The American University in Cairo (AUC) has been beset with serious concerns over its future as an independent and collaboratively governed institution of higher education ever since Francis J. Ricciardone, a former US Ambassador to Egypt, was appointed university president in July 2016.
After this article was originally published, MERIP was made aware of several areas that needed to be corrected or clarified. These corrections are noted throughout the article.
A career Foreign Service Officer, Ricciardone served in the Middle East, Europe and Asia, including assignments as Ambassador to Turkey (2011-14), Deputy Ambassador to Afghanistan (2009-10) and Ambassador to Egypt (2005-8). He was also Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s Special Coordinator for the Transition of Iraq (1999-2001) and Secretary of State Colin Powell’s choice in 2004 to organize the new US Embassy in Baghdad to replace the Coalition Provisional Authority established after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
But along with the increasing corporatization of the university—evidenced in top-down management and erosion of shared governance—under Ricciardone the university’s political independence is also under threat. The university has undertaken several recent actions that align AUC more closely with the US State Department and its foreign policy aims. A new political context in Egypt and the US, in addition to a global neoliberal assault on higher education, account for this instrumentalization of academia at AUC. Faculty, staff, and students, however, have questioned current policies and protested the corporate language accompanying the new orientation, putting pressure on the university administration.
Eroding Shared Governance
Under the leadership of Lisa Anderson, AUC’s Faculty Handbook (2015-2016; 2011-2013) remained the constitutional foundation for legislating the relationship between faculty and administration. Anderson—a distinguished academic in the field of Middle East studies—was fired by the Board of Trustees in late 2015 and Ricciardone was appointed in her stead. His appointment brought about a qualitative change in the terms set out by the Handbook, which the Board of Trustees and Ricciardone now describe as “non-binding.” The contractual clauses contained in the Handbook have been replaced by arbitrary decisions that discriminate among faculty on the basis of rank, national origin and date of hire. They leave the faculty without a formal basis on which to determine their eligibility for tenure, promotion, annual raises, employment criteria or benefits.
Accompanying this qualitative change in previously shared university governance—which has now placed decision-making power over all aspects of the university in the hands of senior administration—is the implementation of top-down micro-management by middle-managers. Such practices include the monitoring and censoring of students, faculty and staff in ways that have begun to mirror similar practices at Egyptian universities (and other universities in the Arab world). This development is a reversal of the social and intellectual openness that has been a hallmark of AUC since at least the 1950s and remains a central reason AUC parents and students pay the highest tuition fees in the Arab world for their children to attend the university.
In addition to undermining collaborative governance, the independence of the university as a place of open inquiry and debate, not a vehicle of US diplomacy, has also become a major concern.
Following Pompeo’s speech, on February 3, 2019 the AUC faculty voted overwhelmingly for the Senate to discuss a vote of no-confidence in Ricciardone and his cabinet. The Senate, in a special session on Tuesday, February 5, 2019, passed a vote of no confidence in Mr. Ricciardone, with 83 percent of senators in favor of the motion. Almost immediately, the Board of Trustees rejected this vote and unanimously reaffirmed its confidence in Ricciardone.
The board is largely composed of individuals from the corporate world and establishment politics. Members include the managing director of a prominent investment company, the co-founder of a firm described as a “global leader in emotion sensing and analytics,” the UAE ambassador to Washington (whose activities have been the subject of several exposes) as well as a few academics, like Nathan Brown, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, and Tarek Masoud, professor of public policy and international relations at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, who before the 2011 uprising advocated that former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak hand power to his son Gamal.
The Bartlett family dominates the board: Richard, chair of the board, heads a private equity firm, having left the law for Wall Street in the 1980s, and making at least part of his fortune in trading aviation companies. He has also been—along with AUC’s CFO, Gordon Handke—the director of Karnak Investments Ltd., an investment firm headquartered in Bermuda. Richard’s brother, Paul Bartlett, a venture capitalist, also serves on the board. Thomas, their father and another trustee, was president of AUC from 1963 to 1969.
Two days after the board reaffirmed its confidence in Ricciardone, the trustees met with Egyptian President Sisi, who praised AUC’s role in serving Egyptian society and referred to education’s important role in combating terrorism.
Business as Usual?
The situation on campus remained tense throughout the 2019 spring semester, as students and staff joined forces with faculty against the increasingly draconian measures being taken by AUC administration in what amounts to a neoliberal coup in the service of US foreign policy.
In early April, AUC security turned away prospective attendees of faculty-sponsored events scheduled for internationally renowned Palestinian academic and media spokesperson Ghada Karmi, on specious grounds. Student-organized events for Israel Apartheid Week scheduled during the same period had to be canceled or postponed after AUC administration denied timely student requests for the use of campus space. In addition, the initial sources of dissatisfaction remain unresolved.
In mid-April, the popular and effective head of the campus Faculty Services office was forced to resign on dubious grounds, as that much-needed department had been subsumed into the campus Travel Office—a for-profit center run by a private travel agency. There was no faculty services officer in place for the crucial orientation of overseas faculty in the fall of 2019; this development, it seemed, was part of a shift in administrative discourse towards designating faculty and staff as “employees” or human resources.
Faculty in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences feel this shift acutely, as they are simultaneously embroiled in a struggle with the Core Curriculum over courses that require specialised faculty expertise but that the Core has begun to offer as lower-level rhetoric courses. Here as elsewhere, faculty have come to feel that their dignity and expertise are being undervalued, if not actively dismissed.
At a recent meeting with Richard Bartlett, members of the Senate executive committee raised the issue of the ongoing five-year freeze on faculty salaries. During this period, in 2018, 15 percent of faculty received a one-time bonus, purportedly to reward “outstanding performance.” This decision restructured the basis of the faculty relationship with the administration and decisively negated the current review process, creating opaque competition among faculty over limited resources. At the meeting with the Senate executive committee, Bartlett responded to objections by stating that faculty had had ample opportunity to exchange the US dollar portion of their salaries on the black market and were therefore not in a position to complain.
The Faculty Handbook has been amended after a protracted process of negotiation. Points of contention remain, however, not least the continuing practice of hiring new faculty on renewable contracts, recently reduced from five to four years to circumvent Egyptian labor law, which stipulates that after five years of employment an institution must grant a permanent contract. In a statement issued at the start of summer, the board noted that: “To the extent that the handbook conflicts in any way with those authorities or current practices of the University, those authorities and practices shall prevail in any interpretation of the handbook as approved”—which once again negates any concept of the handbook as a binding document. The faculty have yet to respond to this alarming statement.
Rather than introducing clear policies, the administration refers faculty to the provost to engage in individual negotiations over salary, benefits, and tenure. This ambiguity leaves faculty members in a precarious position and opens room for non-transparent negotiations on an individual basis and discrimination among faculty members. The ambiguity provides some faculty with recourse to a separate renewal and review system in parallel to the existing tenure review structure. Fixed-term contracts can be turned into tenure-track positions at the provost’s discretion, salaries and benefits can be changed arbitrarily.
Meanwhile, the ranks of the upper administration continue to swell, with most of the nine members of the university cabinet coming from non-academic backgrounds. The new vice president for management and operations is a case in point: She worked at Procter & Gamble, Alcatel-Lucent and IBM in real estate management and operations and has a master’s degree in real estate and construction management from the University of Denver, Colorado. According to an announcement dated August 27, 2019, her responsibilities “span the full range of operations, administration, and management, including security.”
Perhaps for this reason, the discourse used across the board at the university has incorporated an increasing amount of corporate terminology: An “academic leadership forum” held on 24 September 2019 featured a PowerPoint presentation that described a liberal arts education as a “unique value proposition.” Faculty are also increasingly required to devote themselves to time-consuming administrative tasks that few understand. They must grapple with KPIs and irrelevant workplace hierarchies. In one example of the ways in which corporate practices divorced from academia have encroached on what is now called the “academic area,” a search for a dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences (which has lasted for two years) resulted in the provost rejecting the faculty’s choice of candidates and instead hiring a head-hunting firm to launch a new search.
Embroiled in never ending assessment processes, flummoxed by the introduction of corporate terminology (“KPIs,” “benchmarks,” “service providers”), and bewildered by the incessant barrage of urgent demands flung at them by senior administration, faculty have been unable to deal with issues directly. Departments compete for resources and new hires while faculty submit to unpredictable tenure reviews. Meanwhile the administration outsources faculty responsibilities such as dean searches to private firms. Ignoring the increasing problems has not resolved them but instead has caused them to fester. Faculty and staff are increasingly demoralized; too many have lost faith in the university as a whole.