Here we are at the last days of May, with the sun shining upon us, summer just around the corner, flowers blooming, and we can finally start being outdoors again, something that we have missed enormously for the past few months. Just these feelings alone fill me up with much needed optimism and giddiness . . . As the spring semester and the academic year come to a close, I am pleased to say that we remain determined and optimistic about the upcoming Fall 2021 Semester and for the new Academic year 2021-2022, we are preparing for a full return to our campus for all students, faculty and staff with face-to-face teaching, learning, working and interacting with one another and with our dormitories full of students. However, our ability to implement this decision continues to depend on the progress of the pandemic and public health circumstances in our country and the world in effect at the time and is to be finalized upon evaluation of the developments in our country and the guidance received from governmental bodies. Even though our lives are likely to continue to be influenced by health considerations imposed upon us by this pandemic for quite some time, I very much look forward to the second half of this year with a sense of hope.
We have now spent three semesters including one full academic year online. I would like to briefly reflect on these past online semesters; how we fared and what I think these experiences may mean for the future.
On a purely academic level, what we have seen based on comparisons with past semesters is that our Pass/Fail (P/F) grading option was well received and helped alleviate many anxieties among our students. We have not seen a consistent drop in the grade scores across courses from Fall 2019 to Fall 2020, despite increasing class size. On the contrary, what we have seen is that students did better in Fall 2020 than in Spring 2020, which were both online, and did slightly better than Spring 2019 and Fall 2019 which were face to face, showing us that our online teaching and learning performance was overall a success. This conclusion should not be taken to mean that I believe online education may fully replace on campus education. I still very strongly see university education as a rendezvous, or an appointment if you will, between generations of faculty and students that must take place with students and faculty on campuses, so that this online modality can only be temporary and cannot replace our face-to-face interactions.
We also need to be realistic and be prepared for the future, however uncertain it might be. Intermittent, swift and seamless switch to a more hybrid mode of teaching and learning seems possible for the foreseeable future. Thus, one of our top priorities for 2021 is integration of on-line & face-to-face on-campus education with the help of our newly formed Education Technologies Unit under our Directorate of Information Technologies and our Office of Learning and Teaching, quickly adapting to the requirements of online/remote teaching and learning and continuing to provide great support to students and faculty for the months ahead.
As I have stated a number of times in my newsletters and other occasions, Koç University shall emerge out of this crisis stronger than ever before . . . For the near future, I expect enhancement in undergraduate and MS/MA/PhD placement profiles; as going overseas and travelling still pose difficulties for many prospective students. Our University provides the best alternative with our now-proven online mettle along with our newly launched MS/MA programs to reach more students - Data Science, Cyber Security, Clinical Psychology, Immunology and Global Health.
However, no matter what the future might have in store for us, we must continue to do our part by striving harder than ever for excellence in education and scientific research so that we can equip our students with the best foundations upon which to secure our future. Just as our institution developed extremely rapidly during the past decade to emerge as the best ‘Research University’ in our country and region, my vision for the next decade for Koç University harbors yet another giant leap from where we now are. Once we go through the COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 bottleneck years of 2021-2022, we expect to have substantial opportunities in front of us to enhance the size and composition of our faculty in critical areas so as to bring our student-to-faculty ratios closer to our benchmark institutions (e.g., Rice Univ.), while at the same time greatly enhancing our research portfolio and output. This ambitious objective, for which we have already made significant investments, changes and additions to our systems and resources and have kick-started a number of exciting new initiatives, can only be possible if we can ensure financial sustainability of our university in the long term. We shall thus continue aggressively on this exciting path, with a combination of academic and administrative initiatives undertaken with enhanced collaboration among all of our units across this great institution.
Being online and confined mostly to our homes have not derailed us in any way from our determination and drive for success and excellence as evidenced by many accomplishments of our faculty and staff from various Colleges this month. On the research front, let me start with a congratulatory note to Assoc. Prof. Elif Nur Fırat Karalar from our College of Sciences for receiving “2021 Sabri Ülker Science Award” for her research on the formation and functions of centrosomes cell and cilium, which play a critical role in cell division and cell communication in the Cytoskeleton Research Laboratory she established in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics since 2014. I am very pleased to see young faculty members of Koç University accomplishing great things and I am encouraged to know that they all have many more productive years ahead.
In the area of driving innovation and creating opportunities, our KWORKS (Koç University Entrepreneurship Center) has been on a steady rise over the past few years as a truly rich hub of entrepreneurship in the Turkish startup ecosystem. As a leading startup accelerator in Turkey, KWORKS combines its academic know-how and talent pool with its strong business network to deliver the most effective solutions to entrepreneurs who aims to start and grow their businesses. COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the importance of digital business models and sustainability, leading to higher levels of entrepreneurial activity carried out by universities and KWORKS has successfully addressed these needs since the beginning of the pandemic. KWORKS’21 program has started with a new batch of over 20 technology-based startups. In the last two years, a growing number of KWORKS entrepreneurs have built partnerships with local multinational corporations and have received government grants and investments from local and international angel investors and venture capitalists. KWORKS have formed important partnerships with corporations, civil society organizations and technology development zones in Turkey to deliver new programs for entrepreneurs. BiGG3, a joint accelerator program delivered by KWORKS, Arçelik Garage and ODTÜ Teknokent, supports entrepreneurs in 2021 and KWORKS continues to deliver a digital transformation accelerator program for Civil Society Organizations in Turkey in partnership with Koç Holding and United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
An important advantage of being a top-notch research university is our ability to create novel solutions for the unmet needs of society by utilizing our academic know-how, talent and infrastructure. Creating social and financial impact by transforming our academic outputs to new consultancy services, prototypes, designs, products and technologies has been a strategic issue we have been thoroughly working on over the past few years. In order to clearly distinguish academic activities from non-academic activities, we had formed UNVEST, a wholly owned subsidiary of Koç University, in 2016. The mission of UNVEST is to help our faculty create social and financial impact from their academic know-how. UNVEST Consultancy has been coordinating around 30 academic consultancy projects of our faculty every year. In addition, UNVEST has been co-investing in selected startups formed by our students or faculty and graduates from among KWORKS startup accelerator programs. Also, UNVEST currently aims to open a new applied R&D center on campus to facilitate the transition of fundamental R&D to applied R&D. I wholeheartedly invite all of our faculty to contact UNVEST when you design or execute projects that have potential to create social and financial impact.
Moving from the future world of new opportunities, let’s go back in time, to one of the earlier civilizations in Anatolia and our very important work in that area. I am so excited to announce that we have now our very own Excavation Project at Koç University. A new excavation project of an important Hittite settlement – Kayalıpınar (41 km south of Yıldızeli, a province of Sivas)/Hittite Samuha, a religious center, a military capital and the second largest city of the Hittite Empire – was granted to Assistant Professor Çiğdem Maner from ARHA. This acquisition was a journey that took many years to realize, and I commend Asst. Prof. Maner for her dedicated and hard work. On a related note, Dr. Maner's name continued to be in the news, so much so that she was deemed the archeologist of the people with her discovery of a part of an inscription from the Hittite King IV. Tudhaliya period on the door of an ordinary house in Konya. Considered by experts to be the most significant archeological discovery of 2020, this story was not unlike something right out of the Dan Brown novels.
My wholehearted congratulations go to our Graduate School of Business (GSB) and College of Administrative Sciences and Economics (CASE) which recently achieved AACSB accreditation and became the first and only triple - accredited school in Turkey, putting us among the top 1% of business schools on this planet . . . This accreditation is surely an acknowledgment of the high-quality work our talented faculty and staff are doing to raise the standard of research, teaching, and innovation across so many fields of study. Although we are here to do the best research and give the best education possible to our students, regardless of accreditations, such recognitions enhance our academic reputation at national and international levels and contributes to our educational marketing and competitiveness.
I always try to make time in my calendar when an opportunity emerges to share my experiences and insights with College students, whether they are from our University or others. Such was an event at “Gökmen 2021” Congress where I was a speaker, organized by Space Exploration Student Club at Hacettepe University, aimed to inspire young people who aspire to work on aviation and space. I shared my experiences of space exploration from early on in my life, my career journey, starting with my days at Middle Eastern Technical University all the way to Stanford and then to Antarctica, the closest place on earth to the isolation in space. I also talked about how space programs offer many opportunities for expanding the horizons of our youth in Turkey and for those students who can think of a future in space.
The month of May gave us many reasons to celebrate, amidst a full lock down for the better part of it. The month started with 'International Worker's Day' where we celebrated unity and solidarity. COVID-19 pandemic not only completely changed our lives but it also brought manufacturing, which is the backbone of countries and societies, to a halt in many areas. Let us not forget that we are at a better place than we were last year this time.
What brings me much needed hope and relief is the relentless, selfless and devoted work of our health professionals. We were able to acknowledge and show our gratitude to our nurses on International Nurses Day which is celebrated around the world every May 12, the anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. I am sure that you all agree with me that the past year along with 2021 carries a very special meaning. Nowadays, as we still struggle against the global COVID-19 pandemic, our nurses fight at the forefront with their hearts and soul. I sincerely congratulate Nurses Day and present my gratitude to our nurses, who perform one of the most sacred professions that play a crucial role in healing so many patients.
We were also blessed this month with the combination of Ramazan Bayram Holidays, followed by one of the most important dates for our Republic. May 19th, Commemoration of Atatürk, Youth & Sports Day, is the day on which the founder of our Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, landed in Samsun to start the National War of Independence and the process of the founding of Modern Turkey in 1919. The fact that Atatürk gifted this important day to our Youth importantly underscores the notion that the future of our country is indeed entrusted to them. For more than a year now, our young generation have unfortunately been deprived of the university environment where the rendezvous between generations is manifested in its richest form, with their lives disrupted at an age during which they develop the most due to the challenging times we are going through. What our youth has lost during this time is irreplaceable; however, they have also gained something quite valuable, the gifts of compassion and empathy that shall undoubtedly help them be better architects and leaders of our tomorrows than many other generations before them . . .
We have also left behind another year where we could not fully enjoy the tradition of getting together and embracing friends, loved ones and families during Bayram holidays, that has been the cornerstone of solidarity and unity for our society for centuries. Ultimately, what this COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that what really matters is unity and collaboration in science and research. As we use the wonders of the digital world again to celebrate the holidays this year with all our loved ones, let us not forget the importance of this unity.
For our upcoming Commencement Ceremony on June 26th, we have quite a celebrated guest as our speaker, Paul Farmer, MD, PhD from Harvard Medical School, Kolokotrones University Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine. His presence and his upcoming address to our community at our ceremony could not have been timelier.
Now we look ahead to Summer, when we first celebrate the success of our graduating classes and then welcome with an open heart the new cohorts for the new academic year. As we gradually enter the normalization period, please continue to be cautious, stay home as much as possible, keep your social distance and remain healthy, take care of yourselves and your families . . .
My best wishes and regards to you all,
Umran S. Inan