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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the American University in Cairo.

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During a recent major foreign policy address, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited the proliferation of American universities in the Middle East as evidence for “America’s innate goodness.” While the line probably struck most in higher education as pandering to the Trump base -- after all, Pompeo opened his remarks by reminding the audience that he is an evangelical Christian -- that rhetoric is actually deeply rooted in the history of American voluntary support for higher education in that part of the world.

This year marks the centennial anniversary of the founding of the American University in Cairo (AUC), which served as the venue for Pompeo’s speech. During the past 10 decades, AUC has overcome remarkable odds to become a leading institution in the Arab world and an important resource for American-Egyptian relations, although that relationship has been strained at times. Ten years ago, for instance, AUC had to fend off allegations from a popular Egyptian newspaper that it is a front for the U.S. Department of Defense. The articles even prompted two parliamentarians to call for emergency investigations into the university’s “espionage.”

More recently, the university’s apparent political links have aggravated the faculty. Several weeks after the secretary’s speech, AUC’s Faculty Senate voted to express no confidence in the university’s president, a former U.S. diplomat. A faculty spokesperson told The New York Times, “I object to the university being treated as an extension of the U.S. Embassy.” Such episodes hardly evoke innate goodness.

A related, but less known century mark is perhaps more reflective of Pompeo’s search for moral validation of his foreign policy. When AUC was founded, several American colleges were already in the Middle East. The two most venerable of them were in Istanbul and Beirut. Robert College and the Syrian Protestant College (later renamed the American University of Beirut) had been around for over 50 years, but World War I had taken its toll. After the war, the two colleges had a combined deficit of more than $9 million (adjusted for inflation). The sum far exceeded the means of the colleges’ small donor bases, consisting of only a few individuals. Six months after the war, trustees of both colleges considered closing them. Instead, in 1919, they opened a joint office in New York to conduct a wide range of academic and administrative duties, including fund-raising.

Among the first fund-raising materials that the new organization produced was a 12-page booklet titled “The Only Way.” It interpreted the colleges’ survival through the Great War as a divine mandate to peace and enlightenment, framing them as the instruments by which a distinctively American expression of Christianity would rescue the region. The brochure opens by quoting Scripture: “‘Pillars of cloud by day and of fire by night,’ guiding the youth of the Near East to high levels of Christian manhood and useful citizenship, two American institutions in this troubled quarter of the Earth are performing a glorious service for humanity.” Promotional materials like this one often emphasized that American colleges in the region were all that stood between Christian civilization and the outbreak of another catastrophic war.

The rhetoric resonated -- although the millennial tone eventually took a back seat to American exceptionalism -- and the association grew to support half a dozen institutions in the region. Between the two world wars, the Near East College Association solicited more than 36,000 individual contributions from donors across the United States. During the 1920s alone, the association waged several successful campaigns that brought in the equivalent of over $220 million today, split among six colleges with a combined enrollment below 3,000 students.

These students were the region’s future professionals, business leaders and politicians. Among the delegates to the United Nations Conference at San Francisco in 1945 were 29 graduates of American colleges in the Near East. The UN charter had more signatories from alumni of the American University of Beirut than any other higher education institution in the world. During the first half of the 20th century, the colleges’ capacity for training elites attracted prominent Americans to serve on their boards, including former CIA director Allen Dulles. A sectarian squabble kept AUC from joining the association, but admirers from Algeria to Afghanistan then sought to establish American colleges and access the association’s treasure trove.

On first glance, the condition of the field appears similar today. American universities -- and those purporting to be them -- have spread rapidly throughout the region, allowing Pompeo to conclude, “Many other American universities like this one thrive all across the Middle East, from Beirut to Sulaymaniyah.” Unfortunately, that is a gross mischaracterization. While they can still be proving grounds for national leaders, engines of regional development and refuges for humanitarian aid, many independent American universities abroad are barely getting by.

Joint fund-raising is a relic of the past, and tuition covers only a fraction of the costs at many of these (especially young) institutions, compromising their abilities to maintain key American characteristics, like employing faculty members who’ve been educated in the United States. Republican- and Democratic-led Congresses,  recognizing both their public diplomacy value and fragility, have periodically created funds to establish or sustain individual American universities in Bulgaria, Egypt, Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere abroad. But lobbying for these resources is expensive and often unsustainable.

That is now the case -- ironically -- at one of the institutions that Pompeo acknowledged in his speech. A regional economic crisis threatens to decimate otherwise reliable streams of funding for the American university in Sulaymaniyah. While some U.S. government resources are consistently dedicated to independent American universities abroad, the pool is extremely shallow. In 2016, then President-elect Trump spent three times more settling a lawsuit for one now defunct Trump University than USAID’s American Schools and Hospitals Abroad unit awarded in aggregate to more than a dozen American universities in the Middle East and Asia.

Perhaps even worse than the lack of financial support is the political damage the State Department itself inflicts on American universities throughout the world. The rhetoric of U.S. government officials and conservative media dangerously undermines long-held, formerly nonpartisan American educational values abroad. The most egregious example comes from Hungary, where the U.S. government failed to support the political takedown of an American university that has long enjoyed bipartisan congressional support. After some initial posturing on behalf of Central European University -- a U.S.-chartered and -accredited institution -- the U.S. ambassador in Hungary ultimately sided with the illiberal Orbán regime by shifting blame onto the university’s founder, George Soros. The far-right-wing forces that contributed to the ambassador’s policy position and the university’s effective closure are now setting their sights on the American University of Central Asia.

American universities abroad are most effective when they are perceived as disconnected from U.S. foreign policy. However, institutional claims of political disinterestedness face mounting challenges under this administration. The abrupt elimination last month of a State Department scholarship program that funds 30 Palestinian students at the American University of Beirut and Lebanese American University sent the two institutions scrambling to make up the costs rather than risk complicity in the cruel disruption of young people’s lives. Fortunately, these two institutions recognize that they thrive when they are inclusive.

If Pompeo wants independent American universities to be “a force for good in the world,” as indeed they have been in the past, he should develop policies to support them -- all of them. He can start by advocating for increased funding for the American Schools and Hospitals Abroad program, new scholarships, and the establishment of a permanent endowment to support operational costs at American universities abroad under extreme duress.

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