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Volume 46, Number 3May/June 1995

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Flourishing New and New

Written by Arthur Clark
Photographed by Thomas Hartwell

The school's founder, Charles A. Watson, grew up in Asyut, Egypt, the son of American missionaries, and formally put forward the idea for an American university in Cairo in 1912. He aimed not only to offer a high-quality education, in English, for those Egyptians who were then going abroad to pursue their studies, but, as the university history has it, "he also believed that such a university could improve his own country's understanding of the area."

Since then, some 13,000 students have earned degrees at AUC and thousands more have been trained in a variety of fields. Egyptians are by far the majority of the alumni, many prominent in their fields today, but university graduates also include hundreds of non-Egyptians from throughout the Middle East and around the world. Among alumni are one head of state, at least a dozen ambassadors, numerous professors, journalists in many capitals, and thousands of successful businessmen and -women.

Internationally known scholars are on AUC's faculty. They include professors of the caliber of Dr. Hamdi El Sakkut, who in February shared the King Faysal International Prize for Arabic Literature—the Arab world's equivalent of the Nobel Prize. And AUC's facilities, modest to start with, have come to be some of the best in the Middle East as the school has carved out a special niche for itself in the academic world.

AUC kicked off its anniversary celebrations at class-opening ceremonies last September and will cap them at commencement exercises this June. In between, a host of activities are taking place, running from alumni reunions around the globe to a symposium at the United Nations population conference in Cairo that featured US Vice President Al Gore, to first-class AUC Theater Company performances of Neil Simon's "The Good Doctor."

The highlight of a gala alumni reunion in October was the rededication of Ewart Hall, a 1150-seat auditorium that opened in 1928 and was recently refurbished with donations from alumni and friends. Once the largest auditorium in Cairo, it has served both AUC and the surrounding community, hosting regular concerts by Umm Kalthum, lectures by the controversial Egyptian writer Taha Hussein and even a performance by the Palestine Orchestra directed by Arturo Toscanini.

By Egyptian standards, of course, AUC's diamond jubilee is small potatoes. Al-Azhar, the renowned religious university a few kilometers away, is more than a millennium old (See Aramco World, September-October 1973).

In size, too, AUC is diminutive. The approximately 4300 full-time students are like a drop in the nearby Nile compared with Cairo University's enrollment of around 80,000. Even counting the nearly 11,000 people enrolled in AUC's continuing education and extension classes, the school is vastly outnumbered.

Being small can have its benefits, however. In the early days, at least, it was unusual for a student not to know all his or her classmates on a first-name basis. And many of those friendships were rekindled as alumni returned to AUC to greet old friends and recall old times in strolls on the school's grassy campus, an oasis of quiet in the dusty whirl of downtown Cairo. Some, in fact, simply stepped out of their offices for the homecoming.

One such graduate, Dr. Laila El Hamamsy, was elected Miss AUC as a senior in 1946 and went on to earn a doctorate from Cornell University. "AUC for me was the most wonderful place," El Hamamsy said. "I got respect there and I responded tremendously."

Today, she is professor emerita at AUC's Social Research Center, which she directed for 25 years and where she pioneered studies in such subjects as population and women's development. As an Egyptian with a Western education, she calls herself one of a breed of "hybrid" scientists who can bridge two cultures, blending elements of both to understand and tackle her country's problems.

"We're educated in the West...but we're not an image of the West," El Hamamsy said. "Here we can demonstrate what can be done by people committed to a society.

"It is even more challenging and even more important that we carry on and keep getting the facts" in the turbulent times facing Egypt today, added the energetic professor, the strength of whose ideas belies her 70-plus years.

The Social Research Center is one of two applied research institutes at AUC. The other is the Desert Development Center, which is working to find and disseminate ways of establishing sustainable desert communities in a country whose agriculture now depends almost entirely on a narrow green ribbon of irrigated land along the Nile. Backed by a $4-million grant from the US Department of Agriculture, the DDC recently launched a training program for 400 university graduates a year on 200 hectares (500 acres) of land in the Western Desert.

Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz is another part of the AUC bridge between Occident and Orient. In the early 1970's, Mahfouz agreed to a proposal from the AUC Press to translate and publish his works in English, a deal that current director Arnold Tovell called "a stunning commitment" for a press that publishes only about 15 titles a year.

By 1988, when Mahfouz became the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize (See Aramco World, March-April 1989), the AUC Press had published nine of his books. "I believe that these translations were among the foremost reasons for my being awarded the Nobel Prize," Mahfouz said at an AUC ceremony.

In bringing Mahfouz to the world, the AUC Press also brought an illuminating view of Egypt. "Naguib Mahfouz is the most widely popular of Nobel Prize winners in recent decades not only because he is a novelist and a storyteller but also because he is the best key to understanding this part of the world," said Tovell.

In a similar vein, Egypt's first lady Suzanne Mubarak, who received ner bachelor's and master's degrees from AUC in 1977 and 1982, emphasized AUC's intercultural bridge-building at the class-opening ceremonies in September. "In a time when bridging the cultural divide between East and West has assumed a new sense of urgency, the American University in Cairo, with its American educational principles and its solid adherence to the culture and traditions of Egypt, exemplifies the best of both worlds," she said.

Her own experience as a student assessing problems in the low-income Bulaq section of Cairo led Mubarak, as a senior, to found a primary school there. The class work "was a period of discovery and of motivation," she said. "Little did I know then that in a very short time I would be in a position [as first lady] to apply my knowledge in concrete action." The program she established as a student now serves more than 50,000 children and has been expanded to include community development.

US Ambassador Edward Walker, speaking the same day, said his own studies at AUC 17 years before had been equally eye-opening. "I and my fellow students from America, Japan and many other countries were challenged to think of the world from a different perspective—the perspective of Egypt. And this meant that we learned far more than the Arabic language we were studying," he said.

He told Aramco World that, as ambassador, he felt indebted to AUC "for my broad familiarity with Egypt's culture, people, heritage and language."

AUC President Donald McDonald, an educator and administrator from Texas A&M, highlighted AUC's role as a regional catalyst in the fields of English- and Arabic-language instruction, management development, continuing education, research and environmental studies.

But equally important, McDonald said, is AUC's undergraduate liberal-arts emphasis, part of its American heritage. Required core classes in such subjects as Arab history, society and literature "train students for a lifetime of learning," he said, and distinguish AUC from Egypt's huge national universities, which focus on specialized studies from the outset.

Furthermore, AUC's size means there can be "more interaction between students and faculty to foster a questioning attitude" than at the larger schools, he said. "We're not trying to make rebels out of the students; we hope that they leave us as good citizens. What we're trying to engender in our students is the willingness and the ability to question. That's a very important attitude now."

Many AUC students readily question their professors and peers, but most appear to be far from campus rebels, at least in any Western sense.

Omnia Nabil, a 23-year-old Egyptian woman who earned a bachelor's degree in political science and business in 1992 and is now pursuing a master's in international relations, said AUC had provided her the opportunity for "interaction and freedom of thought."

She served as a delegate to the international Model United Nations and the Model Arab League, as well as an AUC representative at a student conference in Russia, and she holds a full-tuition scholarship from the Sasakawa Foundation of Japan in recognition of her leadership. A benefit of traveling alone and speaking out abroad, she said, was "being able to break a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions about Egypt and Egyptian women."

Hisham Abbas, who wowed alumni and guests at the AUC reunion in October with his performances of Egyptian love songs, is doing less conventional "post-graduate" work. A 1988 alumnus with a degree in engineering, he went on to a career in music, becoming one of the most sought-after singers in Egypt.

Though his vocation has no direct tie to his degree, Abbas credits his AUC education with giving him the courage to follow his dream. "I always wanted to be creative. AUC opened my mind and made me more confident," he said. "When I graduated I was able to do something on my own."

Seifallah al-Sharbatly, a 22-year-old senior from Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, has another form of creativity in mind. A business administration major and a second-generation AUC student, he plans to use his education to expand his family's global agricultural business by acquiring a shipping fleet.

The fact that AUC courses are in English, the world business language, helped him decide to enroll there, said al-Sharbatly, noting that he is comfortable at AUC because "you get the education you can get in the United States and still not lose touch with your Arab roots."

Emma Zitter-Smith, 20, a junior from the University of Colorado who is in the first-year program at the university's Arabic Language Institute, said she enrolled at AUC to take a firsthand look at the Middle East. She said she came to Cairo "to live here, study the language and actually talk to people" instead of simply accepting the media depictions of the region.

"They portray the Middle East as a conglomeration of radicalism, and I haven't found that to be true," she said. "I feel very safe in this city...safer than in Boulder."

AUCs Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism deals directly with issues like the one raised by Zitter-Smith.

Its director is Abdallah Schleifer, an American-born Muslim who was Cairo bureau chief for NBC News from 1974 to 1983. "When you work in the Third World [in the international media] your beat is only plague, disaster and catastrophe," said Schleifer, explaining that the goal of the Adham Center is to give students the ability to provide substantive, high-quality, balanced news coverage by training them in contemporary television reporting methods.

That effort may already be succeeding. A number of the Center's graduates are working for international and national news organizations, including the BBC, CNN and Egypt's English-language satellite channel, Nile TV.

Satellite television "should not be a monologue by developed countries broadcast to the developing nations," wrote Nile TV director Hasan Hamed, an AUC graduate and associate faculty member, in Cairo's Middle East Times. "We people of the South also have the right to beam messages about our own culture to the North."

AUC is also a leader in the environmental protection movement in Egypt, and recently established an environmental research and studies program to help answer pressing needs.

"Environmental pollution is a major issue for this country," said Dr. Amr Abdel Hamid, dean of the School of Science and Engineering. "When we looked around and found nobody doing environmental education, we set the goal of becoming a center of environmental studies in Egypt and the region. Part of the larger agenda is to make environmental awareness part of the courses we teach across the board."

For research, students can mine rich resources in AUC's striking 235,000-volume English- and Arabic-language library. The library's English-language holdings make it the strongest in the country in that language. AUC's Rare Books and Special Collections Library is another important research facility. "It's got one of the world's greatest collections on Islamic art and architecture," said M. Lesley Wilkins, acting associate university librarian, including the renowned K.A.C. Creswell collection, and also focuses on Egyptology and regional travel literature through the 19th century.

AUC has reinvented itself several times since it was founded 75 years ago—initially as a high school for 142 students—and has flourished each time. It now confers bachelor's degrees in 20 fields from Egyptology to computer science and offers a variety of MA and MS degrees, as well as master's degrees in business administration and public administration.

The academic student body, only about 400 in 1960, had grown to 2300 by 1983 and has held steady at around 4300 since the early 1990's as AUC opened its doors to the maximum. Just over 80 percent of the current academic class is Egyptian, with the remainder representing more than 70 countries. More than half are women. The student-teacher ratio is 13 to 1 and the teaching staff is just over 50 percent Egyptian.

Even when US-Egyptian relations chilled in the 1950's and 1960's, AUC stayed open, reflecting the school's good relations with Egypt and its continuing importance to the country. Western staff have been evacuated twice—once when Rommel threatened Cairo in 1942 and again at the outbreak of hostilities with Israel in 1967—but each time the university continued to operate and evacuated faculty and staff returned when the crisis had passed.

In 1921 and 1922, courses equivalent to the freshman and sophomore years in US colleges began, and in 1923 the school granted its first junior-college degrees. The class valedictorian was accepted as a junior at Oberlin College in Ohio, but two other graduates were turned down by a British university, which refused to accept their degrees. In 1924 the New York State Board of Regents recognized AUC degrees, helping to eliminate that obstacle.

Today, AUC is accredited in the United States, and Egypt honors its degrees under the 1962 Egyptian-American Cultural Cooperation Agreement.

By 1928, AUC was offering four years of secondary school and four years of university courses. The same year, it issued its first three bachelor's degrees and the first female student started classes. AUC awarded its first graduate degree in 1950.

Important additions to the school in the early years included, in 1921, the School of Oriental Studies, which later became the Center for Arabic Studies, and, in 1924, the Division of Extension, which ultimately became the Center for Adult and Continuing Education (CACE).

CACE now enrolls nearly 11,000 individuals in cities in Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula, and even opened an operation in Warsaw in 1993 to provide the tools to boost Polish-Egyptian trade. English-language training is CACE's most popular offering, followed by business, computer and Arabic-language and translation courses. The Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Saudi Aramco) has called on CACE for certain kinds of employee training for 15 years, most recently in translation.

The separate Institute of Management Development offers training in modern business techniques. Since 1976, more than 30,000 managers and administrators have attended courses.

Among the non-degree academic programs at AUC is the highly selective Center for Arabic Studies (CASA), a consortium of 21 American universities including AUC. CASA's aim is to lift the level and broaden the base of Arabic competence in the American academic community, but it reaches farther than that: 1974 CASA graduate Thomas L. Friedman was a New York Times correspondent in the Middle East in the stormy 1980's and his book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, won the 1989 National Book Award in the United States.

At $8,500 a year, an AUC degree isn't cheap, particularly compared with Egypt's tuition-free national universities. So why do students enroll?

For many, it boils down to two words: Good jobs.

Businesses like AUC graduates because of their fluency in Arabic and English and their broad educational backgrounds, explained Farouk El Hitami, dean of the School of Business, Economics and Mass Communication. "Most of the multinational businesses do their hiring at AUC. People here are trainable. If they do not have a degree in business administration, then degrees in economics, mass communication or political science are acceptable. Many banks even hire people from the science department."

Still, in a country where per-capita income is only around $650 a year, an AUC education is beyond the reach of most, and, president McDonald admitted, the idea that AUC is an island for the affluent "worries me." He noted that, to help spread its academic offerings wider, the school recently shifted its scholarship program to focus more on financial need than on merit. As part of the effort, the Ministry of Education recommends students from Arabic-language government schools, and 10 students a year who meet AUC standards and show financial need are accepted with full scholarships. The first five students from this program graduated at mid-year commencement in February.

In the American tradition, donations and endowed scholarships from alumni, friends and corporations provide important support for AUC and its students. A five-year fund-raising drive in Egypt, the United States and the Arabian Peninsula in the mid-80's netted $24 million, $2 million more than the goal. A gift from a Saudi Arabian alumnus and his family at that time built the ultramodern, 10-story Abdul Latif Jameel Center for Middle East Management Studies.

The US government obviously sees merit in AUC, too. Congress provided grants in local currency—owed for food assistance from the United States to Egypt—for a number of years before approving an AUC trust fund in 1985 worth 50 million Egyptian pounds (then $71 million). Later, following the devaluation of the pound, Congress passed legislation to restore the fund to its original value.

Has it been a good investment? "Absolutely," said US Ambassador Edward Walker. "For 75 years, AUC has been a bridge of understanding between the United States and Egypt, and the rest of the Arab world as well. It's hard to imagine what could be a better investment for building ties and promoting understanding."

What lies ahead for AUC? McDonald was temperate, but upbeat: "It's not all good or bad. It's promising."

AUC has an important role to play in exploring Egypt's past, as well as in charting its future, said McDonald. "Over the long haul, AUC can have a profound effect, as our students permeate journalism, government, business and industry," he noted.

Seventy-five years along, that's nothing less than what founding president Charles A. Watson would have wished.

Arthur Clark, a staff writer for Saudi Aramco in Dhahran, studied and taught at AUC in the mid-1970's.

This article appeared on pages 2-9 of the May/June 1995 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1995 images.