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 Asia.


"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 viability. 


"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 sides.        


"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."




 Page Head      Archives    Home Page