I met Dr Abidi many years ago. I was pleased to find his interview in my inbox. Readers might find it of interest.
This article appeared in STEP (Science, Technology, and Education in Pakistan), and has been reproduced with their permission. The article first appeared here
Building ‘MIT for Pakistan’
A Conversation with Dr. Asad Abidi
By Bilal Zafar, April 12, 2010
In Fall 2008, the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) opened its doors to 150 freshmen students to study science and engineering at its brand new School of Science and Engineering (SSE). Offering undergraduate degrees in Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics, Computer Science, and Electrical Engineering, and graduate degrees in Computer Science and Mathematics, LUMS SSE had much grander plans than most Pakistani universities. Indeed, SSE envisions to be not just a “successful research university”, but “perhaps an MIT, Stanford or a Caltech for Pakistan.” To realize this vision, SSE was able to raise a significant amount of money (more than $25 million), including Rs. 1500 and 500 million from the governments of Pakistan and Punjab, respectively.Perhaps equally impressive was the faculty that LUMS was able to assemble for this nascent school. It was a small — perhaps too small — group of promising young researchers, brought together by the project team to set the standard for LUMS SSE.
Leading this group at the time was Dr. Asad Abidi, a professor at the Electrical Engineering Department, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
Professor Abidi was born and raised in Pakistan and moved to England at age 16. After earning his B.S. from Imperial College London, he went on to complete his M.S. and Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley in 1981. Following a brief stint at the Bell Research Labs in New Jersey, in 1985 Professor Abidi joined the faculty at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science. An accomplished researchers and a pioneer in the field of RF CMOS design (the stuff that’s at the heart of our cell phones), Professor Abidi has won numerous honors, culminating with his election to the National Academy of Engineering, the highest professional honor accorded to American engineers for their life-time achievements.
In the summer of 2007, Professor Abidi went on leave from UCLA and joined LUMS as the first dean of SSE. There he played a pivotal role in setting the direction of the school. But, less than two years later, Professor Abidi was back at UCLA and at his home in the beautiful Pacific Palisades, California. That is where STEP Editor Bilal Zafar sat down with Professor Abidi to talk about LUMS SSE (Part 1), and much more (Part 2).
STEP: You were leading LUMS SSE when the first batch of students was admitted. In so far as the science and engineering universities are concerned, SSE’s process of student-induction was unique in Pakistan. What sort of students was LUMS SSE looking for in that first batch?
Asad Abidi (AA): We wanted to bring in students who could be groomed to be future leaders in science and technology, and who could influence hundreds of others. So, we handpicked the few who had a combination of things; academic excellence was not the only thing. Do they, for example, have passion? It’s too early to have passion for science – although some of them already demonstrated that – but do they have passion at all? Do they have leadership skills? Do they have a personality that could influence others? Do they have breadth in their intellect? So, we were looking for a personality and a total character that suggested entrepreneurship, leadership, and so on.
LUMS SSE is an intellectually elite institution and that was the basis for our selection criteria. Our aim was to focus this kind of very intellectually elite education on people who will have a 10x impact when they come out.
STEP: One popular criticism of LUMS SSE is that it might turn out to be a great institution, but it will be an institution for a few hundred people in a nation with 25 million people of university-going age. Can an institution like this really have an impact?
AA: It is too early to say, but it has a very clear precedent and model. And the model is institutions in the US like MIT or Caltech.
The idea was that each one of the students would be educated broadly and deeply in math and science or engineering, hopefully go on to do PhDs, then return to Pakistan or engage with it somehow to influence hundreds of others. That’s why we handpicked the few who had a combination of qualities.
At the first orientation, we told all the students, and their parents were sitting with them, that every one of you is going to make a significant change to Pakistan in the end. You don’t know how yet. You may turn out to be a technical entrepreneur, start a high-tech company, you may turn out to be a world-renowned professor … we don’t know. But every one of you is going to have an impact, because that is our mission — to produce an entire generation of scientific and engineering leaders.
I think there is absolutely nothing wrong with focusing this kind of elite education on a small group of students. We cannot have every institution that is egalitarian; it’s just not possible. There are many other universities in Pakistan that are egalitarian, and they do a fine job. Our argument is that there is room for one elite institution; a place at which people look and say, what are they up to? How do they teach the such-and-such subject? So, in terms of curricular innovation, bringing in research, and even administrative things like selection of undergraduates, LUMS SSE can be a trendsetter in Pakistan. So, I think there is room for one such institution.
STEP: Just one such institution?
AA: Yes, you can’t have two simply because there’s not enough faculty. To have two world class institutions, you need two world class faculties. You can’t even get one together.
STEP: Harold Shapiro, former President of Princeton University, argues in his book “A Larger Sense of Purpose” that, in order to have a sound higher education system, you need strong interaction between world-class research universities in the country and other, less prestigious teaching institutions. To me, as an outsider, LUMS SSE comes across as if it exists in bubble inside Pakistan. For example, there are very few joint appointments between professors at, say, Quaid-e-Azam University or UET Lahore or NU-FAST or NUST and LUMS. Why is that?
AA: I completely agree that there has to be open communication with the whole community because, all the institutions that define the (higher education) eco-system play complimentary roles.
To your point about SSE “existing in a bubble”, I think it’s a little more complex than that. First of all, there is a lot of fear in Pakistan that, unless you are on guard, you’ll become mediocre. There is a history of erosion of institutions such as GIKI that had started with a bang. But, that does not mean that you put things in a bubble. What it means is that, first, you build a critical mass that defines excellence and exemplifies it. Once you have the critical mass of faculty, then you can start engaging people from other institutions who come in and actually feel uplifted by their experience and their interaction. So, while SSE was going through this period of defining its culture as an institution, perhaps it came across as existing in a bubble.
Then, there are a lot of other factors which I’m not sure I want to go into too much. I’ll only say this much: there was a sense of elitism amongst the people involved in developing SSE, and I suppose you could argue that as long as it is intellectual elitism, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. But taken to extremes in the Pakistani milieu, elitism and over-zealousness can do damage. With the growth of the institution, I feel there is more maturity and less fear, less insecurity.
The fact of the matter is that the present faculty is so small that it is already stretched to the limit. Next year, SSE would have three classes (freshman, sophomore and junior year) and at that point the faculty would have to bring in other people just to teach. So, I think that circumstances will force SSE to open up. I was promoting some of this (while I was there), but at that early stage there was some opposition to this. My view was that you have to guard these fledgling institutions until this sense of excellence takes root, and once the institution knows where it’s going it should take others along with it.
STEP: Let’s get to the issue of sustainability. Can an institution like SSE sustain itself – financially as well as administratively — or will it be just a flash in the pan like many others?
AA: As of right now, it’s very hard to say. On the one hand, you can look at LUMS as an institution and say that it has been very resilient. Over the past 22 years it has only improved and, today, it enjoys a preeminent position in Pakistan. But that’s the business school, and more recently, social sciences and humanities; the Science and Engineering School is the newest addition. However, given the entirely different cultures, past success is no reliable predictor of the future.
The fragility at SSE, first of all, comes from its finances. Science instruction is an expensive enterprise. For science instruction you have to have building infrastructure, lab equipment, consumables and safety, etc., whereas in business instruction you need desks and computers. Also, SSE set a precedent by recruiting faculty with the promise that it could do publishable research, and that meant a lot of investment early on. This puts a large burden on the trustees to either give money themselves, or to raise large sums for SSE. They all come from the business background; they were involved with the business school, so perhaps one could argue that the trustees are still debating amongst themselves whether SSE is a good idea or not. Or, at least a group among them feels that science can be real money drain with no short-term payoff, and I am sure this remains a subject of hot debate.
Administratively, the main issue is that of leadership. To run SSE, you need excellent leaders with great breadth of knowledge and experience in science research and teaching. The leaders must gain the trust and the respect of faculty, parents, students, and even government officials, because they have to interface with the government to get accreditation, funding, etc. They must also have the respect and credibility in the Pakistani academic community so that they can talk to their counterparts in other universities to show that SSE respects other institutions and wishes to bring everyone together as a community for mutual uplift. You need people at the top who do that job of being ambassadors and who really believe in it. But finding such leaders in Pakistan is very hard.
STEP: Just hard or impossible, at this point?
AA: It may be impossible.
STEP: Can’t you develop processes so that personalities become less relevant?
AA: I think it’s really hard to have well-impacted processes defined in fledgling institutions. There is just a lot of ad hoc stuff that you must do, and there is no precedence for what you may be trying to do. You can’t expect someone to come in and put in every conceivable process; it doesn’t work that way. In new institutions, in my experience, you have to ‘wing it’, you have to improvise and much more importantly, you have to run it on enthusiasm more than on processes. If the enthusiasm isn’t there at the beginning, people will just feel so fearful of their small numbers and the huge task ahead that they will slowly withdraw. So, you have to pump up a lot of enthusiasm in people; processes emerge in due course. This is why good leadership with relevant experience is important.
STEP: So, then, how can SSE make sure that it remains a strong institution without the kind of leadership you described?
AA: I think they have to become largely leader-independent. The faculty at LUMS is, on the whole, very sensible and mature. Their collective wisdom has to drive the institution, pretty much independent of who is at the top. For example, if anyone sees a little conflagration coming up, it should be everybody’s business at LUMS to diffuse it. That’s the only way to survive and I think there is some of that sense of ownership now developing. I think SSE’s Computer Science group, being large and having survived some adversities in the past, can point the way and say to the newly formed groups, ‘look, these little disputes or fears’ — and, by the way, all fighting within universities is over the most trivial of things – ‘have no basis and let’s remain focused on our bigger agenda’.
It takes a certain maturity and I worked pretty hard with the faculty to try to make them feel that as a group, as a collective decision-making body, they are very strong and that they can draw upon the traditions of LUMS — of resilience, improvement and excellence – and march on. I said to the faculty: name me the last three presidents of, say, Harvard University or some other famous university? You won’t know them because they are in the background; what’s in the forefront is the faculty. I think they understand pretty well the need for this communal sense and shared responsibility.
You see, Pakistani institutions are very fragile. Whether it’s a hospital or a charitable organization, they can fall apart when the right person walks away or dies or whatever. Everything just hangs on a thread. We have to get beyond this; I mean, will the Edhi trust survive Edhi?
It shouldn’t be like that. Pakistan should take pride in its good institutions. People should say: here is an institution worth saving and we want it to get better next year, not worse. Those inside the institution should commit themselves; those outside it, the same. Parents should say, we want LUMS to get better regardless of who is it at the top, or whether its funds run out, because SSE is giving our children an opportunity we didn’t
imagine was possible in Pakistan. People should say, look, of all the places in Pakistan doing science and engineering teaching and research, you guys are doing an excellent job, you must continue to do that; we are counting on it! That’s the kind of sentiment it takes to sustain an institution like the SSE. But we have to be a little more mature as a society and understand that that’s how countries preserve their institutions. It takes a lot to keep these valuable things going.
STEP: But, a few years ago, a number of faculty members (around five) left LUMS. Do you feel that it has happened for the last time?
AA: I do not know all details, but I do have some idea of the problems that caused the departure. Basically, it was problems festering that were not tended to in time. When problems fester, they just get messier and messier. That is when leaders should step in and defuse the crises. But, I think these are inevitable growing pains in a Pakistani institution.
The important thing is that it should never happen again … because once is enough. This is why when I was at LUMS I told everybody to look at the mistakes of the past and pledge not to let them happen again… for the sake of the institution. I very much hope that it was the last mass departure, because if the institution starts to hemorrhage its faculty, even if it loses just one or two people, things can unravel very quickly. And, that’s what I think everyone has to be on-guard for.
STEP: Final question on this topic of SSE: what is your advice to the people at LUMS?
AA: My message to the faculty at SSE is: you are the force, you are the institution. You are experienced, you are teaching at a world class university, you are doing great research in Pakistan, you just need to pull together and say, this is our institution, this is what we are fighting for and this is what we are building it for. You are the one who define this institution, and you will continue to bring fame to it. You are at the front-line, delivering a powerful tool (or, should I say, weapon) to the best of Pakistani youth to build a better future: a high quality, liberalizing, deep, higher education.