A President's Reflections

Saudi Report IV

Posted on April 20, 2011

Day Two of the Conference and Ayob, my now faithful Pakistani taxi driver, was dutifully waiting this morning.  Ayob is a jovial sort and we have worked out a good arrangement in which he robs me at a flat rate (50 Riyadhs) for the trip back and forth to the Exposition Center.  While I pay double the Saudi rate, many of my western colleagues are paying 75 or more, so it seems fair.  He is from Peshawar and has four children, three daughters and a son, one every three years whether he needs one or not.  He says he needs one more son, but readily agreed with a hearty laugh that “daughters love their fathers, but not sons.”

We have a routine at the start of each ride in which I guess the temperature and then our route takes us past a sign that reports the current temperature and he marvels at my ability to always guess correctly.  I always guess 100 degrees no matter the time of day and it is always 100 degrees and the sign may very well be broken, but Ayob just shakes his head and marvels, saying “Sir, you should be a Saudi weatherman.”

Watching the road crews work in this heat I wonder at their stamina.  Of course, they are at the lowest rung of the immigrant employment hierarchy (like so many Mexicans and Haitians who work farm fields in America) doing work no Saudis will do.  I’ve wondered at the challenge of finding work for so many returning, well educated Saudi youth.  Actually, there are 32m guest workers in the country and 8m unemployed Saudis — they have jobs to be done.  Jim Smith pointed out that there are many jobs we see as respectable that Saudis hold in low regard, including nursing and teaching.  So some of the challenge will be shifting the culture.

One of the panels today featured Professor Nian Cai, the head of China’s annual ranking of the 100 best universities.  This exercise measures markers of status — how many Nobel Prize winners, papers published, references in journals — and not at all teaching.  Barbara Brittingham in her comments talked about measuring value add in student learning and I asked Professor Nian Cai if he would consider a bifurcated ranking: 100 of the best research universities (really what they do now) and 100 of the best teaching institutions, even if Harvard and others might not make the latter list.  He punted (though charmingly).  More than once he admiited another shortcoming of his rating system in response to audience questions, begging the question “Why do such a silly exercise?”

Phil Altback of BC tried to help, suggesting that the ranking be only one thing we look at, but I think he misses a central point.  What we measure comes to matter and a system that measures student learning not at all  says volumes about the values of these so called world class institutions.  Of course, it is devilishly hard to do.  I am serving on a Gates Foundation committee that is attempting to sort out this problem and it is complicated for sure, but the Chinese exercise is really no more accurate than anything we do around teaching.

Our new social media expert persuaded me to tweet from the conference, which I sort of had fun doing today. If you have a Twitter account you can find these tweets under my Twitter name, snhuprez.  One includes a picture of four enormous villas, palaces really, each surrounded by a wall and identical to each other (including splendid domes).  Ayob tells me that they are all owned by one rich businessman and he has a wife in each.  I guess the identical house thing is so no one feels lessfavored than the others. Ayob says he was a poor truck driver in Jeddah and eventually made his fortune in construction, a Saudi Horatio Alger meets Big Love kind of tale.

The exhibition hall was absolutely flooded with students today, a sea of white dishdashas (for the men) and black hijabs (for the women).  I’m coming to like the look.  there is a certain elegance to their monochromatic colors and they do hide a lot of sins. Anyway, poor Faisal looked wrung out by the end of the day, but he could make a superb international recruitment rep by the end of this experience.  We didn’t even bother with actual dinner tonight, settling instead for snacks at the lounge (don’t let “lounge” conjure up images of cocktails and chilled Pinot Gris, by the way). 

Time to call it a night with the second half of the Real Madrid versus Barcelona soccer match with commentary in Arabic.  These guys are the Yankees and Red Sox of Spanish soccer and all the tv sets in the public spaces of the hotel are set to the game.    Go Barca!

3 thoughts on “Saudi Report IV

  1. Mustafa Safiia says:

    I hope you sir enjoying your time there. Saudi Arabia is a good place to take a look at the Arab old traditions that still in place in many gulf countries. You may see the big difference between the culture in S.A and Syria and it’s normal as Syria is a well-cevelized country comparing to gulf countries. Agian, hope you’re enjoying your time there but make sure you are paying the regular rate for tax drivers :).

    P.S: I don’t like Barca…so GO Madrid!!

    Thank you.

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