In a prelude to his Asia tour, President David Skorton visited Thuwal, Saudi Arabia -- a seaside village north of Jiddah -- where he joined Cornell President Emeritus Frank H.T. Rhodes at the Oct. 21 groundbreaking ceremonies for that nation's first independent, international graduate-level research university.
The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), funded with a $10 billion endowment from the king and slated to open in 2009, is central to Saudia Arabia's effort to overhaul its system of higher education and become a global center of collaborative science and technology research.
The university, described by Abdullah, king of Saudi Arabia, as a new Beyt al-Hekma, or House of Wisdom (referring to the medieval center of learning in Baghdad), will be governed by an independent, self-appointing board of trustees and open to researchers from across the globe. Rhodes wrote its charter, which stipulates leading roles for women and people of diverse nationalities and faiths.
Rhodes, who serves on the new university's International Advisory Council, spoke at the ceremony and moderated a panel discussion in Jiddah the following day on the role of a research university.
"The aim is, literally starting from scratch, to create a research university of science and engineering at a graduate level and put that at the top class of world institutions," said Rhodes in a telephone interview before the event. "I think it's a genuine attempt to create bridges and to apply science and technology to the needs of people not just in the kingdom but in the region and beyond it."
Cornell is one of 60 universities worldwide invited to participate in KAUST's Global Research Partnership, a peer-reviewed funding program that will support new research centers, investigators and research fellows in science and engineering. KAUST has also announced a scholarship program to fund graduate study for students from around the world.
KAUST will be an important link in a chain of international partnerships for Cornell, Rhodes said. "I'm sure we'll have students going in both directions, as well as faculty," he said. "At the moment it's a university in the making. I hope Cornell can be a constructive element in that making."
At the groundbreaking ceremony, Abdullah said, "The establishment of this university has been a living idea in my mind for more than 25 years, and I thank God for helping us to realize it." In a message on the university's Web site, he writes: "Since universities striving for excellence depend on an atmosphere of exploration and initiative, nurturing and protecting freedom of research, thought and discourse related to scholarly work will be among the primary objectives" of KAUST.
Rhodes called the event historic -- "a memorable event in the history not only of the kingdom but also the region and the world.
"This university aspires to place itself among the leading international universities that exist in the world today, ancient and modern -- not just another university or another college," he said.