Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"What do you think is the culture of KAUST?"

Said the man with the camcorder. We'll call him Mohammed, to keep things anonymous. His plan was to bring 30-ish 30-second video responses to that inquiry to "upper administration," including a few members of the Board of Trustees, to try to get them to understand what is going on amongst us. Us, the queer commoners.

You'll see that my blog has not been updated since November. That is not for lack of adventure or insight; for I have had both. I will retroactively post some of these adventures for you all to read. But, life on campus has become a bit foggy to report in a straightforward sense; maybe it's because I watched "Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas" last night that I feel sufficiently spacy to finally report. The man with the camcorder who asked me the question I started this blog with was finally evidence (for me) that we weren't a bunch of complaining, whiny expatriates - we were somewhat of a lost community trying desperately to reach out to - well, something in upper administration that we hadn't been finding.

Mohammed assured me that I should have no fear; that I should be bold in my response. (Usually negative criticisms always come with a shadow of fear attached, especially when dealing with corporations as spectral as KAUST's administration.) He assured me that if I changed my mind even the next morning, I could write him an e-mail and he would delete my video response. I said 'I think we are all unified in our sense of being completely confused.' Well, I didn't change my mind. I can only hope that those who saw my comment seek to understand and solve, rather than to dismiss.

How did we start thinking this way? As another anonymous staff member told me, who is intimately familiar with real battlefields, "there's no way to explain the situation to those who are outside of it." But I'll try anyways.

The problem with "explaining it" is that "it" appears to be a list of small complaints:

- How come my home's fire alarm still doesn't work? How come the staff come to "look" at it every week or so and tell me that I myself need to do something about it, when they have the keys to my fire alarm system panel?
- How come I have to wander the whole library before finding a computer that can send a print job to a real printer?
- Why don't we have access to scientific journals?
- How come I am charged differently every night I go to the dining commons, even though I get the same thing?
- How come my new apartment's bathroom floods? How come there are only 360 students here, on a campus supposed to serve 2000 students at maturity, yet five months past our arrival we can't sufficiently house even this meager number?
- Why can't we get our textbooks on campus?

As I've explained to some friends and family, reading this as the list of complaints makes any student in agreement with them seem like an ungrateful heathen. But there is a difference between reading about annoyances and living with them. If I were to wax poetic, i.e. "swarms of mosquitoes / give students ferocious bites / curse them in their pain" you might laugh out loud as our haiku's protagonists contend with tiny flying insects. But you wouldn't want to be one of the poem's students. Symbolic insects of all kinds are nipping at us from all angles; none too lethal alone, but their collective effect is maddening. (Metaphorical poetry aside, the numerous mosquitoes on campus have already caused a few cases of Dengue fever. To curb their multiplication, the university advised the community to prevent creation of standing water. Shall we disconnect your stagnant fountains, then? At least we managed to change the chemical-spraying truck schedule so that our faces were not bombarded by the funny-smelling smoke while walking to supper.)

Returning to the point, the initial pain from such issues resonates longer. Problems have not been solved logically by stating the problem and receiving a solution; getting printers to print from anywhere in the library is not a five month long job, but five months of complaints stream in. Are we to eventually silence our little complaints, and be happy X years down the road, when all is finished, and forget the past? Certainly we might forget after graduating and going home, and KAUST would carry on, attempting a second round of success with the second class of students. Unfortunately, I am not here for X years; I am here for one and a half. If KAUST is "fixed" in X years, I probably won't be here to see it.

Worse, not all problems are small ones. As many faculty have admitted to me, one of the most difficult things about making demands on the administration to hurry up is that they are a "moving target;" responsibility for one thing or another is traded from one overworked, undertrained person to another. When one person begins to take responsibility on themselves, appearing to go "rogue" perhaps from the ethereal big cheeses' points of view, they are let go. This has happened to a friend of mine. Or, honestly, maybe that wasn't the reason for his/her termination; the point is, we won't be informed, and we'll instead need to form a new relationship with a new overworked person and try to get them to solve the same problem we've already explained multiple times.

When we shout these complaints out, however large, they enter a void; a "black hole," if you will. When KAUST's researchers/faculty, some of the most intelligent scientists on the face of the planet, pestered those responsible for laboratory construction once again for a deadline, they were told labs would be ready in May, and not to ask anymore, that no more questions would be answered. What a slap in the face! Would you tell Einstein that no, he couldn't have a room for his experimentation yet so be quiet and relax? Do we expect such treatment will retain such creative minds? Regarding the promises of "labs in May," those same promise-granters (or different? how many contractors have we cycled through now?) promised "temporary" labs would be done in September, which still have not been completed. A bike ride to the interdisciplinary marine science center reveals it as little more than a concrete husk with dirt floors; no pipes, no wires, and some broken glass doors. May, you say? Meanwhile, researchers who have earned Nobel prizes and sequenced genomes are donning their golf bags and hitting the green, as they have neither the place nor the equipment needed to create the knowledge that will change the world, something they were hoping for here. What a waste of intelligence.

And this has taken me a while to write about at all because I worry. I worry about being asked to leave KAUST. I worry that I will be booted in exchange for a student who will not speak their mind - or worse, a student who will not care either way for the vision of KAUST. Speaking your mind seems offensive and standoffish here; behaving, being grateful, and accepting what has been given appears to be all that was anticipated of us students. We can't tell; the lack of transparency leaves our questions unanswered.

But here is the most important part of this lengthy outcry; if you don't read this, then you won't understand my intentions from the preceding rant alone. I speak my mind not as one disenfranchised with KAUST, as a blasphemer trying to damage the institution that has already given me so much (the chance to meet and discuss science with one of the most fantastic researchers I've ever met). Instead, I am pleading for progress. The postcard image of this university, the grand idea, is supremely laudable - I wish to achieve here, at this school, for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and for the world - but progress is sluggish. What quality of professors and researchers does KAUST expect to retain, if those that can't make progress decide to leave? These are not isolated incidents; they are people with hearts and minds and mouths that will spread the news to their 63 countries. Although no student has been asked to leave KAUST, to cover my own fears I inquire the same - what quality of student does KAUST expect to receive if those who are upset that they cannot push the limits, to discover, as my very scholarship is named, are relieved? Please, to anyone who may understand what controls the fate of this place, let us build, let us create, let us grow and fulfill the dream of KAUST.

No word from Mohammed about the response to the KAUST culture video. Hopefully it enlightens. Hopefully we can start to answer our questions.