x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Change at the top at UAE University

New provost's aim is for more collaboration among academics on research projects.

Dr Mohammed Yousef Baniyas, who has been appointed the new provost of United Arab Emirates University.
Dr Mohammed Yousef Baniyas, who has been appointed the new provost of United Arab Emirates University.

AL AIN // Prof Mohamed Baniyas steps into the role of provost of United Arab Emirates University today. Foremost in his mind will be how to put his stamp on the university while continuing the work of his predecessor.

After more than 20 years at UAEU, the former dean of medical science is taking over from Prof Rory Hume to head the country's leading federal research university.

Prof Baniyas has worked under Prof Hume for the past four years.

With 14,000 students, it is the biggest single federal institution - the Higher Colleges of Technology are bigger with 19,000 students, but they are spread over 17 campuses across the country.

"I wish I had another two or three years under Rory," said Prof Baniyas. "He has been a great mentor and has done wonderful things for the university."

While much of his task will be to continue the work started by Prof Hume in building the university's research and postgraduate capacity, he plans some innovations, too.

He wants to encourage his academics to put more effort into working across departments, to which there has previously been some resistance.

"We have a lot of researchers but what is missing is working in teams or groups. They don't talk to each other," he said.

"We are encouraging people to come with team projects when applying for grants now. Individual ones are great but the research takes a long time and someone has to piece it all together."

He plans to set up institutes that bring together academics from various disciplines to cover areas such as water, energy, biotechnology and sustainability.

And, unusually for the UAE, he hopes to give departments a degree of autonomy. "There is strategic planning between the provost and deans but the provost has to monitor, not control, things. I want more colleges running the place.

"As a dean, this is something I've seen first-hand. This is the biggest campus in the country and it can't be run like a family business.

"Research productivity, educational outcomes, faculty recruitment and so on all takes place at the dean level, who has to take care of the students and such issues."

That will free him up to take on a more strategic role, looking at which degrees are needed or are no longer working, organising training for academics and running workshops on research.

He describes his plan as "teaching the units how to run rather than running the units."

Dr Sehamuddin Galadari, vice-provost for research and graduate studies, said there will be a big push to get every undergraduate involved in research. Currently, only medical students are required to undertake research that counts towards their final grades.

"I believe a short research experience will be very useful for our students in engaging them early on and will give them a better connection to encourage them to continue into graduate studies and PhDs," said Dr Galadari.

The move has the new provost's strong support.

"It will encourage students to have more critical thinking," he said. "The students are good in their subject matter but many need to improve their practical skills and this is one way of doing this, such as presentation and writing skills."

He also hopes to see more students placed on internships, to make them more employable.

Dr Donald Baker, UAEU's vice provost for undergraduate education, was on the interview panel in 2010 that chose Prof Baniyas for his job as dean of medicine.

"Even then he stood out," he said. "He already had a good idea of where it was going and ought to be going. It was an additional benefit that he was Emirati, which means local connections."

He said Prof Baniyas's background in medicine, the most research-intensive department, gives him first-hand knowledge of what a greater focus on research will mean for the university.

"We've been moving in that direction but he at least will keep on that track," he said. "He'll continue the thrust under way now that Rory Hume intensified."

mswan@thenational.ae