-20.

What are you focusing on in terms of research?

The most direct answer to that is that 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 is going to need universities here that produce local workers that can be employed in these new industries, as well as do research that is also going to benefit future industries. Therefore, 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 is this group of core subjects going to 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, but it does desire them. Therefore, what we are talking to them about is 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, but it takes a little time. Politically, it is important that more decision makers are technically trained. You have people making decisions about technical industries that are not familiar with the technologies that they are managing. There have to be more people in government with technical backgrounds; it would make a difference. I think that there is an excellent prospect for that here because the sociological status of engineers in the UAE is strong. It is actually higher than a doctor, which is one of the challenges that the medical profession has, as well as being higher than a lawyer. In the Emirates, if students graduate with a BSC in Engineering, they put Engineer (Eng) in their title. There is a reason for that, and it is really important. That will work for us in the future, because decision makers are going to look at these people and think that is a well-educated person and someone that will create opportunities to lead in the future.

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. What I expect in the next year or two is that we will grow beyond a single college university (engineering), to one having more comprehensive offerings relating to science and technology. The science college will grow and start to offer an even better diversity of choices for students to study. In the next two to three years, that is probably the biggest thing for us. We have just over 1,500 students now. We have not really designed this campus to go much beyond about 3,000 students.



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