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Transition in Egypt

October 27, 2010

Much of the political discussion in Egypt of late has concerned the eventual transition when Hosni Mubarak leaves the presidency. Meanwhile, a very smooth transition is under way -- minus the intrigue -- at the American University in Cairo. This week, the board announced that Lisa Anderson, the provost and a former Columbia University dean, would succeed David Arnold as president.

In interviews Tuesday (Arnold's for a podcast), the outgoing and incoming presidents noted the unusual role of AUC (as it is widely called). New American universities are sprouting up in the Middle East (many of them branch campuses), and for-profit, English-language universities are proliferating in Egypt. But AUC is unusual. It is there for the long run (it is approaching its centennial, with a tradition of educating the future professional elites in Egypt), operates with American accreditation and a liberal arts style, and acts as a rare private nonprofit in a region not used to that sector of higher education.

Egypt is just starting the process of creating its own accrediting system and AUC "can set a standard," Arnold said, in part because it has long gone through American reviews of its programs. During his seven-plus years in office, Arnold said, the university has undergone a "complete transformation," moving to a new location and adding numerous academic programs. Enrollment has grown to 6,500 from 5,000 -- and the university has also boosted the enrollment of foreign students coming to Egypt to learn Arabic or how to teach it. Arnold said he is particularly proud of a new master's degree in teaching Arabic as a second language.

While the new Western-style universities and branch campuses in the Middle East have been attracting considerable attention and money, Anderson said she believes strongly that the AUC model will play a role that the branches cannot. She said she realized this well before she moved to Cairo, when she was at Columbia and was negotiating a dual degree program with a French university. She said that even where there is a common degree title or discipline, academic traditions and needs differ by country, and replicating an American university in the Middle East isn't the same as being an American university in the Middle East.

She said she found herself thinking at Columbia that "we cannot behave as though we have perfected a curriculum that can be disseminated around the world. I don't think there ever is a perfected curriculum, and in the current environment, where globalization is going to be taking us by surprise, it's important to be in an actual partnership where someone could say 'that makes sense in the United States, but not here.' "

Anderson added: "If you export your curriculum and your instructors and everything else, people aren't going to say 'we think about that in a different way.' " With the AUC model (also present at the American University of Beirut), "we have a historical depth and a place in local society that doesn't feel quite like an implant from the United States," she said.

Universities around the world, she predicted, may be looking for partnerships in the years ahead more than setting up outposts, and she sees AUC as ideally situated -- with a student body that is largely Egyptian but an international faculty and expertise in topics, such as business in the Middle East, that may be of value to many institutions.

Egypt, she said, has "lots of problems and lots of potential," and she fears the Western press may focus on the former and not the latter. But the population size, history, and geography all favor AUC, she said. While some worry about political instability in the years ahead, Anderson -- a political scientist who studies North Africa and the Middle East -- said this is only part of the picture. "There are clearly lots of issues in the news, but daily life at the university is not deeply affected by high-level politics," she said.

Anderson is the first woman to lead AUC, but she noted that she is not the first woman to lead an Egyptian University. Hind Mamdouh Hanafy is president of Alexandria University. And AUC attracts women in a range of fields that are not traditional for Egypt (or much of the world). AUC started Ph.D. programs for the first time this year, all in the sciences, and a majority of students are female.

And Anderson has a been-there, done-that view of being the first woman to hold a position. "I'm the first woman who has had every job I've ever had," she said.

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