When one has all the luxuries that oil wealth can afford, what is there left to buy? How about the president of one of the world’s leading research universities?
A few days ago King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) – a three-year-old behemoth of a graduate school in Saudi Arabia with a $10 billion endowment from the Saudi Royal Family – tapped Jean-Lou Chameau for its head position. Jean-Lou, however, has a bit of a schlep ahead, leaving his position as the president Caltech University in Pasadena for Saudi Arabia. Some part of me thinks that he’ll be flying first class, though.
What leads a man to leave his job atop the scientific community for an untested position in the Kingdom nonetheless? Is it the weather? Hard to compete with Southern California. The paycheck? One can imagine that Mr. Chameau will be receiving a few extra “O’s” at the end of his. The politics? Well, that one may warrant a rain check.
From five Nobel laureates to five times the university endowment, Mr. Chameau’s transition to this coeducational institution – yes, to the scorn of many Islamic fundamentalists, women, too, will have the opportunity to share in his educational aura – has drawn many questions and quite a few eyebrow raises.
This high profile hire begs the question – is Jean-Lou Chameau good for Saudi education? All things considered, Saudi Arabia is getting by with their education record. With an illiteracy rate of 14 percent, Yemen – currently standing at an illiteracy rate of 46 percent – can only be left in admiration. With public education available for every Saudi citizen, primary schools in the Kingdom have a total gross enrollment ratio of 98.1 percent. It’s no wonder that with an oil wealthy nation such as Saudi Arabia, shelling out nearly 28 percent of its government expenditures on education (3rd highest of any country), is able to support monstrous education Meccas such as KAUST and tout these positive statistics.
However, in a conservative, Wahhabi nation in strict compliance with Sharia law, one fact cannot easily be erased away with a multi-billion dollar institution: there is no such thing as gender educational parity. Female illiteracy is staggeringly higher than that of men – largely contributing to a female unemployment rate over 20 percent greater than their male counterparts.
By all means, a tip of the hat to KAUST in their acquisition of a stellar new president. Mr. Chameau will surely be a tremendous addition to the institution and to higher education across all of Saudi Arabia. However, if the Kingdom truly wishes to be hailed as the educational destination of choice for the region – one might even say the New Haven of the Middle East – then drastic, multi-billion dollar change should happen in the form of bridging the gender gap.
To Mr. Chameau, congratulations on your new position and its accompanying signing bonus – the next round is surely on you. Well, maybe not in the Kingdom.