A Conversation With Morocco’s “Pushiest” University President

AGADIR—Situated in the southern coastal region of Morocco popular with sun-seeking tourists, Ibn Zohr University has more than 80,000 students—approximately four times that of Oxford University. Yet somehow Ibn Zohr’s president, Omar Halli keeps things moving forward with considerably fewer resources than Oxford. President Halli, a former Arabic scholar, says he likes to be in constant conversation with the various components of the university.
That turns out to be true—literally. A relatively short interview was peppered with interruptions from his various cell phones. “It can be a bit infuriating when you’re with him, he’s got something like four phones on the go and he’s always using one of them,” said Martin Rose, the director of the British Council in Morocco.
Affable, intense and informal, Halli projects an acute sense of purpose and positivity. “He hasn’t given into the system, which here in Morocco can be quite impractical. Some people just live with it and complain, but not him,” says Rose. “He’s somebody who doesn’t take no for an answer.”
Halli’s university is a day’s drive from the kingdom’s economic and political hubs of Casablanca and Rabat. Because of this, academics at Ibn Zohr University can often feel left out. But Halli fights to make sure the university is listened to at the nation’s education ministry and elsewhere.
If Halli might occasionally be seen as too pushy, he managed to get a new set of buildings on the Agadir campus that wouldn’t look out of place in Europe or the United States, although they were built on a tight budget.
Halli has also managed to keep the peace on campus when other universities have succumbed to violent political clashes. “There are fairly regular tensions and violence between ethnic groups in Moroccan universities. They are remarkably well managed at Ibn Zohr. In Fez you’ve got sword fights but in Agadir it’s much calmer,” said Rose.
Al-Fanar Media spoke (and followed up via email) with President Halli in one of Agadir’s seafront hotels after a conference on his students’ employment prospects after graduation.

What is your background, how did you come to be the president?
I am innately a scholar. I have been here since I got my bachelor’s degree — that makes 27 years working at the university, plus four years when I was a student! I was the vice president for eight years and have been president for three years.

How do you find the motivation to stay in the same institution for so long?
I like the dynamism of this place, the ingredients are here, the potential is here to do great things, but we still have to make the wheel turn. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, just make it turn.

There is a lot of violence on university campuses in Morocco, are things calmer at Ibn Zohr University? If so, why?
Violence is much more prevalent in today’s society, as a general remark. Young and old alike seem to accept various ‘facts’ on face value without thinking, questioning and sometimes without assessing the danger. This just wasn’t the case a few decades ago, it wasn’t possible to conceive of violence as a trend. Back then, the only violence was driven by the repression of protesters, but the university stopped being the stage for this violence to play out on when the student union of Morocco lost interest and became disengaged. There are still things going on today that lead to the use of violence on my campus, but students are aware of the seriousness of this situation. It takes work to move on.

What’s preventing your university from having an international reputation?
We have a problem with our relationship between basic-science research and applied-science research. These days, Morocco has a need for applied-science research: the private sector and Moroccan society in general believe that development is achieved through practical research—that’s to say people are waiting for tangible results [that can improve and change things]. Unfortunately, the university has taken to working alone and giving priority to [basic] research, that’s the first problem. The second issue is image of the university itself. In following the French model of education, the university has always been focused on so called “transcendent knowledge.” I’m talking about a classical, traditional and lofty approach to doing things that derives from 18th century philosophy. That means we’re seen as being distant from society as an institution of privilege.
Now, I’m trying get the university to reflect on how we could do better to readdress this relationship with the aim of developing the society to which we belong to.

So what are you proposing in order to tip the balance in favor of more down-to-earth research?
We’re a big university, and so this year we organized research conferences that enabled us to clearly see exactly what it is that we’re all doing and properly classify our research. The aim of this was to make things easier for the university’s next generation of scientists. We have to prepare young researchers with a new approach and a fresh mentality, which would allow us to look at the real world’s needs. For example, these days we’re talking more and more about biodiversity and biology, which I believe has to be useful to society. We’re using the biosciences to come up with a cultural and monetary value for Morocco’s homegrown products like argan oil.
At the very least, we have to look at the research laboratories that we have, get to grips with what they’re actually doing, and re-categorize them. When we’ve done this we can have a real debate about the basic versus applied sciences. This I hope would encourage support for our research as we attach more and more importance to scientific research. In doing this, our university has a lot of potential.
I am proud to have been able to establish a climate of trust between the university’s various stakeholders, all of which was possible because the ministry has been generous in offering its backing to our initiatives.

Can you describe the scientific landscape in the MENA region?
There isn’t really one. MENA is a region for sure, but it’s a mistake to assume that scientific research is the same throughout the Middle East and North Africa. There are many differences between the countries and the various universities within them. The economic growth and the political nature of each country both have important and influential roles on a university’s research. In terms of research, I think of Morocco as being close to Tunisia and yet very far from Algeria despite it only being next door.
Morocco seems to have a rhythm and a work ethic that sets us apart from Algeria, which actually has more money to spend than us, but doesn’t adapt well and doesn’t follow the same rhythm. Egypt isn’t like Morocco either and neither is Sudan — I’m not going to go on and talk about every country in the region, but suffice to say we’re all different and it’s too simple to clump us together and label our research as “done in the MENA region.” When you talk about “MENA region research” you’re tempted to think of it as homogenous entity, but in reality we find ourselves placed on a very heterogenous map.
There isn’t as much research-related dialogue between our countries as you might assume—and without any significant horizontal cooperation across the map, we can’t speak of a productive region where there is a real exchange that would allow us to speak of a structured region. Let’s compare this with European cooperation, where there are strategies, projects, and clear things going on between countries.

What additional changes to the Moroccan system would help presidents like you?
Anything that can help us to become the best, to innovate and to give our young people hope in the development of our country. Sometimes we need to go beyond the conventional ideas, which can prevent us from acting.
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