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A Donor's Demands, a Revoked Chair

A religion professor at the American University in Cairo says the university had no right to revoke his chair title after he resisted a donor's demands that he teach Islam in a preferential manner.

May 24, 2019
 
Adam Duker

A professor at the American University in Cairo is in a dispute with the university over the cancellation of his endowed chair after, he says, he refused to accede to the requests of the original donor’s son that he send him lectures in advance and that he encourage his non-Muslim students to convert to Islam.

Adam Duker came to AUC in fall 2016 fresh out of graduate school, after earning a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame, to accept a position as an assistant professor and the Abdulhadi H. Taher Chair in Comparative Religions. After the provost informed him in July 2017 that the university would no longer fund the chair at the donor's request, Duker has continued to use the Abdulhadi H. Taher chair title, defying senior administrators’ demands that he stop.

In April, Duker submitted a letter of resignation, saying in his letter that the university has been in breach of his contract since July 2017 by denying him the title included in his contract and retaliating against him for his refusal to stop using it.

In December, Duker was accused by his dean of a “prima facia [sic] case of faculty misconduct” for continuing to use the endowed chair title “despite clear and repeated instructions and requests to the contrary.”

The University Senate’s grievance committee determined that Duker did not commit faculty misconduct, and instead expressed its concern that the provost unilaterally changed Duker’s title without providing “an alternative and satisfactory option that would compensate him for being stripped of his hard-earned title.” The grievance committee also registered its concern “that the donor was allowed to interfere in academic matters and influence the provost’s decision to strip Dr. Duker of his title.”

It is common for colleges and universities that seek endowed chairs to specify the general topics of the chairs with donors, and to keep donors and their families engaged with the college after the gift is given. But donors of endowed chairs are not typically allowed to oversee a professor's work or cancel a chair if they disapprove. Typically, endowed chairs are just that -- endowed -- and so once set up cannot be revoked.

In written answers to questions provided by an AUC spokeswoman, AUC says that the funding for the chair was not withdrawn but that it was redirected at the donor's request to fund scholarships.

"No member of AUC's faculty or administration has interfered at any time or in any manner with the complainant's courses, curriculum, teaching, outside activities or freedom of expression," the university said. "AUC required him to desist from using the name of the deceased donor of the funds that originally had supported his work, and AUC stepped in to provide full direct funding for that work when we redirected the original funding to scholarships. Until the complainant's unsolicited and voluntary resignation in 2019, he has continued to enjoy his full rights and privileges as a faculty member. The university is deeply committed to religious and academic freedom and has stayed true to those values."

Duker maintains that AUC, a nonsectarian university with American accreditation that receives funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, infringed his religious and academic freedom by revoking his chair title at the donor's request.

“It is illegal for an academic institution receiving U.S. taxpayer money to strip a professor of his position because a Saudi billionaire objected to his refusal to favor Islam over other religions,” Duker wrote in his letter of resignation.

Donor Demands

The Abdulhadi H. Taher Chair in Comparative Religions was established in 2002 by a Saudi Arabian businessman of that name who has since died. Duker was the fifth professor to hold the chair, and he says he came to AUC in large part because of the prestige of holding an endowed professorship and the academic doors it would open for him.

“My research doesn’t pertain at all to the Arab world,” Duker says. “I work on the French wars of religion in the 16th century; there was no obvious research advantage to me coming to Egypt. The two major factors were the endowed chair and the opportunity to build a comparative religions and comparative religious history program at the most prestigious university in the Muslim-majority world.”

Within his first year of arriving at AUC, Duker says he was asked by AUC president Francis J. Ricciardone to travel to California to meet with the son of the donor, Tarek Taher, at his home in Malibu, Calif. They met in January of 2017. During that meeting, Duker says, Taher expressed concerns that the chair had previously been vacant -- it was vacant for one year before Duker’s arrival -- and made multiple demands on his teaching that were inappropriate.

“He demanded that I show him all of my lectures in advance before I give the lectures so that he be allowed to preapprove and vet my lectures. I told him he’s always welcome in my classroom, if ever he would like to stop by, but no, I wouldn’t be sending my lectures in advance,” Duker recalls.

“He demanded that I discontinue teaching Hinduism and Buddhism, that I could only teach the Abrahamic religions, and of the Abrahamic religions, I can only teach Judaism and Christianity in such a way as to show the superiority of Islam,” Duker says.

Duker says the donor was upset to learn Duker was exposing his students to the Jewish community in Cairo. “I was not allowed to expose my students to living Jews, to Jewish sites, such as synagogues, cemeteries, and most importantly he was concerned that I never take my students to Israel,” Duker says.

“He insisted that I teach a course on the truth of the miracles of the Quran. He wanted me to teach that the miracles of the Quran are true and provide evidence for that,” Duker continues.

“He also made it very clear that he wanted me to use my authority as a professor and my position as chair to encourage any non-Muslim students that I have to convert to Islam.”

In addition, Duker said, Taher objected to the English translation of the Quran he used in his class -- an Oxford University Press translation -- because it translated “Allah” as “God” and, in his view, took Allah out of the Quran.

Taher did not respond to requests for comment. Inside Higher Ed sent Taher multiple emails as well as a Facebook message and made several calls to a phone number that Duker said was valid at the time of the January 2017 visit (there was no answer and the voice-mail box was full; text messages sent to the number were undeliverable). Inside Higher Ed also sent an email to Taher's family company requesting that it be forwarded.

Duker says he tried to gently sidestep Taher’s requests and objections. “I did tell him he’s welcome to my classroom any time to attend, or if he ever wants a platform to explain why his family wants to invest in religious education, I would be happy to have him speak in my class or give a guest lecture. I wanted to accommodate him if I could, but the things he was asking for were so far out there that it would be a violation of my professional responsibilities to do that,” he says.

Duker says that despite the demands, the meeting ended on a positive note, “with kisses and hugs all around.” He returned to Cairo and kept in touch with Taher, even extending an invitation to his wedding.

Six months later, the following July, he was surprised to receive an email from the provost, Ehab Abdel-Rahman, saying that after numerous conversations, Taher “has formally requested that he no longer wants the Abdulhadi Taher Endowed Professorship in Comparative Religions. To honor his request, we will stop funding of that professorship as of July 1, 2017 … Going forward, kindly remove any reference to this endowed professorship. This may include but not limited to removing reference to it on websites, email signature, business cards, etc.”

In a subsequent email, shared with Inside Higher Ed, the provost said that Taher “clearly mentioned that he does not want his family name to be associated with this professorship … As of your contract, you will remain a faculty member in AUC but you are no longer the Abdulhadi H. Taher Chair of Comparative Religions as this professorship no longer exists.”

Contractual Obligations

It is not clear what the precise terms of the original gift agreement were, and Duker says he has not seen it. In response to a question about whether the terms of the agreement allow a donor -- or an heir to the donor -- to revoke the gift or to change its purpose, AUC said that "AUC policy, acting under law, permits the university from time to time to adjust the terms of gifts by donors, whether living or deceased, striving always to keep faith with the donors' original intent under the changing circumstances of a dynamic world."

Asked what concerns Taher had expressed to the university in asking for the revocation of the chair -- and what AUC administrators' responses to those concerns were -- the university responded, "The heir to the original donor may respond for himself to the public allegations of the complainant. The representations he made directly to us were substantially different from the core allegations made publicly by the complainant. The heir immediately and without challenge accepted that in accordance with our rigorously nondenominational university's commitment to academic and religious freedom, we would continue not only the employment of the complainant, but also the full content of his course and associated programs."

Duker’s position was that even if Taher requested that he no longer be called the Taher chair, the university couldn't grant the request without his consent because AUC had a contractual obligation to him. In an Oct. 20 email outlining his position, he said that he was willing to negotiate another title, but that would “require the university to either grant me a new nonrevocable endowed chair, provide financial compensation for the Taher title or buy me out of my contract.”

Duker says that instead of negotiating, AUC has retaliated against him for continuing to use the title, both in the form of the formal charge of faculty misconduct and in the form of legal threats. In February he received an email from AUC’s attorney, Sunanda K. Holmes, accusing him of being in breach of contract for continuing to use the Taher chair title. Holmes wrote, "Your continuous demands and threats and the continuous use of this title is causing financial and reputational damage to AUC, for which we intend to hold you fully liable under the law."

Duker says that without the chair there is technically no comparative religions program at AUC. "The simple fact is if there is no chair, there is no program -- then I’m just a history professor," Duker says. "I didn’t come here to be a history professor. I came here to teach Egyptian students to understand different religions."

Pascale Ghazaleh, the chair of the history department, Duker’s departmental home, says the situation amounts to a contractual dispute rather than a situation in which Duker's academic freedom is being violated.

“It’s unfortunate that the chair was canceled and it would have been wise of the university administration to renegotiate his contract with him, but that is not the same thing as persecution or violating academic freedoms,” Ghazaleh says.

“He wasn’t pressured to do anything,” Ghazaleh adds. “If you work anywhere and your job is canceled, I guess you could say it’s unjust in the greater scheme of things, but that doesn’t mean you’re being persecuted. No one asked him to publish anything that was different than what he was working on. Maybe the donor said, ‘this is what I want the chair’s purpose to be,’ but to my knowledge at no point was there actual pressure on Adam to conform to that.”

A Tense Environment

Duker describes a hostile environment for him at AUC. He has clashed both with senior administrators and with colleagues in his department during his three-year tenure at AUC.

His third-year review report -- he shared a copy with Inside Higher Ed with the caveat that had abridged the document to delete confidential student information but had not added anything -- is mixed. It says that his student evaluations over all are "very positive" and adds "there is little doubt that Dr. Duker is a devoted and knowledgeable instructor, able to communicate even the most sophisticated concepts in his field effectively to his students." But the report cites conflicts between Duker and his current and former department chairs and colleagues and characterizes him as having a "belligerent manner and assumption of entitlement."

The report also discusses Duker’s involvement advocating for religious minorities in Egypt, including his involvement with the Mustard Seeds Foundation, a Christian organization. “While faculty members are of course free to exercise their freedom of belief and indeed to engage in political activity if they so choose, Dr. Duker is perhaps unaware of the vulnerability of the communities he purports to defend, and the grave damage he can do them,” the third-year review report states. “This is particularly so in an authoritarian and xenophobic political context, in which Western Europeans and North Americans in particular have been associated in the past with colonial interference and missionary work. Given AUC’s place in Egyptian society, Dr. Duker’s claims of advocacy could harm far more than they will help -- not only the institution that employs him, but also those he purports to defend.”

Duker said in written response to the review that there is “a demonstrated religious and political bias” against him. He wrote that relations with several department faculty members and staff, including Ghazaleh, soured after he requested leave to attend his brother's wedding in Israel (Ghazaleh denies this was the source of any hostility, saying she only learned Duker had a brother in Israel after he accused her of being hostile to him because of it). He wrote that while there have been tensions around his refusal to accept the revocation of the chair, he has good relations with professors from other departments and with students, "who have supported me in the defense of my contract and of religious and academic liberty."

Duker also objected to the review’s description of his work with religious minorities and described the association with missionaries and colonialists as “offensive and unprofessional.”

“The leaders of the minority faith communities with whom I work certainly do not perceive me as doing more harm than good,” he wrote.

Duker says he no longer feels safe in Egypt. On a student field trip to a synagogue last fall, he was circled by police and interrogated by an official who claimed to be from the Ministry of Antiquities but who he suspects may have been from State Security (Duker says the official knew his phone number and the names of family members and mentioned the Tahers several times).

“It’s in our judgment not safe for us to be here,” he says of his family. “When I was just a single professor, that was one thing, but now that I have a wife and a son, we need to be in position where we don’t have these sorts of threats, where my work life isn’t clouded.”

He is leaving Egypt this weekend, and his last official day at AUC is Oct. 2, the day incomplete grades are due for the spring semester. “I was pretty sure that if I continue to do this that I was going to be fired or arrested,” Duker says of his decision to resign. “I didn't think this would be a long-term position once the president and provost and the dean made the decision to submit to the will of Tarek Taher.”

Duker thinks it is a shame, because the work he came to Egypt to do is so important.

“I came here to do the difficult work of teaching Muslim students how to understand Christians on the terms of Christianity, how to understand Jews on the terms of Judaism, how to understand Hindus on the terms of Hinduism, how to understand Buddhists on the terms of Buddhism,” he says. “This is incredibly important work, and no one is doing it.”

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