Roger Downer jumps up from
behind his desk, bounds across the room, and proceeds to almost rip my hand off.
So much for the stereotype of a stiff-upper lip academic that would only talk to
me if I had a multiple amount of letters after my name. Downer's enthusiasm is
infectious and genuine. He's a can-do guy who has hooked me in already. After
all he is the guy that spearheaded the University of Waterloo's CAN$93
fundraising drive and involved such Canadian business luminaries as Matthew
Barrett (CEO, Bank of Montreal) Trevor Eyton (CEO, Brascan), Andrew Sarlos,
William Davis, and Allen Lambert as members of his campaign team. He is also a
highly successful academic with four books and over 160 research publications to
his credit, many national and international awards, and he is an elected fellow
of the highly prestigious Royal Society Of Canada. (Hey, maybe he can even get
Thailand's economy back on track.)
Downer is the president of the
Asian Institute of Technology. Born and educated in Belfast, Ireland he went to
study in Canada in 1967. Jokingly he recalls, "I was Ireland's gift to
Canada's centennial celebration." Downer studied under John Steele at the
University of Western Ontario. Learning under Steele obviously had an affect on
him for he says, "What I learned in Western has stayed with me all my
life." After completing his Ph.D at Western, Downer had every intention of
returning to Ireland. But an opportunity arose at the University of Waterloo,
Downer took it and stayed at that institution for twenty-seven years eventually
rising to the position of Chair of the Biology Department (from 1986-89), and
vice-president of the university itself (from 1989-96).
AIT was founded in 1959 as a
post-graduate university to meet the growing need for advanced technological
education in Asia. The institute's academic programs focus on the problems of
the region and their engineering, scientific, planning and management solutions.
Describing how he was selected
for the position of AIT president, Downer says, "Former Canadian ambassador
Manfred von Nostitz headed the selection committee. There were 104 nominations
for the presidency. They compiled a short list of twenty-nine candidates, and
they held initial interviews in New York for the North American candidates,
London for the European candidates, and Bangkok for the Australian and Asian
prospects. From that list they compiled a further short list of three and
brought us all to Bangkok. They put us through quite a rigorous testing process
involving psychological testing and case studies. The whole process took about
seven or eight months, and I was informed that I was the choice in December of
95 (he assumed the post in August of 96)."
Asked about how he feels about
being here in Thailand, Downer says, "One cannot help but be exhilarated
being part of this institute in this particular part of the world. If you have
to look at an area that has the greatest economic potential and the greatest
possible significance to international markets for the future, then it has to be
"And what does Asia need
most to achieve its economic potential? Human resources - top-class human
resources, and competitive technology. We are in the business of producing both.
We are located in the middle of the most exciting hot-bed of economic growth
offering the products that are needed for economic growth.
"What I inherited was very
a successful institution.
Let's not beat about the bush.
AIT has achieved a great deal. It has earned a very well deserved reputation,
not only in Asia but throughout the world. If there is anything that keeps me
awake at night it is just that I hope that I can deliver on the potential that
exists within this institution.
"But AIT developed its
reputation in a very different environment than the one in which we live in
today. Asia was thought of then as a developing part of the world, and it was a
time when the rest of the world was willing to provide Asia with support in
order to help its development.
"AIT survived and thrived
on the largesse of developed countries who were willing to use their overseas
aid budget to support AIT because it was the best act in town."
The institute was set up by the
member countries of the South-East Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) who
recognized the need for a graduate school-research organization in Asia.
"Frankly, I think they really wanted to counter the threat of communism.
They wanted western values imposed here to train the leaders of Asia," says
Downer. In 1967 AIT was eventually set free from SEATO and a special act of the
Royal Thai Government was passed to recognize us as a totally autonomous, fully
independent, international organization. AIT is administered by an international
board of trustees which includes distinguished diplomats, academics, and
business leaders from Thailand and many countries. The board is currently
chaired by M.L. Birabhongse Kasemsri, Principal Secretary to H.M. King Bhumibol."
As noted, AIT survived for the
first three decades on the generosity of foreign governments. But the world is
changing. "AIT has to undergo the classic paradigm shift," Downer
says, "We have to change from being a recipient of other people's
generosity to being a very active partner and generator of income.
"This shift that we have to
bring about is to position AIT as an organization that can help people achieve
their particular goals in Asia. It is a shift in philosophy, in ethos, and in
the way we present ourselves to the world."
Downer does not dismiss the need
for additional aid support in the future. "There remains close to one
billion people living below ther poverty line in Asia and AIT can contribute
significantly to poverty alleviation and improvement in the quality of life.
However, we must look also for additional sources of income. We must interact
much more closely with the private sector. Japan has been a very big supporter,
but we must also seek more support from Asia itself, the Tigers for example. We
need to enlist more support from the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and
United Nations' organizations. Having cut my teeth at Waterloo I want to start
another fund raising campaign and see if Asia can get on the philanthropy
bandwagon and assist less-advantaged neighbors on the path to economic
"We've restructured the
administration to make it more efficient and effective in dealing with new
paradigm. We are also in the process of restructuring our research so as to
focus on a dozen to fifteen areas in which we aim to be competitive with the
best in the world. These fields include
telecommunications, advanced manufacturing, remote sensing, aquaculture,
bio-processing (post-harvest), geotechnical engineering, structural engineering,
transportation, water resource management, management of technology, computer
science, and information technology."
AIT has an enrollment of 1340
graduate students, all doing their Masters or Ph.D's. Twenty-six percent of the
students are from Thailand. Next highest groups are from Vietnam, Nepal, and the
People's Republic of China. Thirty-four countries are represented in total and
unquestionably, the international multicultural dimension of the institute is
one of the features that distinguish AIT from the rest.
Seventy percent of AIT's
students are funded through scholarships sponsored by developed nations. In some
cases, the funding nation has some
tie with the nation of the student it is supporting e.g. Spain would support
students from the Philippines. But more often, the supporting nation directs
funds to the area where they perceive the greatest need to be.
Downer says, "One slight
dilemma is that we do have a responsibility to the less developed countries, and
sometimes the standards of the undergraduate universities in these countries are
not as high as we would like. We have a six month bridging program where we
bring the students in and give them
remedial training to try and bring them up to par. So occasionally we have to
relax our standards of admission, but we never relax our exit standards.
"When I speak to CEO's
especially in Europe they talk about how difficult it is to penetrate Asian
markets, and how hard it is getting talented local people to run their
businesses. The cultural differences are such, and the importance of contacts
and trust are such, that importing foreign talent is not the way to go. But we
are in an ideal position to be a broker in situations like this.
"For example, if you are
thinking of expanding into Vietnam or
Indonesia, AIT can provide you with young people with an MBA or the appropriate
technical background to help you do so. We also provide you with a research base
in Asia that can do customized research in support of projects and market
development. Our business people can work with you because they have the
language skills, the contacts, the cultural understanding and they have the
ability to contribute to your corporate goals and objectives.
"If you use these people
correctly you can also access the alumni network of AIT which is incredibly
pervasive. In many countries AIT graduates were the first to return to their
countries with graduate degrees so they've fast tracked through the system, and
today many hold positions of considerable responsibility from cabinet ministers
to CEOs in most Asian countries."
The number of full-time faculty
equivalents at AIT is 150 so the student-professor ratio is about one to nine
which isn't good for a graduate school. Downer says he would like to have many
more faculty. "So I must generate more money, create a few endowed
positions, and bring in some world-class chair professors."
AIT has also recently signed a
US$4.3 million agreement with the European Union to bring ninety Europeans to
AIT to take their master's degrees and do their thesis work with senior members
of AIT's faculty, and in some cases, with distinguished alumni. AIT will be
shipping a similar number of Asians to Europe to complete their post-graduate
work over there as well. The whole idea is to increase Asian awareness on both
"This is a wonderful
opportunity for Europe and ninety of its future leaders to obtain excellent
technical training, learn about many Asian cultures in the AIT environment, and
return to Europe with a network of professional contacts for future business
dealings. I hope that other Western countries will recognize the benefits of
such a program and sign up."
AIT has an absolutely beautiful
campus. It's a cure for whatever ails you. If you ever visit the campus you will
give serious thought to going back to school. "The environment is something
we have to be very concerned with. Many universities in Asia produce
graduates," Downer notes, "But
what I have to be interested in is what the value added component is of an AIT
graduate. I want them to be very competent technically but I also want them to
have additional values that will make them more useful to their employers.
Certainly environmental awareness is something that I want all our graduates to
have. They must understand their responsibility as future corporate or political
leaders for the stewardship of this planet. Other value added features of an AIT
graduate will be internationalism, English language proficiency, entrepeneurism,
and communication skills."
In conclusion, the AIT President
says, "In the scenario that I predict research funding is drying up in many
parts of the world. Good institutions are going to look to those places, those
laboratories, where there are research opportunities. Asia is such a place where
corporations and research organizations will be willing to spend money. So my
competition in a few years from now will not be Thai or Asian institutions but
Harvard, MIT, Oxford, Cambridge, Waterloo, and the University of Toronto. These
institutions will be coming here and we have to position ourselves to be
internationally competitive. I hope we can do a lot of this in partnership
because we are relatively small and cannot do everything by ourselves.
"With our twelve to fifteen
areas of excellence, top class faculty placed into these areas, and strong
partnerships with world class institutions and I hope to create a place where a
lot of world class competitive research can be done.
"We will have our share of top class researchers and together with researchers from these top universities around the world we will have an enormously powerful research team capable of contributing to the sustainable technological and economic development of the region. That is my vision and that's what I want to move towards."