Choon Fong Shih built his academic reputation on understanding how metal cracks under stress. Now the Singapore-born, U.S.-trained materials scientist will be addressing the fault lines in global higher education by becoming the founding president of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a new graduate university in Saudi Arabia with a $10 billion endowment and aspirations to become a world-class research institution.
"Professor Shih is a man of purpose, conviction, and cultural sensitivity," said Ali Ibrahim Al-Naimi, the Saudi minister of petroleum and mineral resources and chair of the new university's board of trustees, in a statement yesterday announcing Shih's appointment. "He has shown himself to be a 'builder of bridges' across peoples, disciplines, institutions, and cultures."
Shih, 62, is currently vice-chancellor of the National University of Singapore (NUS), which he has transformed from a well-regarded undergraduate institute to an Asian research powerhouse by hiring top-notch scientists, fostering an entrepreneurial spirit, and forming global alliances. "NUS is moving up in the world, and Shih certainly deserves some of the credit," says Rodney Clifton, a professor of mechanical engineering at Brown University, where Shih was a faculty member for 15 years before moving back to Singapore in 1996. "He has a very positive vision of what's possible, and he also possesses tremendous energy."
In December, Shih will take up the reins at KAUST, which rises from a desert site on the Red Sea some 80 km north of Jeddah and which is scheduled to open in September of 2009. Shih intends to attract faculty members with generous, guaranteed funding--"much bigger than the usual start-up package," he says--and believes that rolling 6-year contracts will prove to be a suitable replacement for tenure. In the meantime, some 34 research teams from around the world have applied for 5-year, $5-million-a-year Global Research Partnership grants, of which five will be awarded in the first round. KAUST officials hope the program will lay the foundation for the type of partnerships that Shih nurtured at NUS.
At NUS, Shih has concentrated resources on a handful of areas that the government has highlighted for development, creating centers of excellence that have buoyed the university's reputation. He says he plans to take a similar approach at KAUST, which will be organized around multidisciplinary research topics rather than individual departments. "He's been in phase with what the country wants to do in science and technology, and it's paid off," says William Schowalter, an emeritus professor of chemical engineering at Princeton University and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who has worked as senior adviser to Shih for the past 6 years. "If anybody can make KAUST work, he can."