Al Ain, United Arab Emirates
Two years ago, when he was asked what had made him decide to move to the Persian Gulf to lead an effort to turn a local public university into one of the world's leading research institutions, Wyatt R. (Rory) Hume's reply boiled down to one thing: money.
Mr. Hume had been assured he would have access to the kind of money he needed to make big changes at United Arab Emirates University.
Those assurances seemed solid: They came from Sheik Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan, this country's long-serving minister of higher education and a member of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi. He is also chancellor of UAEU.
"He wants to lift it to the level of Michigan, Berkeley, or the University of North Carolina," Mr. Hume told The Chronicle after he was appointed provost. "He's prepared to put the money behind it, and he's persuaded me that he's serious and committed to rapid change."
Shortly after he arrived, Mr. Hume, a former provost in the University of California system, pledged that, if he got the funds he needed, he would transform UAEU into one of the world's top 100 research institutions within five years.
Now, nearly two years later, Mr. Hume's once-grand plans for the university have yet to be realized.
The money Sheik Nahayan promised has not yet come through, administrators have laid off faculty and staff members to salvage their efforts to transform the university, and many faculty members who remain are growing demoralized.
In the oil-rich UAE, with its difficult-to-penetrate local culture and mysterious politics, faculty members and other observers lay much of the blame for the university's dashed expectations on Mr. Hume's outsider status. He had admirable ambitions, they say, but didn't understand how things really work in the Gulf.
Out of the Shadows
Back in 2008, many in the UAE recognized that it was time to do something about the country's relatively weak higher-education sector—one of the most significant factors holding back the development of the seven emirates that make up this country.
Abu Dhabi's rulers had pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to entice top American universities like New York University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to establish or help build showcase campuses. The rulers even attracted the Louvre to build its first overseas branch.
In Dubai the publicly financed Zayed University moved into a gleaming new campus and announced that it had become the first university in the Arab world to receive accreditation from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.
But UAEU, the so-called national university, languished in the shadows as newer, more Western-oriented institutions took the limelight.
"As these new institutions were being created, UAEU was rotting," says Christopher M. Davidson, an expert on the politics of the UAE at the University of Durham, in England, and a former lecturer at Zayed University. "Literally, its buildings were crumbling."
Originally modeled on Cairo University, UAEU had been the country's only university for most of its three decades of independence.
But its 800 faculty members, many of whom were Arab expatriates, struggled with heavy teaching loads, out-of-date facilities, and a byzantine bureaucracy. For most of them, research was a luxury.
So when Mr. Hume pledged to lift the university into the top research ranks, it seemed to the faculty that the new provost had made a promise that would be very difficult to keep.
"I mean, anybody working in this field just started laughing," says Abdulmajeed Saif M. Al-Khajah, the assistant dean for research in the College of Science and president of the association at UAEU that represents the 180 or so Emirati faculty members.
But the rest of the world seems to have taken notice. The university had not even registered on any world-rankings lists before Mr. Hume arrived. Yet last year, the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings placed it at 374, what some faculty members refer to as the "Hume effect."
Now Mr. Hume says the rankings pledge was more of a management tactic to kick-start his changes than a promise: "It's realistic to set yourself a fast time frame, because otherwise you think you've got longer to do stuff," he says. "Imagine if I had said this will take 20 years."
Notwithstanding their skepticism over Mr. Hume's timeline, Mr. Al-Khajah and other Emirati faculty members wanted a stake in whatever process was going to unfold.
"Please, please, we are here to help you," Mr. Al-Khajah says he told Mr. Hume as he moved into the provost's office in the concrete office block that serves as UAEU's administration building.
But, Mr. Al-Khajah says, his offer fell on deaf ears.
Instead, Mr. Hume populated the top administrative offices with expatriates like himself—including Nancy Dye, a former president of Oberlin College who became UAEU's vice provost for undergraduate education, and Rene Dennis, who followed Mr. Hume from the University of California system to take the position of deputy provost for executive affairs.
Such a strategy is not uncommon. Universities and governments in Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and elsewhere have recruited globally for top talent as they try to move their higher-education systems into the international elite. But at UAEU that strategy rubbed some people the wrong way.
"With all respect to Mr. Hume, I don't agree with the way he has run the show," Mr. Al-Khajah says. "The nationals are demoralized. They're not supported, and we're not consulted with."
Mr. Hume says he has worked closely with Emiratis at every step, including Abdullah Al-Khanbashi, the university's Emirati vice chancellor. And he says his Emirati colleagues, including the higher-education minister, have helped him understand the "unique and very admirable" culture of the Emirates.
A $917-Million Plan
Mr. Hume and his team got to work. In the first six months of his tenure, he says, he consulted with the "university community," with administrators at other universities in the UAE, and with international consultants.
In February 2009 he unveiled the 18-point action plan that he believed would bring UAEU out of the academic shadows.
In part, it was a series of administrative reforms that decentralized decision making and held faculty members accountable to internal and external peer reviews.
It also sought to improve the experience for undergraduate students by creating a more cohesive program and developing residential colleges similar to those at Yale University, including the replacement of cafeterias with "relatively formal dining halls."
But perhaps most bold was the plan's research strategy, which centered on the establishment of eight new "global-quality" research institutes in areas like information technology and energy, environment, and water.
To support the research centers, the plan proposed hiring clusters of new faculty members and establishing UAEU's first Ph.D. programs, tailored to the country's needs.
The latter was especially significant, given the lack of doctoral programs in the region. As a result, relatively few Emiratis hold Ph.D.'s. To get the transformation rolling, the university would need a staggering amount of money: an additional $917-million during the first three years, to be exact.
Mr. Hume had clearly taken Sheik Nahayan's promises to heart.
In the spring of 2009, Mr. Hume unveiled the plan, called "Transforming the UAEU," to faculty members in a series of town-hall meetings.
"When I first heard him speak, I was really excited about this plan," says a faculty member who did not want to be quoted by name for fear of being punished or even fired for speaking out. "I believed what he said about the research-intensive university. I believed he was serious."
"But a year later, I can tell you that we have not seen positive change since he came," the professor continues. The first signs of resistance came about a month after the plans were announced.
Many Emirati faculty members were particularly against Mr. Hume's proposal to "rebrand" the university with a new name and, perhaps more important, his call for an end to the preferential treatment that the university had, at least unofficially, given Emirati faculty members.
Several expatriate faculty members say it was a politically clumsy move in a society where status is extremely important and many Emiratis believe they deserve preferential treatment.
They are outnumbered by expatriates, three to one, and many Emiratis quietly fear that foreigners have edged them out of the country's most ambitious jobs. A discussion about equal status for all residents of the UAE is simply a nonstarter.
Many members of the National Faculty Association were furious with the proposal. They convened a rare public meeting to discuss their concerns. Stories appeared in the local Arabic-language newspapers.
Before opposition could spiral out of control, Mr. Hume responded to the concerns by scrapping the name change and declaring that the university would officially prefer to hire a qualified Emirati professor over a non-Emirati.
"We won that fight, and the two issues were solved," Mr. Al-Khajah says.
But the initial resistance from Emirati faculty members exposed the much deeper problem at UAEU: Emiratis felt cut out of the reform process at an institution that was supposed to be their national university.
"How can you develop a national capacity for research when 80 percent of the administrators are expatriates? When all of the top administrators [Mr. Hume] brought here are expatriates?" Mr. Al-Khajah asks. "When they make these new policies, they don't understand the background. They don't know the history."
In his rush to build the university's ability to turn out research, Mr. Hume's plan relied on hiring and generously supporting "clusters" of researchers, Mr. Al-Khajah says, who could only have been found abroad. And while that might provide a kind of "ready-made" research capacity, Mr. Al-Khajah says those researchers would most likely come to the Emirates for a few years and then leave rather than fostering the Emirati talent that will stay in the UAE for life.
But Mr. Hume plays down the concerns that Mr. Al-Khajah raises, saying they come from only a "small group of Emirati faculty."
"I believe that the great majority of our Emirati faculty are supportive of these changes," Mr. Hume says.
And to be sure, a significant part of Mr. Hume's transformation plan focuses on establishing Ph.D. programs that will focus on turning out Emirati academics.
"I don't disagree with his mission," Mr. Al-Khajah says. "I disagree with the way he wants it to run."
Although Abu Dhabi is widely regarded as one of the world's richest cities, UAEU has always found it challenging to secure financing.
The university depends heavily on the national government of the emirates for its annual budget, which underwrites the full tuition costs for students. And because the seven emirates, or city-states, that make up the UAE control their own finances, the national government has a much more limited budget than, say, the government of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.
The rumors of impending layoffs began circulating in February, almost a year after the transformation plans were announced.
By April it was clear: The federal government was not going to give the university any of the $535 million in extra funding Mr. Hume's transformation plan had sought in 2009 and 2010. In fact, the core support the UAEU is set to receive this year is exactly what it received in 2009, Mr. Hume says.
When asked if he is disappointed that the money hasn't come through, Mr. Hume replies that, the way he sees it, he has not been denied funds.
"Please be clear, this was not a request for funding. It was a request for need," Mr. Hume says. "I've not gone to the federal cabinet and said, 'Give me this amount of money.'"
In fact, he says that the 18-point plan was simply a set of "guidelines or suggestions for discussion."
Still, Mr. Hume decided that in order to move ahead with some of the doctoral programs and to hire new faculty members in "research clusters," he was willing to make cuts in other areas. Mr. Al-Khajah explains that most departments were asked to find ways to save 7 percent on salaries.
Last month, in what the university called an "operational decision," it laid off approximately 60 staff and 18 faculty members.
"It was a huge shock," says one of the laid-off professors, who did not want to be quoted by name. "And I don't know how they're going to cope. At my specific college, we already have a high teaching load—I had 14 credit hours last semester.
"Now, the other faculty members are worried about what's going to happen next," the professor continues. "Nobody feels secure."
Mr. Hume says that the transformation plan is still moving forward, but on a modified scale.
One of the four research institutes, in information technology, has opened "in concept," he says. Financing has not yet been secured. And the master plan for the campus has been reviewed, although money for construction has not yet arrived.
Mr. Hume is also beginning to look for financial support outside of the national government, and he is building relationships with potential donors in the corporate sector.
"Everything we said we would work to do, we are doing," he says, although he acknowledges that it is unlikely the university can move into the ranks of the top 100 in the next few years.
The Power of Politics
Of 10 faculty members contacted by The Chronicle for this article, most refused to be interviewed, saying they were afraid that speaking out would lead to their firing.
As for the faculty members who have not been laid off, their support for Mr. Hume and his proposed changes is disappearing fast.
When Mr. Hume announced his plan, "there were town-hall meetings, and you would see him around the campus talking to people," one professor says. "But now," the professor says, the provost "doesn't know what to do."
The 39-page "Transforming the UAEU" document recently disappeared from the university's Web site.
So why is it that Abu Dhabi can spend millions helping New York University build a branch campus or pay MIT to develop the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, yet keep financing flat for its largest public university?
Mr. Hume says it's because the university "hasn't been able to persuade the country that what we are doing is of value to the country."
But it may also be a matter of domestic politics, says Mr. Davidson, the University of Durham lecturer.
"These flagship projects, like the Louvre and NYU, are all being funded at the individual emirate level by the crown prince," Sheik Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahayan. "He controls the oil surpluses, and they will go to his projects first. And Sheik Nahayan [the higher-education minister] is being bypassed."
Although Sheik Nahayan is a member of the ruling family, he comes from a branch that does not have control of the seemingly limitless Abu Dhabi oil wealth, Mr. Davidson says. That means he must persuade the national government to finance projects like the transformation of UAEU from its more limited budget.
And so it seems that Sheik Nahayan, the man who promised Mr. Hume he would have what he needed to make big changes at UAEU, has not been able to deliver.
"His plan was really ambitious. It needed billions of dirhams," Mr. Al-Khajah says of Mr. Hume. "But now that the money isn't available, what happens? I don't think he ever thought he would need Plan B."
Andrew Mills, The Chronicle's Middle East correspondent, teaches journalism at Qatar University.