Professor Rob Whelan was appointed President of the University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD) in August 2008, moving from the University of Wollongong in Australia (UOW) where he held the position of Dean of Science. The expectation at the time of his appointment was that he would consolidate previous developments, improve governance and operational procedures, and review the organisational structure.
Through its development, UOWD had followed the common model for branches of universities in the UAE, concentrating on business programmes with a lesser emphasis on computer science and IT. Academic staff had been encouraged to maintain some research activity in line with the University’s particular focus on masters-level programs. The primary driver of the University’s activities had always been student numbers, due to the fact that it is a private institution without financial support from local benefactors. As a result, tuition fees were the only way of funding both day-to-day operations and new developments.
Rob Whelan brought to the job in Dubai the perspective that public-good benefits flow from a comprehensive institution connected with the larger community and these are led by academic staff who are actively engaged in research with outcomes that serve the national interest. Even before arriving in Dubai, he was exploring the possibility of applying aspects of this model to UOWD and considering the scope of changes needed to achieve this at a private institution. Central questions were: Should a research focus be pursued by a private institution in the UAE? Could it be pursued in a way that was compatible with growth in student numbers and the maintenance of financial viability? Would current staff be willing to pursue such an agenda? To what extent would they be prepared for the challenges embedded in it? What would be the reaction of other stakeholders? How should such a change in direction be implemented?
This case explores the various processes through which a new leader takes stock of an existing institution, identifies the potential for development in a particular direction, draws upon a range of stakeholders to refine the vision and develop it into a strategic plan, gains support for the plan and then implements change through close collaboration with the institution’s constituents.