x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Zayed University provost back at helm amid confusion

Recently announced head is now deputy while new leader Larry Wilson says Tom Cochran was always going to be second in command.

Recently announced head is now deputy while new leader Larry Wilson says Tom Cochran was always going to be second in command.
Recently announced head is now deputy while new leader Larry Wilson says Tom Cochran was always going to be second in command.

ABU DHABI // A former provost of Zayed University has returned to the role, the third person to hold the job in the space of less than two months.

In April, Dr Dan Johnson resigned after three years in the post. His chief of staff, Dr Tom Cochran, was named interim provost.

Two weeks ago, Dr Cochran said he had been confirmed in the role. Even yesterday there was some confusion at Zayed University, with some officials still under the impression he was the new head.

But it was later clarified that Dr Larry Wilson, who held the role for several years until 2007, was asked last week to take over. Dr Cochran will instead become assistant provost.

Dr Wilson insisted yesterday that Dr Cochran had only ever been in temporary charge.

Dr Wilson, who earned his doctorate in chemistry from the University of Kansas, has returned to Zayed after four years back in the US, consulting for universities there and in the Middle East.

University staff now say there is an air of uncertainty. Many fear the change at the top may have repercussions further down.

Dr Wilson said no major changes were planned, but admitted another change of leadership might create uncertainty.

It is the seventh time a new provost has been appointed since the university opened in 1998. However, Dr Wilson said it was in no way embarrassing for the institution.

"The most important part of any university is its faculty and students, and that's going on pretty smoothly," Dr Wilson said.

One academic, speaking anonymously, said: "Any new leader wants to make their mark and bring in their own team, and no doubt Dr Wilson will be the same.

"We've had a very shaky year already with all the changes and this doesn't help us or the students."

Dr Wilson said he hoped to make the two campuses, in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, more autonomous. He believed the two emirates have their own needs and personalities.

"Abu Dhabi has its 2030 plan which has its own demands, and Dubai something similar," he said.

In his new role, Dr Cochran will focus on the new Dh4billion, 6,000-capacity Abu Dhabi campus, which is due to open in August.

University insiders claim the changes began when at least two former provosts, Dr Wilson and Dr B Dell Felder, were brought over by senior officials to Abu Dhabi to oversee the final stages of the new campus.

Staff say Dr Johnson felt sidelined and resigned soon after, saying that for family reasons he wanted to return home to the US.

A university source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "It was a real blow to Dan, who had been so passionate about the university and he achieved so much during his time here. He felt very sidelined as any leader would, but had no choice in the matter."

Another academic welcomed Dr Wilson's return, saying: "Things have been so bad here recently that they can only be improved upon. A radical overhaul is necessary for the whole institution. Larry's open-door policy means things will change for the better, as he is responsive as opposed to reactive."

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.

Prof Samy Mahmood, the chancellor of the University of Sharjah, said the changes would have little effect in the short term, but, in the long term, stability of leadership was vital for young universities.

"As long as the vice chancellor is stable and the academic and strategic plans remain in place, that's the main thing," Prof Mahmood said. "The vice chancellor is effectively the CEO of the institution."

Dr Nabil Ibrahim, the chancellor of Abu Dhabi University, said change was sometimes necessary and for it to be positive the institution must be able to say the changes had helped take it forward. When it comes to leadership, this is not an easy balancing act.

"There are always competing factors between achieving stability in leadership, which is extremely important in terms of the strategic moves of the university, then balancing this with really selecting the right leadership … asking who will move the institution forward," he said.

mswan@thenational.ae