CAIRO—The American University in Cairo’s faculty members’ long-simmering dissatisfaction with the institution’s president, Francis Ricciardone, boiled over this month, resulting in a vote of no confidence in his leadership.
The university’s Board of Trustees responded, however, by voting unanimously to support the president, appearing to set the institution up for a tense, long-term conflict. In a statement issued on Monday, the board praised Ricciardone’s leadership and decisions, describing them as “essential to the university’s present and future success.”
The public split between the faculty and the university’s leader comes just as the institution is beginning the celebration of its 100th anniversary.
One incident in particular that triggered faculty members’ discontent with the president happened last month when Ricciardone, a former U.S. diplomat, permitted the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to use the university as the venue for a news conference. That incident added to earlier concerns that Ricciardone was not properly sharing the governance of the institution with faculty members.
Pompeo’s news conference, during which he delivered a speech criticizing former U.S. President Barack Obama, was held on January 10 during the secretary of state’s visit to Egypt. Ricciardone placed one of the university’s halls at Pompeo’s disposal for the news conference. Faculty members said the decision was taken without following the usual administrative procedures for receiving public figures, which involve consulting widely across the campus before issuing an invitation.
High security measures were imposed on campus on the day of the secretary of state’s visit, restricting entry, exit and freedom of movement on campus. Invitations to the news conference were limited to guests chosen by the U.S. Embassy and largely excluded the university’s faculty and students, faculty members said.
Overwhelming Support for Vote
On February 5, the university’s Senate, which includes representatives of the faculty, staff members, students and administration, approved by a majority of 80 percent a resolution expressing no confidence in Ricciardone, whose four-year contract as president expires next year but can be renewed.
In a letter directed to the president, faculty members said the university’s current situation may be “the worst ever,” citing mismanagement, a lack of transparency, a monopoly by the president on making decisions, and a decline in the morale of the university community.
Pascale Ghazaleh, the chair of AUC’s history department, said the problem was in how Ricciardone treated the university as “a society where everything is subject to profit and loss, and that academics are just employees, rather than partners.” She and other faculty members have expressed concern about the rising proportion of faculty who are on part-time, temporary contracts without social benefits, and about what they believe is a preference for American and other Western faculty members over local academics.
Ghazaleh also complained about the hosting of Secretary Pompeo without the prior knowledge of the faculty or even inviting faculty members to attend the speech.
“Is it reasonable to make an invitation in the name of the university community, without its knowledge, and to hold such an event within the university without being told or invited?” she asked. “This is a continuation of his arrogance in dealing with us.”
The university’s Student Union supported the no-confidence vote, writing in a statement published on Facebook: “The current administration has proved its inability to cope with students’ and faculty needs, and accordingly must either change its actions or the administration must be changed.”
Ahmed Adel, a student in the Faculty of Economics and Political Science, said Ricciardone had repeatedly turned a deaf ear to students’ concerns. “We are talking about a university president who ignored us when the fees [for students] were raised significantly,” he said. He also complained that Ricciardone had infringed on students’ freedom of expression “on more than one occasion, notably his blocking the hosting of Bassem Youssef via Skype and a number of political activists.” (Bassem Youssef is an Egyptian comedian and television producer who was forced out of Egypt in 2014 for his unrelenting satire of the Egyptian government.)
Defending the President
The Board of Trustees, in defending the president, noted that the university’s accreditation was recently renewed by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, and that one of the things the commission takes into account in such decisions is “the criterion of a clear understanding of how the University is run” and “a spirit of cooperation” between the faculty and administration.
The Board of Trustees oversees the university’s vision, budget, plans and policies of the campus, appoints the president, and supervises the university’s endowment and finances.
Rehab Saad, the university’s director of communications, said in a phone interview that what Ricciardone has done has been no different from previous presidents. It is essential that professors raise money to support their own research and other projects not involving teaching, she said, adding that such money is essential for a nonprofit research university to survive.
No-confidence votes are advisory only, she said, and have no administrative power. “The Board of Trustees has renewed their confidence in the president, and meetings will be held with professors to reach solutions on the points they raised,” she said.
She also defended Pompeo’s visit to the university from the perspective of academic freedom. “The university has previously hosted controversial political figures such as Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi (the controversial son of the former Libyan dictator), and it opens its door to everyone without restriction,” she said. Pompeo’s visit required special security measures, she said, “so it was not announced in advance.”
The campus conflict is not over. Some academics believe the trustees’ dismissal of the Senate vote threatens the university’s climate of academic freedom.
“The decision is unwise and detrimental to the university’s interest and stability,” said Hafez al-Mirazi, a professor of practice in the Faculty of International Affairs and the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication. “It reveals a decline in liberal education in terms of the values of accountability and participation and the right of the majority to choose who governs it.”
He also pointed to the possibility that faculty members might escalate their position through a vote of no confidence in the Board of Trustees, and by calling for changes in how trustees are selected, so that the board would include stronger representation of professors and students.
Al-Mirazi, who has been working at the American University since 2009, agrees with the no-confidence vote. “The university administration is trying to expand the temporary contracts instead of permanently stabilizing the best professors,” he said. Those faculty members on temporary contracts can be easily intimidated by the administration, he said.
Taher al-Moataz Bellah, a former president of the Student Union and the author of a book on the student movement at the university, believes that Ricciardone’s background as a U.S. ambassador is negatively affecting his work. “The current president has a diplomatic background and his policy within the university is based on security and political interests only,” he said. “Former presidents had an academic background and were therefore more understanding and respectful of academic freedom.”
Adel, the economics and political science student, believes what is happening at AUC today is a threat to the climate of freedom that has long prevailed at the university.
“Freedom is inextricably linked to good education,” he said. “The university has always granted us a broader freedom that has had a positive impact on shaping our personalities and made us better than many graduates. Today, this freedom is diminishing.”