Shih Choon Fong

Try to imagine Harvard before, well, it was Harvard. At one point the famed Ivy was merely the intention of a 1636 vote of the general court of Massachusetts (the colony, not the state) and the famed Yard was merely an expanse of former cow pasture interrupted by a single house.

At least Shih Choon Fong ’73 has the benefit of a Website ( to give form to such imaginings in his new university. In February, Shih was appointed as the first president of the newly founded King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia.

Shih earned his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Harvard in 1973. After Shih spent seven years leading Fracture Research at the GE Corporate Research Lab, he returned to an Ivy setting, serving as a professor at Brown University for nearly 15 years. In 2000, he returned home, serving as the President of the National University of Singapore.

Despite the awesome responsibility of running a new university, in his acceptance letter Shih said that he plans to keep his composure by using some lessons from his childhood: “Early on as a child, my greatest pleasure was to explore the longkangs (ditches) of Singapore, looking for fishes and frogs. Curiosity, and the joy when that is fulfilled, has led me to a lifelong quest of pursuing scientific knowledge, the interplay of inquiry and reasoning.”

As someone educated in the U.S. and since involved with two major non-U.S. research universities, what are your thoughts on this form of educational manifest destiny? On the flip side, how can universities (like KAUST, which is forming academic partnerships) go global while still preserving their national characteristics?

In the 21st century, where the economic and the socio-cultural dimensions of issues are intertwined and where the local and the global are often indistinguishable, universities cannot work in isolation.  Universities have to develop critical intellectual mass to help solve some of the greatest challenges of our times, such as those relating to energy, environment and biomedicine. 

It is helpful to think of universities in terms of three broad categories. 

For lack of a better name, there is the “cathedral” model. This was dominant for many centuries, up to the end of the 20th century. The best and the brightest were drawn to the pre-eminent seats of learning, whether it was Alexandria or Athens; Cambridge, England or Cambridge, New England. 
In the 21st century, to extend their global brands, and sometimes for revenue reasons, some universities began setting up overseas satellite campuses. We could perhaps call this the “MNC” (multi-national corporation) model.  These universities often brought their own intellectual and cultural DNA to the outposts.

Sometimes, but not often enough, the best of the satellite campuses would engage with indigenous organizations, leading to the exchange of intellectual and cultural DNA, thus enriching the entire system.

However, more often than not, there was only one way flow to the advantage of the parent institution, with little benefit to the host society.

To take on the grand challenges of our times, I believe universities in the 21st century must engage in meaningful collaborations in research and education that serves society and fosters responsible global citizenship.   

We are seeing the emergence of strategic alliances of universities and knowledge organizations, where deep and non-exclusive partnerships among institutions leverage strengths and complementarities, thus building critical mass for research and education.

The resulting multi-way flow – of ideas and knowledge as well as of people from different cultures – enables cross-fertilization where the best scientific ideas and innovations emerge and flourish.  This is what I envisage for KAUST.

The KAUST community will be international, welcoming people of different faiths and cultures in the shared pursuit of scientific excellence. Openness to energetic and talented men and women will be KAUST’s hallmark and its best guarantee for achieving its aspiration to be a wellspring of ideas and innovation for the Kingdom, the region and the world.

KAUST will be responsive to the world while responsible to Saudi Arabia, a global university with a national character.

You have said in other interviews that you went from being a mediocre student to attending Harvard for graduate school. That seems an unusual path for someone in mathematics and engineering.  Students often do not consider engineering (or, more broadly, the physical sciences) as an option or leave relatively quickly because the high level of difficulty.

You, however, kept pushing forward. Based upon your own experience, what can educators do to encourage students to consider engineering and to stay engaged (even when they struggle)?

Engineering is a rapidly evolving field.  Engineering is also a tough subject requiring a good grasp of the basic sciences as well as the ability to integrate knowledge, ideas and principles from different disciplines. 

I believe both intrinsic and extrinsic factors come into play in efforts to keep students studying engineering.  Today, much of university education is driven by extrinsic factors, such as living out parental dreams, making lots of money and going for a straight and easy path to success. 

To do well in engineering, there needs to be intrinsic motivation – love for science and curiosity to discover how the world works. To sustain students’ interest in engineering, professors have a big part to play.  Their excitement and enthusiasm can be infectious, drawing out a love for the subject and helping students find fulfillment in learning and discovery.

They can also draw on examples from the wondrous world of engineering marvels, both large and small, that have improved lives and benefitted society through the ages. These tangible examples will inspire students, strengthen their determination, and open their minds to the possibilities of what they themselves can achieve, and the good they can do.

The Islamic world, in particular during the European “Dark Ages”, played a major role in advancing all forms of science and scholarship and promoting and preserving knowledge from the ancient Greeks. (This often goes unrecognized in the history books). In fact, the Renaissance owes much to Islamic scholarship.

Do you view KAUST as rekindling that legacy? As President do you view that as an opportunity, a burden, or both? Are all eyes in the world on KAUST? What, in your mind, would institutional “success” look like? What is your “grandest dream” for the influence KAUST might have across the globe?

Intellectual inquiry was an integral part of the Arabic world for more than two millennia.  During the Dark Ages between ancient Greece and the European Renaissance, Islamic philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, and physicians developed breakthroughs ranging from the heliocentric nature of our solar system to the invention of algebra.  In addition, by translating the classics of the West into Arabic, Islamic scholars extended the reach of these works, and in the process helped preserve them. 

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has shared his vision for KAUST as “a new House of Wisdom, a forum for science and research, and a beacon of knowledge for future generations” and holding the promise of contributing to the Kingdom’s development towards a knowledge and innovation-driven society. I am both humbled and honored to have been asked to help turn the King’s vision to reality.

At the heart of KAUST is an enlightened spirit, which seeks knowledge not only for its own sake but also for its promise for the betterment of the human condition.

KAUST will begin by focusing on areas of science and technology where it can make intellectual and societal impact. For instance, I can see KAUST researchers improving water desalination technology to make irrigation of deserts possible and economical; undertaking genome research to enable plants to grow in arid conditions; and making solar power cheap and widespread, bringing electricity to the millions who still live without.

If KAUST is able to deliver life-changing breakthroughs that are pertinent to the region and our times, it will have fulfilled its mission of benefiting humankind. 

Like the best institutions around the world, KAUST recognizes that the measure of global excellence in research and education is in making a difference to a discipline or field, in contributing to society’s well-being, and in shaping public opinion and policy.

Working towards these goals, KAUST would have gone some way towards rekindling the legacy of the Renaissance, which itself was built upon the Islamic Golden Age.

Recently the National Academy of Engineering issued their “grand challenges” for engineering. KAUST will be dedicated to applying “science and technology to problems of human need, social advancement, and economic development.”

The grand challenges of our times, e.g. water, energy, carbon sequestration, nuclear terror, and secure cyberspace, are global in nature.  Meeting these challenges requires global effort and serious collaboration.

The challenge of challenges is to find a way to address the different and often conflicting needs of the emerging and the established economies, as well as those arising from our increasingly congested and culturally complex world. 

In today’s interdependent world, engineering schools also have a role to play in educating responsible citizens who are comfortable with different cultures and communities.

Our engineering schools need to provide students opportunities to appreciate science and technology from diverse perspectives as well as to foster cross-cultural understanding and develop mutual trust and respect.

Our hope for a sustainable future for humanity lies in scientists and humanists, philosophers and pragmatists engaging students’ minds, hearts and spirits to work together on innovative responses that take into account the socio-cultural and ethical dimensions of the grand challenges facing our world.

What does it mean to be an engineering school for the 21st century?

As Theodore von Kármán, Caltech’s Provost during its formative years, once said: “Scientists discover the world that exists; engineers create the world that never was”. 

In other words, science is about curiosity driving us to understand the world. Engineering is about using science to transform the world through technology.

This view is true of 19th and 20th century science and engineering, as bookended by the steam engine and Apollo 7 and the technologies created in between.

Also in between were the World Wars and the advent of the atomic age, which were emblems, culturally speaking, of the culpability of science in creating the anxiety and even terrors of the 20th century.

Human kind is now more keenly aware that we live in a flat world, where cultures compete, collide or collaborate for better or worse, and where the environment is at risk because of what modern technology has literally burnt up. Of course, the optimists seek scientific solutions for these new problems, as well they should; but the realists are not wrong to wonder if even more problems will in turn be created.

Thus, von Kármán’s statement needs elaboration – the world that technology has transformed begs to be shaped by values, values which can promote and sustain life in the 21st century.

I thus see the need for the 21st century engineering school to go beyond merely being global. In a world of increasing cultural complexity, it needs to play a role in nurturing graduates who are sensitive to the socio-cultural and environmental impact of technology.

The 21st century engineering school, indeed, the 21st century university, has a civilizing mission, developing individuals who know how, among other qualities, to mingle easily with diverse cultures, as well as to be conversant on global issues.

As you know, Harvard recently launched its School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Do you have any advice to pass on to the current and future leadership?

Harvard is a unique institution, not least because it is the enviable confluence of top minds from a host of disciplines and cultural perspectives that can help address the questions and challenges facing the 21st century.

Establishing a School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) presents exciting opportunities for Harvard to realize synergies across diverse disciplines, such as between engineering and its world class natural and medical sciences.

I believe that SEAS has a particular responsibility because of Harvard’s prominence at the forefront of global knowledge institutions. SEAS can lead by example. It can offer opportunities for fruitful conversations outside the boundaries of science and engineering in order to sharpen the intellectual life and heighten the cultural sensitivity of SEAS students.

It is vital that SEAS establishes a no-walls culture of openness, promoting collaboration and discovery across disciplines and institutions, as well as across communities, cultures and continents.

This is one step towards ensuring a thriving and successful future. 

What do you think has enabled your success as a researcher, an administrator, and as a human being?

A drive to succeed where others said success was improbable, or even impossible, has spurred me along through difficult times.

I am fundamentally drawn to the challenge of transforming the seemingly impossible into a possible. This has made my life journey rewarding and fun.

A curiosity for how things work and a love of adventure have also driven me to seek out exciting and meaningful pursuits. My fondest childhood memories include taking toys apart to understand how they worked and exploring Singapore’s longkangs (deep monsoon drains) to study the fishes and frogs. 

I love looking at things in different ways. It is very much about the joy of discovery and of unraveling a mystery.  My friends know me to be an unrelenting optimist, one who sees the cup, not as half empty, but as always offering something to drink.

I have had my share of moments when things just didn’t work, but I always tell myself: there is always tomorrow to pick up the pieces. 

At the same time, always in my heart are the words of my devout Buddhist mother: “You must not be so attached to something that you can’t do without it.”

My mother’s enlightened view on non-attachment has often guided me through life’s turning points, freeing me to take risks and embark on adventures. Excessive attachment discourages one from seeing new opportunities and seizing them.

I think of life more as a never-ending and ever-changing journey of learning and discovery.

Being true to your beliefs, values and passions make the journey meaningful and fulfilling.  Humility, humanity and humor also make good travelling companions.