Marcopolis presents the Kuwait Report focused on the investments, doing business, economy and other topics featuring interviews with Kuwaiti leaders. The sectors under review in this issue are industry, oil and gas sector, investments, banking sector, telecom sector and many more.
Dr. Earl (Tim) Sullivan, President of American University of Kuwait (AUK)
Interview with Dr. Earl (Tim) Sullivan, President of American University of Kuwait (AUK)
How would you define the current state of higher education in Kuwait? What are the trends and how does the American University of Kuwait (AUK) come into play?
For many years, higher education here was dominated by Kuwait University, which is a large public institution. Only a few years ago, it was decided to add options for private universities that would offer different kinds of programs. The approach to education in Kuwait has generally been one with aim at the job market. That often means that you are aiming at what you think the job market is right now. So, there is largely a focus on professional education, and for the most part, it is a pipeline designed for a job. Most Kuwaitis are employed by the government in some way, so there has been an aim to try and fill those jobs with highly qualified people. The demand could not be satisfied locally, so they are sending students abroad, largely to the US, and also various places in Europe. Kuwait was smart in trying to provide local options as well as options for its people to go abroad, which they are able to do through oil money. Now, private universities have recently become an option. AUK is the only one outside the pattern. We have a different approach to education, focusing on the liberal arts. We are trying to give students breadth as well as depth. We want them to have a specialization in a field, for example communications and media, or engineering, but they also take a broad section of courses. With that approach, you are educating people, but we also want to prepare students for their first job, their last job and every job in between. The world in which we live now is a world of change. To some degree, the approach of many institutions of higher education is a short-sighted one. This is not necessarily negative, but they are looking at a shorter time frame and imagine that other things will take care of themselves. That does not always work. For example, most people who are professional engineers stop functioning as just engineers very early in their careers. They move into something else. They might be in sales or marketing or management, but they are not strictly speaking engineers doing engineering anymore. So, we are preparing people for a world of change and also trying to prepare them to be better citizens. It is a preparation for life.
AUK is the only one outside the pattern. We have a different approach to education, focusing on the liberal arts. We are trying to give students breadth as well as depth.
How are you preparing students specifically? Are you implementing internships like many other institutions? What are you doing in the area of sending these students directly to companies to get experience before they graduate?
We are interested in internships, but in other things as well that provide what is sometimes called “experiential learning.” The students are not just in a classroom, they are learning from each other and they are going outside. Some of that can be labelled as “service learning,” where they are engaged in service to the community in some way. But it is still a learning experience. Internships can be one of these. We will be revamping our internship program to extend it and improve it in the near future. I am very focused on expanding more experiential learning for the students. People have been hesitant about that in the past, but the opportunities are huge in this area and it can provide students with transformative experiences.
It is well known that AUK is the only liberal arts institution in Kuwait. How do you differentiate yourself from other institutions? What are your values?
We value small classes, excellent faculty, and we focus on student activities that can also be learning experiences. Students can learn to manage a program, create an activity, do things on their own, learn by mistakes, grow, and develop. It is a holistic approach to education and distinct from the idea that we are going to teach this package of skills and that is all. There is more to it than that. We want them to arrive on campus early and stay late and learn in between, and not just in the classroom. The other experiences are every bit as important and we can see that it is working.
Have you recently acquired any accreditations?
AUK has Institutional Accreditation from the Private Universities Council (PUC) of the Ministry of Higher Education in Kuwait. Recently, our BA degree program in Computer Engineering has received accreditation by the Engineering Accreditation Commission of ABET. Our Intensive English Program (IEP) has renewed its accreditation by the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation (CEA). We also renewed accreditation for Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences, and the University General Education Program by the American Academy for Liberal Education (AALE) Board of Commissioners.
We currently have a consultant here who is helping us plan for accreditation in computer science and information systems. We are planning for electrical engineering accreditation and we are working on accreditation in business, graphic design, and art. Accreditation is a high priority here. It is a way of benchmarking ourselves against others and making sure we meet the standards of the world and that we can prove it.
Do you have cooperation with other educational institutions and private sector companies?
We have a lot of cooperation in the private sector, particularly with Kuwait Projects Company (Holding) KIPCO, Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences (KFAS), and other organizations in Kuwait. We have recently expanded cooperative arrangements with universities in the Middle East and the US. For example, we have a number of agreements with the American University in Cairo and with George Washington University. We have a current program with Science Po in Paris which we still need to work on. We want our students and faculty to be able to work off campus as well as on campus. We have a long-standing arrangement with Dartmouth College in the United States. Every year, we have people coming from Dartmouth, both students and faculty, and we also send students and faculty there. One of our faculty members, a chemist, will be spending the summer in Dartmouth doing research. We are looking for more opportunities of that nature, not just signing agreements, but making the agreements work.
Concerning student exchanges, are you looking in specific areas, such as Europe, or are you open to anywhere?
Personally, I am open to anywhere. When I was in Egypt, we worked out arrangements in the US, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Brazil, and many other places. It was enriching for everyone.
What is your overall strategy for 2017?
Although I have been familiar with the institution for almost seven years, I did just arrive, so I am focusing on listening to ideas that people have and responding to suggestions that people are making. In general, my own values are very focused on getting people to work more as members of a team and teams of teams, and collegiality of getting people to work together formally and informally better than in the past. My goal is to improve the quality of the learning environment. At any university, it is a mistake to rest on your laurels and to say, “That is enough. We are great. We do not need to do anything more.” We are doing fine, but we need to do better and we need to do more. We are now expanding our facilities and improving them so we will have more space to do more things. We are opening a student center here in Salmiya very soon. As soon as that is finished, the dust will barely settle and we will start work on another new building. This place will be a construction zone as well as a university for quite some time. That is without changing the size of the student body. It is to improve quality not quantity.
What are your plans for the student center?
The center will have places for students to hang out, for student affairs, advising, and many other things. There will be two gyms, one for males and one for females. There will be a multipurpose court for basketball, football, volleyball, and all sorts of sports. It is an excellent facility. I have been in it a few times. It is very well designed, very beautiful, and there is lots of natural light. It will be an attractive place to work and an attractive place for students to interact with faculty and each other. The next building will involve a variety of labs, not just science labs but engineering labs and art labs, as well as other facilities that will be enhancing and improving what we have.
What is your projection for the university in the medium term of the next two to three years, if everything goes according to plan?
One of our goals is to overcome something that is characteristic of many universities. People think in terms of their program and their department and their courses without necessarily thinking about what could be gained if we worked with others. We will focus on interdisciplinary cooperation and interdisciplinary ideas. It is hard to see in advance what the result will be, but that is part of the excitement. Right now, we have fourteen degree programs. How can we get people in those programs to work together to create synergistic opportunities across disciplines? For example, one of the things I would like to push is a program in entrepreneurship. But that would involve not just our business faculty and economists, but people in graphic design and arts, international relations, and people across the disciplines. There are many things that could be done with our communications and media program that would bring in people from business, history, and other fields. There are also opportunities that involve programs that are not majors. One of the things that happens in some fields is that people are taught techniques and they learn those techniques and what they produce is boring. How do you teach creativity? We have seen a trend in a number of programs where you have engineers or computer scientists and you in effect marry them temporarily with people in a program such as graphic art and design. You are trying to get them to be more creative in what they do, instead of being reactive and reproductive. They work to order, but they are not the ones doing the ordering. The whole idea and approach to liberal education is that you are producing people who rise to that standard. Part of that breadth is giving them more to stand on than merely a package of techniques, skills, or methods in one field. The opportunities that they can develop for themselves and working with others as a result of that breadth are unparalleled. You can see that in the managers and the leaders of many of the most important businesses in the world. Some of them were great students, many of them were not. One example is Apple. For Steve Jobs, studying calligraphy was an important factor in the production of what is now the Apple phenomenon. Who would make that connection? Calligraphy was a very important part of creating first the computers, then phones, and all the other events that occurred. What that triggered in his mind is an empire. There are more opportunities like that in any field you can think of. I am a lifelong educator, and I would like AUK to produce those leaders, managers, directors, creators, and innovators, not just cogs in somebody else’s wheel.
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