Out the window of the construction site office, “I’m actually looking directly out at the back of the playing field where we have our football field, as they call it, a soccer field, I call it (being from Canada), and the track that goes around it.... I can see the tennis court; I can see the back of our indoor facilities. I can’t see the pool but I know it’s right there beside it.”
Looking to the left, Paul Donoghue sees a cluster of academic buildings constructed around the new campus’s central spine, though his line of sight doesn’t extend all the way down to the 400 meter-long University Garden on the other end, all the plants but the date palms propagated and grown at the university’s Desert Development Center.
“It’s not just an issue of a quantitative difference in space, but also significantly a qualitative difference,” says Donoghue, vice president for planning and administration at American University in Cairo. The nearly 90-year-old institution is moving this fall from its historic, yet small and fragmented, location downtown to the new, $400 million, 260-acre campus on the city’s eastern outskirts in what's called “New Cairo."
"This is going to be a significant leap for us in terms of the opportunity that we have to provide that enriched student experience here at AUC."
As opposed to a campus fragmented by the streets of the city's it's based in, the new campus consolidates the university's offerings and provides a blend of indoor and outdoor spaces meant to encourage conversations outside the classroom. In the crowded campus downtown, Donoghue says, "it can be very frustrating in between classes or a lunch break or whenever you're looking for a space to sit outside and socialize."
The current campus, based on four major non-adjacent land parcels, a total of nine acres scattered throughout Cairo's city center, is "gorgeous but it’s postage-stamp small,” says Robert A. Oden Jr., president of Carleton College and an AUC trustee (and a scholar of Near Eastern languages and literatures). “It would be dishonest to say that there aren’t some losses. You have this beautiful little campus in downtown Cairo, 200 yards from the Egyptian Museum and 300 yards from the Nile. It was utterly charming. But the gains from the new campus in my mind hugely outweigh the losses," Oden says.
“The heart of the place has been undergraduate education. That’s basically what the ‘American’ in it means. For our undergraduates, this is going to be a huge plus. It’s going to see and look and feel much like the undergraduate education people in the U.S. know.”
He continues: "It's a pretty dramatic move to completely move your campus from one location to another."
AUC raised $100 million in private funding and received $100 million from the U.S. Agency for International Development to build the new campus, with the additional $200 million needed coming from a number of other sources, including revenue from expected downtown property sales, Donoghue says. Seven architectural firms designed the new campus, notable for its environmentally conscious design, or "environmental optimization," and incorporation of traditional Arabic architectural features like malkafs, or wind catchers, says Stephen Johnson, the principal architect for the library. The building's four-story exterior screen wall, for instance, was designed as a contemporary, large-scale re-imagining of the traditional mashrabiya, or wooden screen, commonly found in Old Cairo, Johnson says. The library has two faces and two front doors -- one opening to the central plaza and the other to the garden.
“It’s not just a bunch of buildings, but it’s a platform on which we can do so many other things,” Donoghue says of the new campus. The English-language university does have some plans for quantitative, in addition to qualitative, expansion, with plans to grow from about 5,300 to 7,000 students in the next few years. The university will now have enough empty land that it could conceivably double in size within one or two decades.
In addition to a pedestrian-friendly academic center, the campus will include a village of 12 reddish-orange townhouses for the minority of Egyptian students who do not commute as well as international students (89.1 percent of the university's degree-seeking students are from Egypt. Among all students, including non-degree study abroad students, 81 percent are Egyptian). It will include a one-stop student services center and of course the athletic facilities, including the Olympic-sized swimming pool. (Downtown, says Donoghue, they've had a small, basement-level gym, a tennis court and something that used to be a tennis court. "That's about it.")
AUC will maintain the School of Continuing Education, law department and management center downtown. It is developing bus service with six routes connecting Cairo with the new campus. University officials see the campus as becoming the anchor of a new, developing suburb.
The city is growing outwards "in leaps and bounds. You have what they call satellite cities, both residential and commercial,” says Jim Grabowski, vice president for field operations for America-Mideast Educational and Training Services (AMIDEAST), which just released a book on Egyptian education and training. Grabowski lived in Egypt for 19 years.
Coexisting with massive national universities -- Cairo University for instance says it serves more than 160,000 students each year -- AUC has “sort of been the gold standard in terms of private higher education in Egypt and the region since they’ve been there," Grabowski says.
At the time of its founding in 1919, he says, AUC "was one of the only or few English-language universities not only in Egypt but also in the region. Simply by having an investment there at that time, it was able to cater to people who had linguistic abilities, traveled more and yes, you could say, people who had more disposable income to invest in the education of their kids."
“Rightfully so, as they saw Cairo growing, they said we need to identify a space where we can consolidate our offerings,” Grabowski says. “I think it’s a quantum leap in terms of an investment in their overall educational enterprise as well as really being able to serve and grow what you do in higher education -- the research, the learning, the community environment, and what they can give back to Egypt over all as Egypt continues to grow.”