Experienced, Self-Driven & Results Orientated

Prof. Hassam Hamdan Al-Alkim, Vice Chancellor of the American University of RAK

Interview with Prof. Hassam Hamdan Al-Alkim, Vice Chancellor of the American University of RAK.
by Lawrence J. Ireton.

Prof. Hassan Hamdan Al Alkim

Prof. Hassan Hamdan Al Alkim

Lawrence J. Ireton: Please talk to us about the origins of the American University of RAK and why it was established.

I will try to shed some light on AURAK. AURAK was initially the outreach campus for George Mason University but for some reason (maybe due to the credit crunch), in 2008, George Mason decided to pull out of the project. The Ruler of the Emirate was then the Crown Prince and we could not just ask the students to find somewhere else. So the idea of AURAK came up. We had a vision that could contribute effectively to the development of the Emirate.

AURAK came up in 2009 and has been accredited and licensed by the Ministry of Higher Education. Of course, Doctor Sharan was the President at the time and just recently in September 2011 I assumed the position as VC of AURAK. We have tried to set a strategy and action plan for ourselves. We have a clear vision where we would like to provide high-quality education based on the American system. The American education system is favored in the region because it is flexible – students can take credit hours depending on their GPA. You can stop for one semester or take evening or weekend classes.

People in the region and around the world favor the American system compared to the old traditional system, although there are people who go to the British higher education system and who favor it. That is why we are called the American University of RAK – we follow the American system. It is flexible. Secondly we have a lot of things to do, but our student numbers have increased by 90% probably. We believe that students are the reason why the university is here. Our vision is to provide higher education based on the American system, but integrated with local culture. We are trying to make a positive contribution to local culture by using knowledge transfer from the US.

Of course you need an action plan for this vision. So the first thing we did was change the structure of the university. We now have 4 schools – the School of Engineering, the School of Business, and the School of Arts and Science. We decided to do this because we thought we needed to introduce new programs. Currently we have electronic engineering and communication and computer engineering, and we are planning on civil engineering. You will have core courses and you will have to change the curriculum for the schools. We also split academic affairs from admin affairs. You cannot do both at the same time. For that reason, the new hierarchy has 2 deputies – one for academic and another for admin.

We also believe that we have to have the right faculty. The university has been hunting for the right faculty. Nationality is not an issue. Of course, we are in favor of having a few Americans, and I think we have succeeded in recruiting an American professor to be the Deputy Vice Chancellor for Economic Affairs. We believe that an American with an American educational background could help the university achieve its objectives. Someone will be coming up soon.

We are also looking at recruiting some American faculty members or deans. We have at least 13 criteria for faculty recruitment, starting from the Institute of Education to the Institution of Work to research, community service, teaching, awards etc.

Lawrence J. Ireton: You discussed the importance of teachers. Tell us a bit more about the trip you made recently and the new partnerships you have established.

We thought we should have some partners as an American university. We initially approached George Mason and we are still following some George Mason programs. The curriculum is divided in the American way and the changes are becoming clearer. We have also introduced courses that serve the community. We know what the labor market wants. We are trying to set up partnerships with the private and public sector to look at what they expect civil engineers to have.

I went to George Mason, they welcomed the idea and we signed an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding). I think this will support the university and keep the university in line with the American system. I am trying to maintain the standards and quality. We also have the IRO (Institutional Research Office). Its main mission is the standards and quality and university performance measures. It measures the outcomes and the qualities of the courses – everything.

With regard to recruitment, we do favor those who have an American education background. But it is not just Americans – maybe you will find someone with extensive research, and we did recruit someone from France This university was totally oriented towards teaching, and we think the university is different to a polytechnic. We think we should have research, so I have started a research unit. We have started a promotion policy where you need a certain number of papers published in international journals. We are also thinking of introducing another policy for those who want to attend conferences. The university should play a role in that.

I sincerely believe that the faculty is the university, without meaning to humiliate anyone else. You need the right faculty, and you can tell from people’s CVs, although we do not rely on CVs entirely; we do interviews. The CV is the first impression. We placed an ad in the higher Education Chronicle in the States for example and we did one in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Malaysia, and we have received many good applicants. We have recruited 5 or 6 so far. They are good in their fields. The Institution of Education plays another role, and we prefer to have people coming out of good institutions.

Lawrence J. Ireton: What is the vision? What is your timeframe?

This is not the only thing. We have to change the staff. A good university needs staff to support the mission. We have a manual for HR and we set criteria for recruitment and we give some preference to localization. We opened the way for part-timers locally. Locals can also come. We have a professor in biotechnology who comes to teach, and we are opening the doors to others who have retired. They might be able to teach 3 credit hours, but they will not be full-time employees. We are giving them a chance.

We also set up an advisory council for every school. We try to merge academics with practice. For example, the engineering advisory council has 3 academics. The other 4 come from the market. First of all, we get input directly from outside to improve the school. Secondly, we set up a bridge between the university and society in terms of serving the society, and thirdly they can work as a marketing tool for the university. Our graduates know the standards, so they can recruit them.

With regard to student recruitment, we have decided to limit the load that students can take, based on their GPA. If he is below 2.5, he cannot take more than 12. If he is below 3, he can take up to 15 credit hours and if he is above 3, the maximum he can take is 18. We do not want to keep them for longer, but we want to make sure that students are up to standard. Taking 4 classes is different to 5 or 6 – we want to help them to increase their GPA so they can go for postgraduate study. We have also looked at attendance – students who miss 5 classes will lose the opportunity to sit the exam. We are trying to set discipline and educate.

Now our people are at an exhibition in Kuwait, and they will be going to Bahrain after that. They were in Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah and they will be in Oman in April. We are trying to open up to the region as well. At the same time, I approached some of the cultural people in regional embassies, and we hope to double the number next year. We will be introducing 3 new undergraduate programs, 7 engineering and English translation and accounting programs. We changed the business programs from concentration to major and I have introduced the major/minor in the business school and biotech engineering and engineering can take a minor. We are also consolidating our relations with the Minister of Higher Education. I think so much has been done so far.

We will also be implementing SIS blackboards from next academic year. We are in the final stages. Some of our pupils have gone to Beirut to see what the company provided to a small private university there like ours. They went to see if any problems arose. I spoke to them yesterday and they are very happy. We hope that the SIS will make students’ lives easier. They can register from home – they do not have to come. Also, we will not need manpower for registration, because they can log on and register. We are also trying to digitalize HR and Finance. Next year we will also have an interactive website, where anyone around the world can visit the application page, pay the fee and a message will go to them immediately stating whether they have met the requirements or not. This is what we have done so far. We also signed with a local network which is like a consortium for universities, where we can use interlibrary loans and the online library and things like that.

I am also hoping to get a smart room next year where I can connect with the universities that we have signed an MOU with, if there is a lecture or somebody who can teach a course via videoconferencing. We hope to do something like that by next year. We have a vision for a new campus for the university in the future, because this will not accommodate more than 600 students.

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