Snow Days in the Desert

Many of you have emailed me  to ask is the American University in Cairo (AUC) is still closed, and I am sorry to say that the answer is yes. It has been over a week now that students have chained all of the University gates closed, blocking access to the new campus for all students, faculty and staff.  The students’ demands are not always clear, but they center on asking for this year’s 7% tuition increase to be rescinded, and sometimes include demands for better faculty, higher pay for AUC staff, amnesty for the student leaders of this strike, increased budget transparency and more student voice in all decisions. Students suggest that the University wastes money on “leakage,” which I think means corruption. Though some faculty have urged President Lisa Anderson to call in the police to remove the students (there are not really that many of them at the gates), she has understandably decided not to do so for fear of violence. The last thing AUC needs at this point in history is images on CNN of Egyptians with guns fighting with young people.

Some background is important here.  AUC is the elite institution of Egypt, if not the region. It represents an attempt to export our belief in the value of a liberal arts education to this part of the world. It is by regional standards outrageously expensive, with full cost at  nearly $30,000 a year, or more than 8 times the average Egyptian yearly salary. (For comparison, that would be like charging about $320,000 a year at Duke.)  Three years ago, AUC opened a new campus in New Cairo, about 10 miles from downtown.  The total cost of the campus was $400 million, $100 million of which was paid by the US government. There is a plaque on campus that thanks the US for its support, and random computers and printers have a USAID sticker on then, reading “a gift from the American people.” Also, as you can see here, there is a plaque that thanks Hosni Mubarak:

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While I was doing some reading on the history of AUC, I came across this hacked Wikipedia entry. Read the first paragraph carefully:

Interestingly, in the past students have raised issues about AUC’s relationship with the Mubarak regime.  Here is an article from last year about this. Mubarek’s wife and children  attended AUC and until the revolution it had a Susanne Mubarak Hall. I believe it is now called just room P071.

When it is not locked down by students, one can start their day on campus with a decaf skim latte and have lunch at Subway or McDonald’s, though I am happy to report that the new Beirut Express that recently opened on campus behind my office serves wonderful koshary and shwarma where one can get lunch for less than half the price of the ubiquitous American chains. The choice is yours! The architecture is breathtaking, respectful of the style of the region with a subtle nod to the colors and tile of a boutique hotel

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Judy on campus during new faculty orientation

I did see many of my students yesterday, asking them to meet me in a room at the old AUC Campus off of Tahrir Square. About half of them came. The topics of my class – leadership, the relationship between the liberal arts and democracy, civic engagement – are all so ripe for conversation, and for making this a teachable moment. And I continue to search for the real causes and meaning of this strike, as I sense that many of the students can indeed pay the tuition increase and that there is something deeper and more profound going on here.  I have asked my colleagues and students about this and have gotten varying responses. Some believe, as I suggested in my post last week, that indeed this is an extension of the revolution, that these young people who had all efforts at protest and criticism suppressed are now – without fear – taking advantage of every opportunity to oppose “the man.” I think that by physically blocking the campus they have gone too far, but I do understand it.

I also asked my students if there is a certain anti-Americanism implicit in this student strike. They did not think so, but I am not sure I agree. AUC pays different wages to Egyptians and foreign nationals. My feeling is that these students have a love/hate relationship with this school – that they love its physical presence and freedom to explore the life of the mind, and the ticket that it represents to good jobs, but are troubled by its explicit link to the US and its history of support for the old regime and damaging meddling in the region. So just as the protests across the region are about more than the absurd film that became the focus, so this too is about more. And it is for this reason that it is crucial that we reopen the University as soon as possible, because I cannot imagine a better place to have this conversation in a free and open way. To me, these closed gates equal closed minds. If a liberal arts education does nothing else, it helps us to develop empathy, to see how others see things and to take that into account when we act. To close the campus when we most need it open is perhaps the most tragic part of this episode.

I can see how many of my students are seeing this  strike as a break, the way we at home perhaps treat snow days. I never did like snow days, especially in the desert. I’ll keep you posted on developments.

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