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Published: 1/15/2009

Ex-UT chief in Dubai, but on familiar ground

BY MEGHAN GILBERT
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Allan Block, chairman of Block Communications Inc., parent company of The Blade, visits Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates with Dan Johnson, left, former president of the University of Toledo. Mr. Johnson is provost, chief operating officer, and chief academic officer of Zayed University in the Emirate of Dubai. Behind them are portraits, from left, of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE president and ruler of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi; the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founding president of the UAE, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the UAE's vice president and prime minister and ruler of Dubai. Allan Block, chairman of Block Communications Inc., parent company of The Blade, visits Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates with Dan Johnson, left, former president of the University of Toledo. Mr. Johnson is provost, chief operating officer, and chief academic officer of Zayed University in the Emirate of Dubai. Behind them are portraits, from left, of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE president and ruler of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi; the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founding president of the UAE, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the UAE's vice president and prime minister and ruler of Dubai.
NOT BLADE PHOTO Enlarge
Dan Johnson, right, greets Sheikh Hamden bin Rashid Al Maktoum, deputy ruler of Dubai. Mr. Johnson now heads Zayed University, a federal university supported by the United Arab Emirates, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi. There is no tuition for students of the UAE. Dan Johnson, right, greets Sheikh Hamden bin Rashid Al Maktoum, deputy ruler of Dubai. Mr. Johnson now heads Zayed University, a federal university supported by the United Arab Emirates, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi. There is no tuition for students of the UAE.
NOT BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

Dubai is a world away from Ohio, but more alike than you may think, former University of Toledo President Dan Johnson says.

He's lived there about three months since accepting the position of provost of Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates and is enjoying the excitement and energy of the place.

"The culture of the region is fascinating and it's giving us an opportunity to understand the Arab world much better than we ever did before," Mr. Johnson said of himself and his wife, Elaine, who moved to the Middle East in mid-October.

Mr. Johnson is the equivalent of a university president in America. His official title is provost, chief operating officer, and chief academic officer of Zayed University.

He is helping lead a newer university, which is about 10 years old, in a newer country that is about 30 years old. Dubai is one of the seven emirates and the most populous city of the United Arab Emirates. It is along the southern coast of the Persian Gulf on the Arabian Peninsula.

"It's a region that believes in itself and its capacity to succeed in bold projects," Mr. Johnson said. "There are bold ideas surfacing from almost every corner for new projects in the future. There is a level of ambition and entrepreneurship here that is unlike anything I've ever seen."

There are similarities between Dubai and Toledo, Mr. Johnson said.

Both communities are on bodies of water and have seaports, both are engaged in developing intermodal transportation, and both are university towns, he noted.

The key is strong leadership, optimism among the citizenry, and investment.

He's seeing a number of similarities between what he did at the University of Toledo and what the job calls for at Zayed University.

Working to grow enrollment is a top priority and he's promoting international students as he has done before, and is working on a capital campaign there.

"The principles are basically the same," he said. "Whether it's in Toledo or Dubai, there are certain things that are very important for higher education today in terms of mission, that is to connect with the economy, connect with the community."

Zayed University is a federal university supported by the UAE and the municipalities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where the university has campuses.

There is no tuition for national students there, but the endowment campaign getting under way will help support endowed chairs and professorships, support for student scholarships for costs associated with attending college, and facilities, Mr. Johnson said.

At UT he got a $100 million campaign started and is working on the $500 million campaign at Zayed University.

Zayed University, which is an English-speaking institution, has about 4,000 students. It is primarily a woman's university, but is beginning to admit male students and is making a push to attract international students and grow that population, Mr. Johnson said.

The student population is growing at a fast pace, Mr. Johnson said, with a 20 percent increase expected for next year followed by predictions of 19 percent and 17 percent increases thereafter.

"The applications are coming at such a pace we will not be able to keep up with it," he said.

That is different from his days at UT when enrollment was declining. Mr. Johnson was president of UT from 2001 to 2006.

Zayed University is approving final plans for new space on the Abu Dhabi campus that would be twice as big as the Dubai campus. The goal is to accommodate 10,000 to 12,000 students in a few years, Mr. Johnson said.

The university offers standard university curriculum with an emphasis on business education. The women who study there have increasing opportunities in government and business in the region, Mr. Johnson said.

Not only is this a time of rapid growth for the area, but there is also rapid change in gender roles, he said.

"We're right in the middle of it at Zayed University," he said.

While the Johnsons are still living in a hotel during the transition, they plan to move into their own place next month.

Allan Block, chairman of Block Communications Inc., parent company of The Blade, met with Mr. Johnson last week during a visit to Dubai and said that the former UT president is "thriving there."

"What's happening in Dubai is wealth creation and Dr. Johnson is part of that," he said. "It's very exciting."

During Mr. Block's visit, he toured the campus with Mr. Johnson and met some of the leadership at the school.

"Dr. Johnson has gone to one of the exciting, boom places in the world," he said. "What Dubai and the UAE prove is if you have the right policies and attitudes, you can be a success and I think Toledo could learn from that."

Dubai is a desert area on the southern shore of the Persian Gulf on the Arabian Peninsula, where it can reach 120 degrees and high humidity in the summer and is a comfortable 60 to 70 degrees now when it's snowing in Toledo, Mr. Johnson said.

Dubai is a metropolitan place with about 1.5 million people now, compared to just 183,200 in 1975.

There are a number of high-rise buildings, including the world's tallest building, Burj Dubai.

Tom Gutteridge, dean of the UT college of business administration, is in Dubai this week as part of a team of consultants helping Zayed University plan for the future.

Mr. Gutteridge, who has been a dean for 25 years and a business school professor for 40 years, has consulted with a number of universities and was in Dubai a decade ago when Zayed University was getting started.

He said that since then, the university has established an "absolutely magnificent building structure," co-ed enrollment at the graduate level, and the undergraduate women students have laptop computers as part of their education.

"They've gone from concept to reality," he said.

The college of business at Zayed University enrolls about half of the students and is a major part of both campuses, Mr. Gutteridge said.

He, like Mr. Johnson, sees similarities to Zayed University and Dubai and UT and its neighborhood. The differences, though, are also substantial, such as the culture and the hierarchy working with the royal family, Mr. Gutteridge said.

Mr. Johnson is learning quickly about the university and the region and is already making a difference, Mr. Gutteridge said.

"He, in his calm, cool demeanor has taken the lay of the land, is assessing what the strengths are, and is getting a handle on what the opportunities and challenges are," Mr. Gutteridge said, adding that the people he's spoken with in the area speak highly of Mr. Johnson.

"They hired Dan Johnson probably for the same reason UT did. I think he'll have a wonderful influence here," Mr. Gutteridge said.

Contact Meghan Gilbert at:

mgilbert@theblade.com

or 419-724-6134.



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