x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Dr Tom Cochran's university challenge

Provost faces deadline to ensure everything is ready for the rapidly growing institution's Abu Dhabi campus.

Down to the power sockets: Dr Tom Cochran, the new provost of Zayed University. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Down to the power sockets: Dr Tom Cochran, the new provost of Zayed University. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

DUBAI // The new Dh4 billion Zayed University campus in Abu Dhabi is taking up all of Dr Tom Cochran's time.

After being appointed the university's provost last month, Dr Cochran has the huge task of ensuring the final details are completed before the August 1 opening.

"It's about making sure the everything is in place, right down to the plug sockets," he says. "We've put a lot of energy into seeing that we're ready to open on time."

Dr Cochran, who came to Zayed University as a vice provost eight years ago, has seen the university grow rapidly. When he joined there were about 1,200 students. Last year, its student body increased by more than a fifth to 5,600, and this year it expects to add another 15 per cent in both its Dubai and Abu Dhabi campuses.

Coping with such rapid growth has been no mean feat, Dr Cochran says. "In established institutions you're only looking at 3 to 4 per cent increases per year," he says.

In 1998, Zayed University was the first federal university to open solely for women, with only 200 students. Today, almost a third of its students are men.

As the university prepares to open its Abu Dhabi campus, with a capacity for 6,000 students, Dr Cochran is preparing for a move of his own. He and his wife are moving from Dubai to the capital.

"It's been eight years and this is an important project," he says. "I need to be there."

Beyond the new campus, there are many areas in which Dr Cochran hopes the university can progress under his watch. It needs to be more transparent, he says, for "more accountability … [and] evidence that our students are learning and gaining the skills we want them to gain".

"It requires a rethink and refocus, more so than large resources, of how we do business. We need evidence that Zayed University is turning out good graduates."

As the university's sixth provost in 13 years, Dr Cochran is aware of the challenges that come with the role. His predecessor, Dr Dan Johnson, resigned two months ago after three years in the post.

One challenge Dr Cochran acknowledges is research, for which Zayed's academics struggle to find time between teaching duties.

"We need the resources for faculty to have time to do that research," he says. "We need more faculty to make that time."

He hopes the 30 or so academics he plans to hire next year will help. "We'll be looking at areas like heritage, the arts and social well-being."

But the role should be fascinating and rewarding, says Professor Rory Hume, Dr Cochran's opposite number at UAE University. "You're the chief academic, responsible for both the planning and delivery of academic programmes; responsible for the future academic path of the university," he says.

"You get to deal with the scholars, the Government, the governing board, overseeing what academic programmes are needed to meet the needs of society."

Unlike universities in the West, many of which are having their funding cut as governments struggle to balance their budgets, the role in the UAE is highly rewarding.

"Here, the potential for quality improvement is really high … it's a country that's rapidly developing and that has the resources to be improved," Prof Hume says.

The provost is the key to making improvements stick, especially for an institution as young as Zayed University, says Prof Anna Vignoles, of the Institute of Education in London.

"There is good empirical evidence that in learning organisations such as schools and universities the quality of the head is crucial, and I would think this is even more critical in a new university which is establishing itself in the market," Prof Vignoles says.

Zayed University has already come as far in 13 years as many institutions do in their first 50, according to its founding provost, Dr B Dell Felder. And its mission is no less important now.

"Tom has a great challenge and opportunity," Dr Felder says, adding this will depend on its leadership and use of money and talent.

"The quality of this nation depends on the Emiratis that rise up. Our students will be the mothers of the future generation.

"When we educate women to the standard these girls are, you're going to change the future of the generations that follow."

mswan@thenational.ae