CAIRO—The American University in Cairo is preparing for big changes this fall when a new president, Ahmed S. Al-Dallal, will take office and students will return to its campuses after more than a year and a half of distance learning since the Covid-19 shutdowns began.
“We are very excited about Dr. Dallal’s presidency and his plans to push a new comprehensive strategy to enhance the university’s social and educational position,” Ehab Abdel-Rahman, the university’s provost, said in an interview held in his office on AUC’s New Cairo campus.
Al-Dallal will take office on October 15, becoming the first Arab president to lead the institution.
As the university’s chief academic officer, Abdel-Rahman said he was holding weekly e-meetings with Al-Dallal to determine the features of the new strategy, in addition to meeting periodically with professors to solicit their views on conditions at the institution, which has witnessed many crises during the past year, especially between faculty members and the administration. (See a related article, “Triple Threat: Administrator, Teacher, Researcher.”)
Back to Campus
During the interview, Abdel-Rahman confirmed that AUC was returning to in-class instruction this fall. “After more than a year and a half of remote teaching due to the epidemic, study will return to its normal system,” he said. At the same time, he stressed that the university was taking safety precautions, such as “adhering to the rules of social distancing, wearing masks, and ensuring that all students and professors get the vaccine.”
AUC formed three committees to ensure its readiness to deal with the emerging situations, Abdel-Rahman said. Vaccination centers have been set up for faculty members and students in coordination with the Egyptian Ministry of Health, and professors’ teaching days have been increased to six instead of four, allowing the university to reduce the number of students inside lecture halls and keep a distance of one and a half meters between them.
“After more than a year and a half of remote teaching due to the epidemic, study will return to its normal system.”
Friction With Previous Presidents
During the tenure of the previous president, Francis J. Ricciardone, disagreements escalated between faculty members and administration over a number of contentious issues. The most prominent of them was faculty anger over a decision by Ricciardone, a former U.S. diplomat, to allow Mike Pompeo, then the U.S. Secretary of State, to use the university as the venue for a fiery speech on Middle East policy in January 2019. That led to a vote of the Faculty Council on February 5, 2019, in which a majority of 80 percent approved a motion expressing no confidence in Ricciardone’s leadership. (See a related article, “Rift Widens Between American University in Cairo’s Faculty Members and Its Leadership.”)
In a previous statement, the professors described the former president’s tenure as an era of mismanagement, lack of transparency, unilateral decision-making, and marginalizing the role of professors and staff members, which caused a decline in morale.
However, AUC’s Board of Trustees unanimously supported the president. Ricciardone later announced his decision to retire at the end of the 2020–2021 academic year, setting in motion the search for a new president.
Working With the Faculty
Abdel-Rahman, who joined the university as an assistant professor of physics in 2006 and was appointed provost in 2017, declined to speculate on whether the former president’s political background had exacerbated his differences with the faculty.
“I cannot judge that,” he said, “but there was a gap between the administration and the professors even before Ricciardone’s presidency. The reasons for this gap are many.”
At the same time, Abdel-Rahman noted the administration’s success in finding solutions to some controversial issues by introducing amendments to the Faculty Handbook and involving the Faculty Council in the university’s plans and decisions.
“Whenever the gap narrows, we succeed in making up for the wasted time, and we succeed in directing the discussion toward the future and working to develop the university and push it forward.”
“Whenever the gap narrows, we succeed in making up for the wasted time, and we succeed in directing the discussion toward the future and working to develop the university and push it forward.” He pointed out that AUC is the only institution in Egypt that has a published guideline for supporting and protecting academic freedom.
“The internal differences are evidence of the vitality of practices and freedom of thought among members of the university community,” he said.
He also noted that the university had taken action in response to accusations from some professors and students that it was negligent in dealing with incidents of sexual harassment. The university established the Office of Institutional Equity in August of last year with the aim of combating all forms of discrimination and harassment. (See the related articles “Sexual Harassment at the American University in Cairo” and “Egyptian Universities Face Pressure to Better Protect Women From Harassment.”)
It also provided a mandatory online training for everyone at the university, including the president and senior administration officials, with the aim of raising awareness of sexual harassment, Abdel-Rahman said.
Funds in Decrease
Despite its readiness to switch to online teaching, the American University in Cairo has had to face “great difficulties” in dealing with the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Abdel-Rahman said.
Problems included “the lack of interaction between professors and students, the lack of computers for some students, as well as the problems of exam designing and weak Internet capabilities,” he said. (See the related articles “The Shift to Online Education in the Arab World Is Intensifying Inequality” and “Making Online Teaching Work: Insights from American University in Cairo Faculty.”)
“The presence of different cultures and distinguished professors or students benefits the university community, and reflects greater interaction within it.”
The pandemic also caused financial pressures, Abdel-Rahman said, including a reduction of annual funds AUC receives from donors and sponsors. Annual gifts and grants to the university did not exceed $4 million in the past fiscal year, the lowest amount the university has received since 2014, he said. The annual average for the previous three years was about $10 million.
As a result, the university halted its plans to increase the number of foreign students and professors. It had been aiming for 15 percent of the student body and 55 percent of the faculty to come from outside Egypt, according to Abdel-Rahman. The current percentages of foreign students and professors are about 7 percent and 50 percent, respectively.
“The presence of different cultures and distinguished professors or students benefits the university community, and reflects greater interaction within it,” he said.
He noted that the university has tried to deal with the drop in donations by reducing spending in areas that stopped due to the pandemic, including the budgets of professors’ travel for conferences or student travel for activities, as well as some other items.
The university increased tuition by an amount equivalent to 3 percent this year, Abdel-Rahman said, down from 11 percent the year before. “We took into account the impact of the epidemic on families of students.”
Still, AUC managed to increase the salaries of faculty members for the first time in four years, by 2.5 average on the basic salary, he said.
“We have been working for a year and a half to transform the Middle East Studies Center into an interactive institution that predicts events and makes recommendations on current events, to integrate with the role of other AUC think tanks.“
A Study Center’s Transformation
Abdel-Rahman also revealed an expansion in the role of AUC’s Middle East Studies Center. The goal is for the center, which is part of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, to become a policy center that responds and interacts with current political and social issues in the Middle East.
“We have been working for a year and a half to transform the Middle East Studies Center into an interactive institution that predicts events and makes recommendations on current events, to integrate with the role of other AUC think tanks,” he said.
He added that the university will increase the center’s financial support to achieve this goal during the coming period.
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In closing, Abdel-Rahman stated that the university seeks to continue to provide more opportunities for outstanding students with no financial ability to join the university. Throughout the changes ahead, he said, he aims to sustain the American University in Cairo’s status as a pioneering global institution.