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Volume 23, Number 2March/April 1972

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Egyptian Education American Style

A small university two blocks from the Nile provides a continuing link between two nations that have no formal diplomatic tie.

Written by William Tuohy
Photographed by Robert Azzi

Just off Cairo's busiest downtown square, swirling with the cacophonous bustle of traffic, lies a cool oasis of calm greenery and unhurried academic life. Behind crenelated arabesque walls the visitor finds a college campus with fresh green lawns, tennis courts, benches, and arbored walkways reminiscent of colleges the way they used to be in the United States.

This is the American University in Cairo a little known but extremely influential institution that for the past 50 years has weathered wars, revolutions and mercurial shifts in U. S.-Egyptian relations. Even today, when Washington and Cairo do not maintain formal diplomatic relations, the American University in Cairo, or A.U.C., as it is commonly known, provides a neutral zone in which mutual understanding can be nourished in intellectual surroundings.

Though somewhat old-fashioned by today's American "megaversity" standards, A.U.C. provides a heady educational brew for the young Egyptian students and those from other Arab countries.

"We find the university terribly exciting," says Mahmoud Fawzi, an 18-year-old freshman. "Especially after traditional schools where we were spoon fed information, and were only required to repeat it back as if we were computers."

The American University today has an undergraduate body of some 1,500 students—with 450 more enrolled in the graduate program. About 80 percent of the students are Egyptian; the rest come from 68 foreign countries, with some 170 students from the United States. Courses, except for languages, are taught in English.

There are about 160 teachers on the faculty, some 45 percent of whom are Egyptian, and an equal proportion American.

Degrees are given in Arabic studies, economics, political science, English literature, chemistry, physics, materials engineering, sociology, anthropology, and Middle East studies.

"Our goals," says President Christopher Thoron, "are to offer liberal American education to students of the Middle East and foster understanding of the Arab world in the West. In research, the university undertakes, and encourages others to undertake, studies which benefit the Arab world by advancing the sciences of today and rediscovering the arts of the past. In both teaching and research, the university emphasizes programs and approaches which complement the activities of the larger Egyptian national institutions."

The charming campus—with its students studying beneath palm trees—is close to the vital heart of Cairo, two blocks east of the Nile River, and about the same distance from the Egyptian Museum, a reminder that it is an integral part of both Cairo's past and its present.

The university opened in 1920 in a palace constructed in the 19th century for a former minister of education, Khairy Pasha. The onetime palace now houses administrative offices and some classrooms. Additions to the building completed in 1927 and 1932 house the Arabic Studies Program, the Department of English, the English Language Institute, and a large auditorium.

Since then, the university has added Hill House, a hostel later converted into the university library; a six-story Science Building, and two nearby secondary schools, which comprise a second campus housing the social and political sciences, the cafeteria and the student lounge. A wing of one building has also been reconstructed as a modern 350-seat theater for drama and lectures.

The founder and first president of the university was Dr. Charles R. Watson, who served from 1920— when the university enrolled 142 students in only two programs—to 1945, by which time the institution was developing rapidly. When Mr. Thoron took over in 1969, A.U.C. students were working for advance degrees in seven major disciplines. The university awards graduate degrees in each academic department.

Since the first degrees were awarded 44 years ago, graduating classes have grown steadily in size; to date the university has awarded more than 2,000 degrees.

The quality of the American University's programs is suggested by the consistent acceptance by major American and European universities of A.U.C. graduates with good records. In recent years, A.U.C. graduates have completed master's or doctoral programs at such institutions as Bryn Mawr, the University of California at Berkeley, Cambridge, Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, Denver, Harvard, Indiana, Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Princeton, Smith, Stanford, Tulane, Utah and Yale.

In addition to having full-time students, A.U.C. has a public service division, run along the lines of an American adult education program, which provides classes for some 4,000 Egyptians. There are courses in secretarial skills, English and Arabic typing and shorthand, electronic data processing, accounting, business and commercial practices, English and other languages, communications, photography, social studies, art and psychology. This division also sponsors public lectures, concerts, art exhibitions and other cultural events.

Not long ago a black Mercedes limousine rolled up to an A.U.C. building and a well-dressed Egyptian got out of the back seat to attend one of the public service courses in English. His chauffeur parked the car, and then he too entered the same building, to take a course in photography.

"I believe that the American University is essential for Egyptian education," says Gamal Hammansy, a former dean of students. "It provides a valuable alternative to the national universities."

The late President Gamal Abdel Nasser shared this view and sent his daughter, Mona, to A.U.C. She has since gone on to do graduate work there, too.

Egypt has five big national universities, which together have enrollments of some 200,000 students; 60,000 of these attend Cairo University. Thus the national universities are comparable to American megaversities, with similar strengths—all-star faculties, vast plant, and big libraries—and similar drawbacks—inflexibility, impersonality, and an overly high ratio of students to teachers.

"I can say with confidence," says senior Ahmed Amer, "that we receive more general knowledge here at A.U.C. than a student does at a national university. We are trained to develop our own point of view and we are able to spend more time with our own instructors."

As at other Egyptian universities, competition is keen at A.U.C. "Egypt is a country very conscious of college degrees," says 18-year-old Mohammed Sabbagh. "To be successful in any field you need a college degree. I think that this is one of the drawbacks. You are measured not by your talent or ability or skills but by the degree you have obtained. This often leads students to be more concerned about their marks than in what they are actually learning."

The university curriculum, says President Thoron, who is tall, handsome and affable, is designed to provide the kind of educational courses and techniques at which Americans excel in imparting, and which are not generally available at Egyptian national universities. These universities tend to follow the French system of higher education—students listening passively as professors lecture, then spewing it all back in the final exam.

Of the graduate courses, one of the most popular is the Management Workshop, which many Egyptian government officials attend, and which in its small way serves as a link between American academics and the Egyptian Government.

The university's Social Research Center projects have included valuable investigations into labor and industrial relations in Egypt, rural resettlement, urbanization, Nubian village life, and an expanding program of demographic studies so important to developing Egypt. The Center also provides assistance to visiting scholars and research guidance for graduate students from universities overseas.

As an adjunct to the university, the English Language Institute was established to provide instruction for students who need additional training to prepare them to enter the academic program. The language training continues, but the Institute today provides a much broader program of in-service training, research and graduate education in Teaching English as a Foreign Language.

On the social side, student life is centered around the daily activities that take place in the classroom and in university recreation areas. The university encourages students to participate in a variety of co-curricular programs—athletics, dramatics, social functions, lectures and field trips, student publications and student government.

Social life at A.U.C. has had one important effect on students: the easing of relationships between the sexes.

"We can smoke and hold hands with girls if we want," says Mahmoud Fawzi. "You don't see much of this at Cairo University. But maybe it's because most of us come from middle-class families where the rules governing the relationship between the sexes are not so strict."

"Social life is pleasant here," adds Dr. Wilmott Ragsdale, a visiting professor of journalism from the University of Wisconsin. "The dances are really charming, like something out of a Middle Western college a generation ago. Everyone gets dressed up, nobody gets drunk or smokes pot or gets stoned. It really takes you back to what our small colleges used to be."

In addition to training Egyptians and other Arab students, the American University has provided exposure for American Arabists who have gone on to become educators, diplomats and businessmen in the Middle East.

Of the A.U.C. experience, one American student, Susan Uber, of Macalester College in St. Paul, who is spending her junior year abroad, says: "You meet so many people with so many different backgrounds here. It is a very rich and broadening experience."

The tuition at A.U.C. is about $130 a semester—compared with about $23 for the full year at Cairo University. But the tuition and fees cover only 11 percent of the total cost of running the university—some $4.5 million annually. Thus, the institution depends for the great majority of its financial support on gifts from individual Americans, and such governmental agencies, corporations and private foundations as the Ford Foundation, the General Service Foundation, Near East Emergency Donations, the Cranshaw Corporation, the Forest Funds, the Lila Acheson Wallace Fund and the Standard Oil (Indiana) Foundation.

Grants from the United States Government in Egyptian pounds (owed from wheat shipments by the Agency for International Development under Public Law 480) support general operating expenses and financed the construction of the Science Building and a new dormitory. The U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare has also supported programs which bring American teachers and students to Cairo for instruction in Arabic and for seminars in Egyptian history, art and modern development.

University support has also come from such American corporations as the Arabian American Oil Company, American Independent Oil Company, California Texas Oil Corporation, Gulf Oil Corporation, Mobil Oil Corporation, Ford Motor Company, International Business Machines Corporation, Singer Company and Trans-World Airlines.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war, the American University was sequestered by the Egyptian Government. But the two Egyptian officials who serve as the sequestrators have been extremely sympathetic to the aims and purposes of A.U.C., and the Egyptian Government, convinced of the university's value, has left it pretty much alone.

"Basically, you have to remember," says President Thoron, "that we are fundamentally an Egyptian institution, designed to educate Egyptian students, using Americam educational techniques.

"Our goal is to prepare our Egyptian students to live in their society and play a role in improving that society.

"I think that over the past 50 years, experience has shown that there is a definite need for an institution like the American University in Cairo.

"I believe, too, that whatever the current state of diplomatic relations between Cairo and Washington happens to be, cultural and academic relations between Egypt and the United States can still continue to grow and prosper."

William Tuohy, now Los Angeles Times bureau chief in Rome, began his reporting career with the San Francisco Chronicle, moved to Newsweek and later joined the Los Angeles Times in Saigon. In 1969 he won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his coverage of Vietnam, and in 1970 won an Overseas Press Club award for Middle East coverage.

This article appeared on pages 28-34 of the March/April 1972 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1972 images.