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Monday, 18 February 2019

The AUC, a century on

This year sees the centenary of the founding of the American University in Cairo, with activities planned to mark the occasion in Egypt and across the Arab world

Walid M Abdelnasser , Monday 11 Feb 2019
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Starting this February, the American University in Cairo (AUC) will launch a number of activities intended to celebrate the centenary of its founding in 1919. These will not be confined to Cairo alone, but will extend to other cities in Egypt and will even go beyond the borders of Egypt to cities inside and outside the Arab world. They will also take place in cities where large numbers of AUC alumni reside.

The AUC’s legacy has been very diverse. Its core lies in the institution’s long and rich history of academic undergraduate and graduate study, as well as in different areas of scientific research that have been acquiring growing importance not only in Egypt but also worldwide. In addition to its principal academic role, the AUC has also played a no less important cultural one throughout the century of its existence.  

While teaching its students a curriculum based on the sciences and liberal arts, the AUC has emphasised the values of the freedom of thought and of scientific research, as well as of freedom of academic expression within the boundaries of constructive and civilised dialogue. Over the years, research centres have been established inside the AUC covering a broad range of subjects that have been at the top of the global agenda, as well as of agendas at national and regional levels. These have organised numerous scientific conferences, symposia and workshops to help address the matters they cover.

Throughout the century of its existence in Egypt, thousands of students have graduated from the AUC, whether Egyptians, Arabs or foreigners, many among them later going on to become prominent personalities and public figures in their countries of origin and fields of specialisation. As these alumni have appreciated the value of the education they received while studying at the AUC, and the role their years at the institution played in helping to develop their characters and viewpoints, they have decided to pay it back in order to ensure its continued privileged status. 

Their contributions have been diverse and have included helping to establish new departments as well as to develop existing ones. They have enriched the main library and other secondary libraries and helped to build state-of-the-art science labs, in addition to adding to athletic facilities and constructing new conference and event rooms. This mentality of seeking to give back is in itself a by-product of the education these alumni received at the AUC, which nourished in them a spirit of wishing to contribute to public life and the public good. Unfortunately, this tradition is still sometimes lacking in Egypt and the Arab region, although it is nevertheless deeply rooted in the traditions of Arab-Islamic civilisation as was shown in previous eras.

Because of increases in tuition fees since the1970s at the AUC, the university has sought over time to find ways to fund student scholarships with the help in some cases of outside institutions, businesses, and corporations. These efforts have enabled many distinguished Egyptian students who could not otherwise afford to pay the AUC’s tuition fees to attend the institution. Much progress has been achieved in this regard, but there is still a lot of room for more. 

Some otherwise distinguished students at the AUC have also suffered from weaknesses in the English language, which is its language of instruction. In order to help them in this regard, the AUC has developed local programmes as well as partnerships with relevant foreign academic institutions in order to ensure that these students rapidly acquire the required level of English to enable them quickly and fully to integrate into the university’s academic environment.

There is no doubt that the AUC’s move from its long-standing campus in Tahrir Square in Downtown Cairo to its new campus in New Cairo over a decade ago promised the expansion of academic programmes as well as athletic and artistic facilities. However, the move also meant enormous additional costs in running the huge new campus and therefore led to further rises in tuition fees. In real terms, this meant more difficulties for additional categories of middle-class Egyptian students to be able to pay these fees. This then led to the university multiplying its efforts to secure fresh sources of funding. These efforts must continue and even increase.

The above is not meant to imply that everything is otherwise perfect at the AUC or that nothing more is needed. On the contrary, there are many hopes, ambitions, expectations and dreams that still need to be addressed. Some come from within the university itself and others come from within the Egyptian society in which the AUC exists and with which it interacts and is expected to serve. 

There have been many “community service” activities over time put on by the AUC. Yet, there is still room to expand these in order to increase the benefits accruing to the wider society through the expertise accumulated by the university in a number of fields. Moreover, while the AUC has a branch in Al-Gouna on the Red Sea, it might consider opening others in other Egyptian cities with the emphasis placed on the needs of each area in terms of fields of study. 

There are also other hopes and expectations regarding new departments at the AUC covering areas in demand among Egyptian high-school graduates, particularly as the AUC has been facing rising competition from other universities inside Egypt and in the surrounding Arab world. There continue to be ambitions relating to launching PhD programmes in the specialisations covered by the university’s undergraduate and Masters programmes.

The above is intended as an overview of some features of the AUC a century after its foundation in Cairo by focusing on its educational and academic role. It is based on a vision that combines objective and subjective factors and reflects the perspective of someone who has studied and taught in two of the most important modern universities in Egypt and the Arab world, namely Cairo University, which celebrated its centenary some 11 years ago, and the AUC, which is celebrating its centenary this year.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly 

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