Neoliberal Coup at the American University in Cairo

The main threat comes not from Egypt’s authoritarian regime but from an American board of trustees.
By Nidal al-Muallim

In Egypt, freedom of expression on university campuses was limited under the previous regime; since 2013, it has declined much further. According to research by Amy Austin Holmes and Sahar Aziz, published in January 2019 by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Between 2013 and 2016, over 1100 students were arrested, 1000 were expelled or subjected to disciplinary actions, 65 were tried by military courts, and 21 students were extrajudicially killed.” After a hiatus during which university presidents and deans at public universities were nominated by faculty, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, the Egyptian president, “again appoints every university president and dean at every Egyptian public university. In 2015, a presidential decree broadened the basis for firing tenured faculty to include any political activism on campus as well as vague ethics violations. The following year, Sisi issued a decree authorizing the intelligence services to regulate public universities and their faculty’s intellectual life. As a result, state intelligence services must now approve faculty’s requests to present at conferences outside of Egypt. The intelligence services must also approve public universities’ invitations to foreign lecturers and any new courses.”

In April 2019, Scholars at Risk (SAR) and the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression in Egypt (AFTE) detailed “a number of incidents involving violence, wrongful arrests, and university disciplinary proceedings against scholars and students. These include the killings of four students; mass arrests of more than 800 student protesters; and disciplinary penalties, including expulsion, imposed by universities against both scholars and students for political and academic expression.” The SAR/AFTE report also described “a number of actions taken by Egyptian authorities apparently aimed at preventing scholars from entering the country to give lectures, attend conferences, and otherwise transmit ideas.”

The American University in Cairo is a private English-language university that was established in 1919. It is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and governed by a 1975 protocol with the Egyptian government. According to the university’s website, the AUC community represents around sixty countries, although the student body is largely Egyptian; in fall 2017, there were 6,570 enrolled undergraduate, graduate, and other students and almost 400 full-time faculty at the university. A self-proclaimed bastion of liberal arts education, AUC has traditionally been exempt from close government oversight—a privileged space where far greater freedom of expression prevailed than on other Egyptian campuses. AUC, When repression of freedoms did occur, it tended to be led by students or parents. In the late 1990s, for example, an instructor from France came under fire for assigning Maxime Rodinson’s biography Muhammad. Parents complained so vehemently that then-president Hosni Mubarak ordered the book removed from the AUC library. “The AUC president immediately exercised the order and publicly apologized on the front page of al-Ahram [the national newspaper],” AUC professor Samia Mehrez said. The French instructor’s contract was not renewed.

A few months later, an AUC physician filed a complaint against Mehrez for assigning Mohamed Choukri’s autobiographical novel For Bread Alone in a class on modern Arabic literature. The physician was reportedly acting on behalf of parents who claimed that the book contained material offensive to Muslims. An uproar ensued in the national press, lasting six months; eventually, it appears, Mubarak intervened to put an end to the commotion.

Such incidents aside, AUC faculty and students were able to express themselves relatively freely until the appointment of former US ambassador to Egypt Francis J. Ricciardone Jr. as university president in July 2016. As reported last February in the New York Times, on the BBC, and in other news outlets, serious concerns arose after Ricciardone became president, related not only to corporatization and top-down management techniques but also to authoritarianism in the university and a shift in its political alignment to a pro-US Republican position.

It is certainly true that the university faced problems prior to Ricciardone’s appointment. Most recent among these were the labor policies implemented by former AUC president Lisa Anderson following the university’s move from Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo to a sprawling, multimillion-dollar campus in New Cairo, a desert-development municipality whose construction has been funded by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Despite these policy changes, however, AUC’s faculty handbook remained a constitutional foundation for guiding the relationship between faculty and administration.

In late 2015, the board of trustees fired Anderson, and the following year the board appointed Ricciardone in her stead; this brought a qualitative change in the employer-employee dynamics set out by the handbook, a document the board of trustees and Ricciardone described as “non-binding.” The contractual clauses contained in the handbook have since been replaced by arbitrary decisions that serve to discriminate among faculty on the basis of rank, national origin, and date of hire and 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 governance, which has placed decision-making power over all aspects of the university in the hands of senior administration, is the implementation of top-down micromanagerial practices 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), reflecting a reversal of the social and intellectual openness that was a hallmark of AUC since at least the 1950s, and that remains a central reason AUC parents pay the highest tuition fees in the Arab world.

In July 2017, during the university's summer vacation, the administration decided to lay off 170 housekeeping workers who had been working at AUC for more than a decade. The administration outsourced housekeeping tasks to a corporation with very poor labor standards. The workers went on strike; but after a campaign of intimidation, they were forced to end the strike and leave AUC. Over 600 faculty and staff members and students signed an open letter demanding the reversal of this decision, but they received no response from the administration.

AUC faculty members, primarily through the faculty senate, have been protesting this corporatization of the university for some time, although without much success: senior administration has disempowered the senate. Things came to a head in January 2019, and then again in February of the same year, when the senior administration invited US secretary of state Mike Pompeo to speak on campus, without notifying the faculty. Also in February, the Center for American Studies and Research hosted Daniel Levy, a former Israeli diplomat in the Barak and Rabin governments (in which he helped lead the Israeli team in peace negotiations with the Palestinians) to speak on campus, violating a senate resolution that supports Palestinian academics and complies with the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) campaign. Following the Pompeo speech, on February 3, 2019, the AUC faculty voted overwhelmingly for the senate to discuss a vote of no confidence in Ricciardone and his administration. The senate, in a special session on February 5, passed a vote of no confidence in Ricciardone, with 83 percent of senators in favor of the motion. This vote was quickly rejected by the board of trustees, which unanimously reaffirmed its confidence in Ricciardone. (For more on these events, see “Faculty Revolt at American University in Cairo,” Academe Blog, February 9, 2019.)

In the wake of these events, AAUP senior program officer Anita Levy (no relation to Daniel Levy) sent a warning letter to Ricciardone and the chair of the board of trustees explaining the consequences of failure to respect the faculty handbook and requesting that the administration adhere to the principles of shared governance. Shortly thereafter, in early April, prospective attendees of faculty-sponsored events featuring internationally renowned Palestinian academic and media spokesperson Ghada Karmi were turned away at the campus gates by AUC security. Student-organized events scheduled for Israel Apartheid Week during the same time frame also had to be canceled or postponed after the AUC administration denied student requests for the use of campus space.

The situation on campus remains tense, as students and staff have joined forces with faculty against the increasingly draconian measures being taken by the AUC administration in what amounts to a neoliberal coup. The consequences of this coup include (1) a lack of vision for the direction of the university; (2) a lack of shared governance and transparency; (3) a leadership crisis; (4) demoralized faculty, students, and staff; and (5) a loss of faith in the mission of the university.

Proceeding with business as usual and occupied with a barrage of new and ever-urgent demands flung at them by senior administration, many faculty members have grown exasperated and cynical. Compelled to grovel and compete for new hires while the administration outsources faculty responsibilities (such as dean searches) to private headhunting firms, the faculty has lacked resources sufficient to confront these issues directly. Ignoring the problems has not resolved them but instead caused them to fester, as faculty and staff are increasingly demoralized, and too many have lost faith in the university as a whole.

Recent developments suggest that the administration has only strengthened its resolve to proceed with policy changes without consulting faculty or taking community demands into account. At its annual meeting in New York, the board of trustees voted unanimously to renew Ricciardone’s mandate for an additional four years (rather than the customary three), announcing its decision in an online newsletter. In addition, the board issued directives regarding the faculty handbook—the university’s governance document, on which faculty contracts have been based and which has been an object of contention between the university community and the higher administration. The board decreed that

further revisions should strive to describe accurately current principles, policies, and procedures governing faculty life at AUC, and to make improvements that will enhance the University’s mission in the dynamic landscape of higher education, in a manner consistent with applicable law, the 1975 Protocol between the University and the Government of Egypt, the by-laws of AUC, existing University policies, and individual employment contracts. 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, and the Senate and Administration are directed to identify any such inconsistencies or ambiguities and address them in the next revisions of the handbook. [emphasis added]

This statement indicates, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the board seeks to undermine the faculty’s legitimate claims regarding the dependability of the handbook as an instrument of governance, the belief that faculty contracts are based on a unified set of principles, and the efficacy of the handbook as a document on which to base assertions of entitlement. Adding insult to injury, Ricciardone not only neglected to adopt the handbook formally, as the board had directed him to do, but also failed to inform the chair of the senate of his reappointment, instead sending him the published resolution post hoc, claiming he had just found the unsent email in his outbox. The senate chair subsequently asked him to comply with the board’s directive and adopt the handbook, but at time of this writing Ricciardone had yet to respond.

An additional development indicates that the top-down approach will continue to govern life at AUC for the foreseeable future in the absence of organized resistance on the part of faculty, students, and staff. The search for a dean for the School of Humanities and Social Sciences has been under way for almost two years, with no results despite the administration’s decision to engage a headhunting firm that could target potential candidates. Although the most recent search yielded a clear faculty favorite, the provost rejected this candidate, who has extensive experience running multidisciplinary programs in North America and long acquaintance with the Arab world, on the grounds that the candidate was “insufficiently qualified” for the administrative requirements of the position. The provost announced this decision at an emergency meeting of the chairs of humanities and social sciences, revealed the appointment of an interim dean selected from among the faculty, and stated that the university would approach a larger headhunting firm and reopen the search. Faculty were left feeling that these decisions had been taken with no regard for their preferences or their needs. Thus, it is (Trumpesque) business as usual at AUC, and the fall semester begins with an entrenched administration, an intransigent board, and a despondent faculty.

Nidal al-Muallim is the pseudonym of a group of faculty members at American University in Cairo.