In 1965, as Lebanon's venerable American University of Beirut prepared to celebrate its proud centennial, a three-year-old toddler called the University of Jordan was just adding its second and third schools: Science, and Economics and Commerce. The first school, the Faculty of Arts, had only begun teaching a few years before, in December, 1962, with few funds in hand, but a fistful of hopes and ideas. It had a Royal Decree calling for an autonomous national university, two old buildings, 167 students, including 18 girls, and eight faculty members of whom five were part-timers. It certainly did not look like a challenge to any of the older universities of the Arab world.
Last June, however, when all three faculties first graduated classes together, it had become apparent that even AUB might be in for some competition. For the University of Jordan is an institution with ideas. At least two foreign experts said recently—with only a little hesitation—that they wouldn't be surprised to see her eventually contending for the position of second best university in the Arab East.
It is not just that the campus has grown in seven years to include 300 hilly acres of pine forest where, in 12 handsomely-designed new limestone buildings, a student body of 2,603 (one quarter girls) and . a faculty of 438 go seriously about the business of higher education. There are universities in the Middle East with bigger campuses and many with larger enrollments. But at the University of Jordan there seems to be that difference in attitude and spirit which many people think should be part of the very definition of "university." From president and professor, from the student who insists the visitor join him for a moment on a campus bench, one hears again and again in surprisingly colloquial, even fashionable, campus English, "Here we are building a university." They are not talking about the bulldozers and the stonemasons so clearly in evidence around them, but about things like "free debate," "independent research," "interaction with society," "flexibility," "academic personality," and, the concept that sums it up, "living university."
"Most students," says one administrator, "will not remember half of the facts they learn here, but we consider attitudes and behavior as important as knowledge, and we feel that every single procedure in the university should be educative." Another asks, "What good is development technology alone without a development attitude?" A professor adds, "If we just want to build another university, then why bother? There are plenty around. No, our hopes are a bit more ambitious than that."
They wear their youth like a badge. "The University of Jordan was established in the seventh decade of the twentieth century," wrote Dr. Nassir al-Din al-Assad, first president, "and not in the nineteenth century, nor in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Hence ... we had to begin where others ended, not where they started. The University has tried to take advantage of the long experience of others. It has not, as yet, become fettered with the chains of burdensome traditions and inflexible regulations."
A departmental chairman agrees: "In a way, we were fortunate in starting so late. An older university has a much harder time in changing its character. It's the new university that can set the pace."
What are some of the "differences" that keep Jordan University sprinting ahead? Most important, those connected with the university seem to agree, is that this is a new kind of experiment in the Arab world—an attempt to establish the first completely autonomous national university. It has no administrative ties to a government or a ministry of education and it guards its independence jealously. To help it do so—and to help it find sufficient funds to operate—it has an independent board of trustees made up of ten private but influential citizens including, for example, three former prime ministers.
The mood on campus seems to be that the university should not exist solely to supply the immediate needs of government, to crank out high school teachers, technicians and civil servants. It has a broader idea of service than this and longer-range goals. It receives from the Jordanian government a subsidy which has averaged about 10 per cent of the university's yearly budget. It also receives directly the income from a customs tax equal to one per cent of the value of all imported goods. But it relies heavily, too, on gifts from a number of private Jordanian companies and individuals as well as from several foreign foundations such as Ford and Gulbenkian, and other Arab governments such as Kuwait and the Trucial States.
Tuition at the university is free, but since space is limited, only about one-third of the applicants are accepted. Students do pay about $30 in registration fees, and boarding students pay roughly that much each month. Currently the government covers all expenses for the approximately 1,500 students (more than half of the total enrollment) who have been cut off from their families in the occupied West Bank of Jordan by the war. Another 300 students receive scholarships, principally offered by the Ministry of Education, but also by other organizations such as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides 25.
Another feature that sets the University of Jordan apart from many Arab universities (and some in Europe) is that like most American institutions it does not permit "external students"—those who register at the university then show up only for year-end examinations. For generations of Arab students such study meant not imaginative, independent reading and research but simply memorization of prescribed texts or routine copying and absorbing of lectures— when attended. "It was a general complaint all over the Arab world," says one professor, "that students were concerned with nothing but cramming in facts and coughing them up for exams." At the University of Jordan, students who fail to attend more than 10 per cent of their classes are not allowed to take their examinations.
Those examinations, incidentally, are not overly emphasized; they count for only 70 per cent of the course grade. "I myself never give an exam based solely on the text or my lectures," says one young professor, "though mind you, there are a few around who used the traditional approach before coming here, and still prefer it. I suppose it's tempting for a certain kind of teacher, when half the students don't come and those who do are human sponges. I don't say we have the problem beaten here but I feel that our direction is right."
With texts, canned lectures and facts de-emphasized, classes at the University of Jordan have more lively discussion, and both laboratories and libraries are in constant use. The library has grown to about 75,000 volumes, one quarter in such languages as English, French, Persian and Turkish. Arabic is the principal language of instruction, of course, especially in the first two years, but teachers and students feel free to switch to English when it is helpful, as for example when discussing recent western technology.
At present the University of Jordan offers a graduate program leading towards an M.A. or Ph.D. only in the Department of Education in the Faculty of Arts. But now that the basic disciplines are being taught and all three faculties have graduated seniors, the university is looking towards the applied studies and hopes to open faculties of engineering, agriculture and medicine, perhaps as early as 1972. Meanwhile, an independent agricultural research station now uses part of the university grounds and the new Amman General Hospital, which will eventually be used as a 650-bed teaching hospital, is already under construction at one end of the campus on a hilltop loaned to the city by the university.
One charming difference in atmosphere that is immediately apparent at the University of Jordan is the relaxed and casual manner in which young men and women stroll, argue, and laugh together on the campus. There is a certain natural fellowship which immediately sets the students well apart from their colleagues in many parts of the Middle East, even, surprisingly, from those in free and easy Beirut where too-sophisticated boys and girls often overdo trying to impress each other. "Students are keenly aware of the necessity that this has to happen," says one visiting American professor. "Every time you see a boy and a girl walking across the campus together you're witnessing a revolution. And because it is important to them, students are highly critical of shallow personal relationships."
In Jordan, families who could possibly find the money have always sent their sons away for higher education (more than 2,000 in 1967) but even very wealthy or enlightened families were often reluctant to allow their daughters to go since it meant living far away from home in such free and easy societies as Beirut and Cairo. When the university opened a few miles outside Amman, however, parents could no longer stand up to their daughters' pressures.
"Coeducation was one good thing that came from not having enough money," an administrator admits, chuckling. "If funds had been available there probably would have been conservative pressures to have two sections of the university, for men and for women. Then it would have been very hard ever to join them."
The students, both boys and girls, really feel they are building a new society, according to one professor. They feel that things can be better. They don't laugh at the idea of the reformer or the dedicated man. They would understand completely, for example, the attitude of one of their Jordanian professors who turned down—for the present at least—an offer to work for one of the international agencies in Paris at four times his university salary. "There are just too many exciting things expected right here during the next few years," he said.
For students whose families don't live in the city there are two small hostels on campus. Eventually, university planners say, they hope to have about 25 per cent boarding students. With less than that number the campus would seem dead at night, they believe. It would cease to serve as a nucleus for sports events, for club activities, concerts, plays and public lectures. The library would have an empty ring to its halls. With all boarders, on the other hand, the university would become a self-contained and remote little island. "That we don't want," they say. "We want to create a certain intellectual climate in which the city and the neighboring villages feel our impact and we give the community a return on the support it has given us."
If you've been thinking that this kind of advanced and liberal thinking—still rare enough among teachers, administrators and planners on campuses in the West—seems unusually abundant in the Arab East, you have a point. But somehow the proud young University of Jordan has come up with the lion's share.
William Tracy taught English in Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria before joining Aramco World in 1967.