scale magazine VCUQ Dean Amir

VCUarts Qatar Welcomes Fall 2021 Students to Campus

Amir Berbić, Dean of Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts in Qatar (VCUarts Qatar), is looking forward to a year of engagement with students, after more than a year of pandemic life. 

Six months into Amir Berbić’s tenure as the Dean of Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts in Qatar (VCUarts Qatar), the world was struck by the first wave of the pandemic. Qatar went into a strict lockdown like most other countries around the world. While the country’s healthcare system managed the crisis effectively without much upheaval, educational institutions scrambled to adapt to this new reality that no one saw coming.

“As an art and design university, problem-solving is at the heart of everything we do. As designers and artists, we are adaptable, a trait that we acquire when confronted with a challenge, helping us manoeuvre our way through the obstacles across our paths,” says Berbić as he welcomed the Fall 2021 students to the campus on September 5th.

Amir Berbić is joyful; as the Dean of VCUarts Qatar, he has missed engaging with students during the last year. But he is also aware of the challenges that come with steering in-person classes and academic activities during an active pandemic under the rules and protocols put in place by the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH). Nevertheless, with the pandemic mostly under control thanks to the effective distribution of vaccinations in the country, Berbić looks forward to this “new normal” of living and learning.

SCALE sits down with Berbić for a conversation to understand the recent challenges, the importance of design pedagogy, and the particular role VCUarts Qatar has played in shaping the cultural development of the country.

“Roles and responsibilities like mine, as the Dean of the University, needs collective wisdom and that’s how I operate,” says Dean Amir Berbić.

SCALE: As an educationist how do you feel the remote learning experience has affected education, specifically in the field of design and arts? What are some lessons that you have picked up during this period? Has it expanded the capacities and capabilities of the faculty and students?

AMIR BERBIĆ: Designers respond to adversity by finding creative solutions to overcome challenges. Our faculty and students have risen to the occasion by finding creative solutions through patience, and by finding analogous online modes of project delivery.

 One of the benefits of online learning is that it allows us to tap into a much larger pool of experts. The school has had a very robust online lecture series, put together with the support of our colleagues from the home campus, both VCUarts and the Institute of Contemporary Art, in Richmond.

Some of these virtual lectures will continue to be offered through this wide faculty pool as students return to campus.

All of us have suffered during these difficult circumstances. Education has suffered as well; we had to change our modality with very little time to prepare. The campus experience has suffered. Students don’t come to universities just to take courses. Education doesn’t happen in isolation and there is a lot of value in the campus atmosphere. There is a reason why campuses exist and why that is a good thing.

Having said that, considering the situation we are in, the best way to move is forward and look at the lessons we will learn from this. And that is why this year is of importance to us as we come back to campus. Having gone through what we have, makes us look at the world with different eyes, perhaps with more understanding.

SCALE: Tell us about your experience being in Qatar, being the Dean of one of the most acclaimed universities in the world with prolific alumni across various fields.

AMIR BERBIĆ: My experience in Qatar has been great. I have felt welcomed by the people at the VCUarts Qatar, the broader Education City fraternity and the wider community in Doha. Being welcomed goes a long way in feeling comfortable in a new country. I have a lot of optimism and excitement for the awesome things waiting to happen at the school. There are lots of cultural projects and collaborations underway, with new institutions coming up, and immense possibilities for the design and arts community thanks to design incubators like the new Design District and M7 opening up in Msheireb, and other projects in Katara, the Fire Station and so on. VCUarts Qatar’s faculty, alumni, and students have a lot to do in these collaborations, and it is truly an exciting time for the arts and design community here.

SCALE: How have your professional experiences informed your approach to design education and administrative leadership?

AMIR BERBIĆ: I am a professor of graphic design, and design is a creative practice that involves problem-solving. It can also be a collaborative act, and good designers try to look at things from different perspectives for unique solutions to problems or tasks that are presented. And all of these skills are equally helpful for an administrative and leadership role. I am comfortable with the combination of being a designer and an educator.

I also am fortunate to have been trusted by colleagues to lead developments within department schools in my earlier roles. I do that with a lot of pride and humility I feel that such responsibilities need collective wisdom and that’s how I operate.

I was a Professor and Chair of Graphic Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), where I served as Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs in the UIC College of Architecture, Design and the Arts, and as Acting Director of the UIC School of Design (2016–2017). In addition to being a faculty member, I had various leadership and administrative roles in all these institutions.

Though both the University of Illinois and VCUarts are similar, there is one main difference: VCUarts Qatar exists within the Education City ecosystem and that offers a unique opportunity for collaboration and cooperation with other partner universities. This is a unique environment and I am not aware of a similar one.

SCALE: Research in the creative industries/curricula is not well-understood among the public. How important is research for VCUArts Qatar and how necessary is this in the creative industries?

AMIR BERBIĆ: We have a responsibility as educators, as academics in any field, to expand our knowledge. It’s part of the scope of the job. That can happen in many ways; in more traditional forms of research and also through creative practices, which is at the core of what our faculty here do.

We are fortunate that the practices and research that the faculty of VCUarts Qatar follow are very diverse. Many of our faculty are practicing designers and artists who produce work that gets published or exhibited or put to use, or launched into the marketplace, and put through peer review. We also have scholars and scientists in the humanities and sciences whose outputs are found in forms that are more relatable, like books and research papers.

Our role is to set an example, to show what the discipline is about, to those who would want to practice design by being relevant to the challenges of the current times.

In recent years VCUarts Qatar has initiated and developed a number of research and creative labs. This has come from faculty initiatives with VCUarts Qatar’s support in order to continue knowledge acquisition.

SCALE: Arts and design have emerged as indispensable tools during such dire times. What do you think the design world will focus on in the coming years?

AMIR BERBIĆ: Questions around resources are going to continue to be pressing and designers will need to address these concerns responsibly. Environmental sustainability will continue to be important. This pandemic has also changed us as a planet. Being adaptable and adjusting to change has gained precedence during the pandemic. Our ability to respond to changing circumstances, a condition that designers are suitable for, will be an even more important skill in the coming years.

SCALE: How important are design festivals for the university? Will Tasmeem Doha see a revival next year? What do students gain during such exchanges?

AMIR BERBIĆ: Exposure to the work of their peers, facilitation of dialogues, international exposure to designers from all over the world, are all vital for our students. It is important that we give them that opportunity. It is equally important for other practitioners to know about the happenings in the design world around the globe.

Tasmeem Doha is an interdisciplinary and collaborative conference that aims to forge dynamic links between designers, artists, students, creative problem solvers, community members, and governmental decision-makers. It is also a working conference, featuring student-driven teams investigating the role of design as a problem-solving mechanism that tackles community issues, our daily life, and world future concerns. Conference activities are designed to generate awareness, raise important questions and provide meaningful, solutions. We changed the timings last year with the event aimed for March 2022. We are not yet sure of the event mode at this stage but we will surely bring these events to our students for added value, to further cultivate their interest in design.

(To be continued…)