When it finally accepts students in 2012, the Okinawa Institute for Science and Technology (OIST) aims to provide a new model of a Japanese research university, scrapping the division into traditional academic departments, focusing on interdisciplinary research, conducting business in English, and drawing roughly half of its faculty members from overseas. Last week, officials announced they have appointed particle physicist Jonathan Dorfan, currently at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California, to be its first president.
The nascent graduate university, which hopes to win accreditation next year and open in 2011, plans eventually to hire 50 faculty members and serve about 120 graduate students. In addition to the challenge of creating a new type of academic institution, Dorfan must also deal with criticism from politicians and academics that the university is a political boondoggle.
Conceived in the early 2000s, OIST opened as a research institute in September 2005. A nine-person committee that oversees the institute screened 160 candidates before picking Dorfan for his stature as a scientist and his demonstrated ability to manage a large institution and oversee international collaborations. "He's a good man, he offers administrative experience, and he is really enthusiastic about building this institution," says committee member Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a former dean of the Tokai University School of Medicine in Hiratsuka, and a former science adviser to Japan's cabinet. "He is already thinking of how to make [OIST] more visible to the global science community," Kurokawa adds.
For his part, Dorfan says he was attracted by the challenge of developing a top-flight interdisciplinary research institute from scratch on the relatively remote island. OIST officials first asked him if he'd like to be considered for the post about 9 months ago, he says. "To be honest, I had not heard of OIST at the time, and as I became more and more familiar with it, I became captivated by the boldness of the endeavor."
From 1999 to 2007, Dorfan served as director of SLAC, a physics laboratory with a staff of 1500 and an annual budget of $300 million. Prior to that, he oversaw the construction of the lab's flagship particle collider, PEP-II, which attracted hundreds of researchers from around the world.
OIST is hoping to break new ground for Japanese universities by emphasizing multidisciplinary research, filling 50% of research and faculty positions with non-Japanese and conducting all instruction in English. Famed molecular biologist and Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner is the institute's first president, and he will continue in that post until OIST formally becomes a university. Under his leadership, "We have been arguably quite successful in building up the life sciences side of this (institution)," says OIST Vice President Robert Baughman. Dorfan is expected to extend that success to the physical sciences while also overseeing the development of a graduate curriculum, he says.
Kurokawa acknowledges that a number of politicians in the ruling party and academics have complained about the money going into OIST. It currently has an operating budget of $124 million. Another $45 million is being spent on new buildings just this year. But Kurokawa says starting a new institute is a response to the "almost impossible" task of reforming the academic establishment. He thinks OIST will set an example for other universities to follow. "We have to convince Japanese policymakers and also academics that (spending on OIST) is worth it," he says.