Embracing diversity

Dr Rahul Verma talks about his myriad reflections on the UAE, research collaborations, and what the USA and UAE could learn from each other

Published: Tue 27 Sep 2022, 8:03 PM

What is the significance of this Fulbright scholarship to you as an academic?

The US Fulbright scholar award is one of the highest accolades one can get in academia. It is a highly prestigious and competitive fellowship granted by the US government. The award is a reflection of my leadership and contributions to society. The alumni include Nobel Laureates, Pulitzer prize winners, MacArthur Fellows, and several experts in academia. The proposals go through a multistage review process and are finally selected by the US president-appointed 12-member Fulbright Foreign scholarship board. So, it feels great to join the ranks of many distinguished and accomplished individuals. I feel proud that I am the only US Fulbright scholar in the UAE this year. It has provided me with a unique opportunity to enhance my professional and career development. I have personally benefitted from the positive impact of interacting with people from diverse backgrounds. The grant allows me to gain international academic experience, embrace a new culture and experience diversity. The benefits extend beyond my individual success as it helps in raising the profile of both of my universities (UHD and AU).

What are your impressions of the UAE and how do you feel about joining Ajman University (AU) as a Fulbright Research Scholar?

I always knew about UAE and how amazing this country is but had never heard of Ajman. During my application process, I received invitations from a couple of other universities. I finalized AU after my meeting with several AU representatives who were very warm and encouraging. This is the first time I am staying away from my family for such an extended time. My wife is also an academic and she encouraged me to undertake this project but we had a lot of concerns. However, the responses I got from my AU colleagues have been awesome. I understand I am the first U.S. Fulbright scholar at AU. So, I am very excited and also aware of the high expectations. I hope my work will be impactful for both institutions, particularly the students. Overall, the friendly environment has made my stay very comfortable. Also, the weather is somewhat similar to what we have in Texas. I am very happy that I chose AU as my host institution.

What are some of the teaching/research areas you would be focusing on during your stint at AU?

I am looking to collaborate and interact with as many individuals as possible. My objective is to make my Fulbright experience deeply rewarding professionally and personally. I am teaching two courses in finance, and interacting with AU students is the most exciting part of this journey. I am here mainly for the students. In addition, I plan to collaborate on scholarly activities. My primary research is in behavioural finance which deals with how emotions and biases influence our financial decisions and how these decisions are reflected in the financial markets. I have done some empirical studies in this area for the US market and want to extend it to the GCC economies. Specifically, I am interested in investigating how cultural differences impact investor behaviour in the US and UAE. In addition, I am involved heavily in the curriculum development activities at my university and would like to contribute to the development of new programmes and revamp the existing ones at AU.

How can universities enhance their research output in your view?

Before I address this, let me emphasise that we exist in universities mainly to educate our students. It is our utmost responsibility to provide socially impactful knowledge that can increase their socio-economic mobility. Conducting a high-quality research is very much compatible with this objective. Universities play a big role in providing support systems, incentives, and encouragement. For example, well-staffed research centres with industry ties, course releases, access to a database/software, internal grants, conference travel funding, research awards, international collaboration opportunities, etc. are some of the things universities can provide. Funding is generally the key constraint. I understand that some of these mechanisms are already in place at universities in the UAE. It is important to ensure that the support systems function efficiently and are not just on paper. The research also needs to be impactful for the industry and community. We cannot have a 'one size fits all' method of measuring the output. What works for one college may not be suitable for another. For example, grants play a more important role in engineering majors than in business schools. Universities need to come up with a valid instrument to measure the impact of research that is consistent with the mission. Tier one universities are involved in fundamental research and developing theories, but other universities can contribute too by conducting applied research, which is relevant, current and useful for the business community. Keeping abreast with industry trends has the potential to make research more impactful and is a way to move forward. Eventually, it all boils down to faculty motivation to undertake these kinds of projects and universities play a vital role in incentivising. Therefore, the recruitment and retention of faculty with good research records and potential for quality research is critical.

What are some of the key differences you perceive in the higher education systems in the USA and UAE?

The main objective of both systems seems to be very similar and is centered on students’ success. However, there are some differences in the way we achieve these goals. Firstly, the universities in the US typically work very closely with the local industry for both curriculum enhancement and research endeavours. This is in addition to industry professionals being active in their advisory roles at the university and college levels. Working with the industry also opens the door for external funding in the form of endowments, grants, gifts, etc. This has made most of the US universities diversify their funding sources and move away from being over-reliant on tuition and government support. From time to time, universities hold sessions with managers to seek their input on the course learning goals. For example, our MBA and BBA curricula are totally industry driven. We spent several hours with the professionals in deciding what skills graduates should learn so that their employability increases. This has helped our students with internships and placements. There are also short-term non-credit continuing education programmes for working professionals. Secondly, there are differences in the support system for the students and faculty. For example, every college in the university has a well-developed career center, fully staffed advising office, student writing centre, tutor labs, etc. Typically, faculty are not involved in advising students. Also, the assessments are done at the programme level and the assessment office takes care of these activities. This allows faculty to devote their time to research, building industry relationships, and doing things that they are good at. Thirdly, there is a very strong shared governance process and academic freedom due to the tenure system in the US. There exist structures and processes through which faculty and administration, and sometimes students participate in the development of policies and decision-making.

What are some of the things you think the two countries could borrow from each other in the context of higher education and research?

There is plenty we can learn from each other since there are so many commonalities in our economies. The UAE is primarily an oil and gas-based economy and Houston is the energy capital of the world. Both economies are also fast diversifying into other sectors such as banking, finance, healthcare, financial technology, etc. I believe both parties can share ideas and learn how contemporary education can be delivered more effectively in the post-pandemic environment. We can share our strategies and experiences that has helped us in fostering university-industry relationships. For example, we have a corporate fellow programme in all our graduate courses in which we have implemented a team-teaching format. Each session is taught by two people who deliver the course together: the faculty member and an industry professional who is physically present in the classroom. The faculty teaches the theoretical part while the industry professional immediately discusses the real-world implications of the concepts. The nature of the business pedagogy is such that it cannot be delivered by taking a single perspective.

Several other strategies have helped us to make a clear correlation between our assessment goals and the skills that employers sought in new hires. This has provided a significant competitive advantage for our graduates as employers view hiring our graduates as a great business decision.

In terms of research also there is a lot of scope for collaborating. For example, there are few studies published in the mainstream journals on GCC economies and there is a need to conduct joint research (from identifying local databases, generating ideas to providing insights on interpretation of results). Lastly, it just amases me to see the level of diversity in the UAE. Faculty and students from so many nationalities are working and studying together at AU. It is really a melting pot. How to embrace diversity is something we can learn from here. I am also intrigued by some of the courses that are offered here which are very specific to the region, and are not taught in a majority of the universities in the US.

Fulbright Scholar Dr Rahul Verma from the University of Houston Downtown (UHD) in the US recently joined Ajman University (AU) as a visiting professor and research scholar. Dr Verma is the only Fulbright Scholar to have travelled to the UAE this year on a research grant under the prestigious US government-sponsored Fulbright Scholarship programme.

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