University's new head sees UAE as 'unique'

Running a university in Sharjah will be a more peaceful affair for Dr Peter Heath than his previous posting.

Dr Peter Heath, chancellor of the American University is looking forward to the challenges of his new job.
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Running a university in Sharjah will certainly be a more peaceful affair for Dr Peter Heath than his previous posting. On July 11 2006, Dr Heath, then provost of the American University of Beirut, was helping the school prepare for its largest freshman class in three decades. The next day, when fighting broke out with Israel, he was planning the evacuation of dozens of international summer students in the country to learn Arabic.

Now, Dr Heath, who was recently named the chancellor of the American University of Sharjah, is looking forward to seeing what he can do in a country with more stability and a booming economy. He is especially keen to raise academic standards and expand the university. "What's happening here is unique and is being watched by the rest of the Arab world," he said. The Middle East, he added, should focus on developing private institutions such as AUS, instead of relying too much on state universities.

"The national universities are facing challenges throughout the Arab world. They were the main investment in the 60s and 70s and they've not fulfilled expectations." He cited the example of Cairo University, which he described as "the strongest university in the Arab world" in the 1950s. "By opening up the university so it became a huge public university, the faculty and the institution became overwhelmed by the population boom. It couldn't invest in the academic quality that was once its hallmark.

"Whether it's Jordan or Saudi Arabia, when you have a faculty member dealing with 50 or 30 students, or one dealing with 1,000 students in the classroom, it's a different quality of education. "So strong private universities, private models of excellence are important so national universities can say: 'We want to be better than that university.' It means you have models of excellence that are set in the culture, rather than being set in [for example] Cambridge."

One of Dr Heath's first priorities will be expanding the student body by about 20 per cent from the current 5,000. The university is also erecting a new building for its school of business and management and is aiming to strengthen its links with industry, especially in areas such as architecture and engineering. "We can... find out what their consulting needs and research needs are and develop projects together. It could be something like working on developing the best style of concrete for this region, or business professors could become involved in process improvement."

Dr Heath also wants to increase collaboration with other universities. "To the extent we can create fruitful networks on research and co-operative ventures and build a structure of research and development, not just based in this university, but that makes us one point, one unit in a larger structure, that's something the university should be looking at." Links should also be established with museums and think-tanks so the university can be a "contributor to the cultural and social capital of the community".

On a personal note, Dr Heath recounted that he could trace much of his career back to a chance occurence as an undergraduate at Princeton University, in the United States. He was required to study a language, so visited the university's Oriental languages department to see what was on offer. "When I went into the room they had tables with representatives of each language," he said. "The Chinese line was long and the Japanese line was medium length, but there was no one in the line for Arabic, Persian and Turkish, so I went there. When I took the language I became interested."

After graduating from Princeton magna cum laude, and earning a PhD in near eastern civilisation at Harvard, Dr Heath began his career at Birzeit University in the West Bank. He later returned to his native US before taking up the position in Beirut.