CSE 2009: The World’s First CSE University

June 15, 2009

The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, scheduled to welcome its first class of students in September, sponsored a reception in Miami on March 2, the first day of the SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering. David Keyes and Omar Ghattas, involved in different ways in the new venture, hosted the reception and made informal presentations to the assembled crowd.

Most readers will know something of KAUST, which for the record is a graduate-only (master's and doctoral) university being constructed in Saudi Arabia, on the eastern edge of the Red Sea, not far from Jeddah. Keyes, the inaugural chair of KAUST's Mathematical and Computer Sciences and Engineering Division, offered examples of research areas of particular interest to Saudi Arabia and the region that will be emphasized; among them are geophysics, seismology, reservoir modeling, CO2 sequestration, photovoltaics, stress-tolerant agriculture, desalination, catalysis, and materials, along with the applied mathematics and computer science required to support them.

Sizeable recruitment ads for KAUST have appeared in many recent issues of SIAM News, often side by side with ads placed by partners of the new university, such as the KAUST–UT Austin Academic Excellence Alliance. Ghattas, as director of the alliance, has been recruiting faculty for KAUST's Earth and Environmental Sciences and Engineering Division. The week of the SIAM conference, the NA Digest ran a recruitment notice for numerical analysts, posted by Nick Trefethen on behalf of the KAUST-funded Oxford Centre for Collaborative Applied Mathematics.

Other research alliances and partnerships are in place. Stanford, for example, is recruiting faculty in applied math and computer science, as well as providing guidance in curriculum development; the initial KAUST curriculum in those disciplines is similar to Stanford's, Keyes said in Miami. Cornell is a partner in a center on nanomaterials. The Institute for Applied Mathematics and Computational Science, established by Texas A&M University (with the University of Utah and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), will support research conducted by multidisciplinary teams of mathematicians, statisticians, and computer scientists. High-performance computing facilities---a petaflop/s Blue Gene/P system named Shaheen---is being developed under an IBM–KAUST partnership.

One way to envision KAUST is to think about its walls. Most interesting are the ones that don't exist---the walls that delineate disciplinary departments in traditionally structured universities.

KAUST does not have departments, Keyes pointed out in Miami; rather, it offers "a conscious break from the disciplinary ossification" produced by traditional university structures. "It's the world's first CSE university."

Clearly, a conference on CSE was an appropriate setting for the reception (which because of space constraints was by invitation). At the SIAM conference, speaker after speaker---in invited talks, in minisymposia, and in a panel discussion---identified the traditional department-based structure of universities as a key impediment to progress in CSE. Several people at the reception, and in fact many of the speakers at the meeting, had signed on with KAUST in one way or another.

Balancing the absent walls are real walls without which the dream of King Abdullah probably could not be realized. (Having reportedly had such a university in mind for some 25 years, the King sees it promoting the transformation of the Kingdom from a petroleum-based to an information-based economy.) KAUST will be a gated residential community, with a Western lifestyle and customs. Ghattas, whose parents worked for Aramco, grew up in a similar compound in Saudi Arabia. This aspect of the new university may be most meaningful to women, who will teach and study side by side with men at KAUST, free of the restrictions on women in the Kingdom.

Women account for approximately a quarter of the initial class of approximately 400 KAUST students---a higher percentage, Keyes pointed out, than at top U.S. graduate schools of engineering; not surprisingly, most of the women, especially in computer science, are from the Middle East. The students for that class, from about 60 countries all over the world, were recruited (by IIE, the organization that manages the Fulbright scholar program). Housing, for both students and faculty, is free. Internet connections will be directly to the West.

As to organization, KAUST has four divisions: the MCSE division headed by Keyes and the EESE division for which UT Austin is recruiting, along with the Life Sciences and Engineering, and the Physical and Chemical Sciences and Engineering Divisions. KAUST will not award tenure; rather, faculty will work under rolling five-year contracts.

Web sites devoted to KAUST abound. Not surprisingly, institutions that have re-search alliances and partnerships with KAUST (about 40 research universities worldwide) are enthusiastic about the venture. Reporters in the mainstream media for the most part have expressed a degree of skepticism. Keyes, whose enthusiasm appears to be contagious, looks forward to "bringing a bouquet of CSE projects to fruition." Ghattas, who admits to early reservations, was convinced by the vision presented by the initial KAUST management (composed mainly of executives on leave from Aramco) of "a world-class university focusing on interdisciplinary research problems and based on principles of equality and non-discrimination with respect to gender, religion, and race."

SIAM currently has a grand total of seven members in Saudi Arabia. According to Keyes, that's sure to change in at least one way: "Of course there will be a SIAM Student Chapter at KAUST!"


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