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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

American University of Sharjah chief charts new course

Dr Bjorn Kjerfve wants to build on reputation with focus on research.
Dr Bjorn Kjerfve, an oceanographer, has worked in universities in Brazil, Malaysia, Australia and the United States. Victor Besa for The National
Dr Bjorn Kjerfve, an oceanographer, has worked in universities in Brazil, Malaysia, Australia and the United States. Victor Besa for The National

SHARJAH // It has been almost a year since Dr Bjorn Kjerfve took over the reins at the American University of Sharjah. And it hasn’t been plain sailing for the chancellor, who made research a priority at the institution despite the UAE lacking a national research-funding body.

However, this is all part of a plan to put AUS on the global map, Dr Kjerfve said. “We are not as well known as we should be. One of the real challenges is to do the right kind of marketing internationally, to recruit the right kind of faculty and students we want to target.

“The faculty we have here are excellent, but the challenge we face is there are no national research agencies.”

AUS opened in 1997 and now has about 5,000 students. It is one of a handful of UAE universities to make it into international rankings, something that the Swede said needs to be changed.

“This country has built many academic institutions, but what’s missing is the likes of the National Science Foundation, or the National Institute of Health.

“The main challenge here in turn is keeping the faculty who are trained to and want to do research, but they get frustrated because they can’t competitively get the resources they need to make progress.”

Dr Kjerfve, an oceanographer by trade who has worked in universities in Brazil, Malaysia, Australia and the Texas A&M University in the US, said that although there have been efforts to partner with institutions in the US and Europe, constraints are in place as to where funding goes outside those countries.

Discussions have also been held between institutions within the UAE on pooling of resources.

A new department dedicated to research is being established, along with plans to introduce two doctorate programmes by January 2016 – one in business and one in engineering.

“I think it’s important for the reputation of the university,” Dr Kjerfve said. “The challenge will be the funding of the research, but that’s the same challenge in any of the institutions in the UAE. Reputation is important for recruiting the best faculty and to show we are more than a teaching institution. We are teaching and research-centric.”

Dr Hani El Kadi, a professor of mechanical engineering who has taught at AUS since 1998, said the focus on doctorates and research is a positive one.

“What I like is that Dr Kjerfve is trying to find research programmes that benefit the UAE and the [Arabian] Gulf. It’s not just about having doctorate programmes for the sake of it. It’s research that will help the society.”

Dr Kjerfve is the fourth AUS chancellor Dr El Kadi has worked with, but the first who is a scientist, which he sees as a positive for the university.

“It gives us a direction we probably didn’t have before,” Dr El Kadi said. “The challenge will be to stay on top of our undergraduate programmes, which we’ve been recognised for.”

Dr Khaled Assaleh, a professor of electrical engineering at AUS since 2002, agreed that Dr Kjerfve was helping to fill a gap at the university.

“We needed someone who has done this before, been an academic in an academic environment for as long as he has. This wealth of experience and his extensive research background of more than 40 years is the right mix for someone to lead the university in this direction.”

Dr Assaleh acknowledged that funding would be tough. “It’s a challenge everyone is facing,” he said. “There’s a gap between industry and academics, which we feel hopefully the chancellor can address.”

Dr Cindy Gunn, a professor of English and the head of faculty development, who has been with the university since 2001, hopes there will be a lift of faculty morale and a more open channel of communication with the new leadership.

“It’s a move in the right direction. We are very lucky that the chancellor is a highly respected researcher in his field, so knows the challenges of getting funding. With this push towards research, however, I would still like the focus to be on faculty development.”

mswan@thenational.ae