New things and new ideas are always difficult when they have first begun. People come into a new organization each with their own expectations and their own ideas, and if there is no precedent or time-tested procedures in place, the people must constantly negotiate with one another. And this is only the beginning. There are other degrees of complexity as well. Nothing is ever completed soon enough (housing and labs). New infrastructure always some kinks to work out (bad internet connections and unreliable toilet paper supply). If the people involved are multi-cultural then there are also a host of communication difficulties, issues of cultural freedom, and even food preferences that have to be negotiated as well.
There are many books written about these things - written about the difficulties of starting a new organization. None like KAUST has ever existed before. This is a ten billion dollar project. It is amazing that we are all here; men and women students and faculty from 70 different countries all sitting in the same classes, eating and living together. It is amazing that we are doing all of these things in Saudi Arabia, which is probably the most culturally conservative nation in the world. KAUST is unique among universities and institutions. Rarely is so much money and effort invested in so few with the hope of affecting so many more.
Still, there are distractions: administrators are threatening to renege on KAUST's promise to pay for our flights home over winter break, the international girls are frustrated with segregation in the gym and other places on campus they did not expect, some of the more conservative administrators are worried that the students already have too much social freedom, and the housing and infrastructural unreadiness of the whole place is wearing on everyone. On top of all of these concerns, the king and all of his stately guests will be attending a highly rehearsed and security-tight inauguration celebration in just ten days, and everyone at KAUST is freaking out about that.
I am optimistic. After the king's party, international and domestic attention will be diverted from us and we can start to quietly work out some of the necessary compromises for issues which are simmering below the surface. Once everyone has a bit more time, livable housing, and construction slows as more and more buildings are completed; then we can reach some kind of "normal" baseline here where everyone can be content. Until then, I expect a tense ten days for students, faculty, and especially the staff.
For more information on the ceremony itself, and to see a very impressive bit of public relations campaigning, visit http://inauguration.kaust.edu.sa/
Change can happen in Saudi Arabia
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