A Conversation With the New AUC Provost: Rebuilding the Basics

CAIRO—One central factor compelled Mahmoud El-Gamal to move back to the country he left 30 years ago: his alma mater.

A 1983 graduate of the American University in Cairo (AUC), El-Gamal is now the institution’s new provost, beginning his tenure this month with the start of classes.

“I wouldn’t have left my students and research and gone to do this job at any other university,” says El-Gamal, who came to AUC in July after 16 years at Rice University in Texas. “I want to find a way to give back and provide the same experience I had as a student.”

A leading scholar in the field of Islamic economics, El-Gamal was previously a professor of economics and statistics at Rice, where he held the endowed Chair in Islamic Economics, Finance and Management. With research interests spanning from finance, econometrics and decision science to economics of the Middle East and Islamic transactions law, he seeks to enhance AUC’s education, research and intellectual missions in his new position.

At his new office in eastern Cairo, he spoke with Al-Fanar Media:

What will your main short-term and long-term focuses in your new position be?

I thought coming in in July that my short-term focus was going to be on housing the research mission of the university, thinking that our liberal-arts education, our undergraduate core mission, was on solid footing. And I’ve discovered that it’s not as secure as I thought it would be. I’m not going to lose sight of the research mission, because I think to deliver excellent liberal-arts education in this day and age you need faculty who are engaged in research and therefore who are pushing the frontiers of knowledge, otherwise the students will not feel that what they are learning is current. But my short-term mission, I believe, is to re-establish the strength of our core liberal-arts education, which has suffered a little bit over the past few years.

Simultaneously, I want to figure out how to realign the intellectual enterprise of the university—represented by the research and intellectual interests of our full-time faculty—with the educational mission, which is mostly shaped by the interests of the students.

Why is the core university mission not as secure as it could be?

It’s not unique to AUC. I taught at four different universities in the U.S. and they all have the same problem. More and more students are thinking about what job they are going to get at the end of their undergraduate education, instead of doing what we preach the students should do: Find what they’re good at, what they like and work on the intersection. So, we have too many students who are interested in pre-professional fields, mainly business and engineering.

You don’t really have a liberal-arts education if you’re sitting in philosophy class and everybody is either a business or engineering student… We need to populate the intellectual enterprise with students who are interested in every aspect of the intellectual enterprise.

What are your plans for building the faculty of AUC and attracting new talent?

Any university that has a tenure system will have a very slow rate of change in its faculty. I think we have to first think of revitalizing the existing faculty. We need to empower the faculty who are already productive to continue to be productive and not saddle them with too much administrative work and possibly have a way to reward excellence and intellectual output—whether it’s scholarship or research or being a public intellectual.

My first strategy is to try to create a culture where we accept that we will all contribute to the overall enterprise of the university in different ways, but we are all equals because we need each other.

When it comes to research, what do you see as important topics for research for AUC in the coming decade?

Ultimately, the most important areas of research are the areas where we can provide the most value to the country, the region and mankind… But, if we are going to invest in university resources—and we have very limited resources—there are a few areas that I think are really important for Egypt.

One obvious one is the whole nexus of energy, environment and food. We’re a country that imports too much of its food, has a very noticeable energy shortage and environmentally we don’t want Cairo to be Beijing. We have faculty in a very broad spectrum of departments and centers who work on bits and pieces of this.

I think education in general is an area where we definitely need to have a strong presence. And we have a unique advantage in Egypt providing that service. We can be a catalyst for change.

A third one that I’m personally very interested in, but I think is very important for Egypt as well simply because of the demographics, is poverty. And that doesn’t necessarily mean only poverty alleviation. We need to think about, obviously, poverty alleviation as an immediate need, but also graduating people from micro-programs, small and medium enterprises, to larger entrepreneurship fields.

In terms of faculty, there is constant competition for attracting talent and retaining it. Can AUC fare well in that competition?

It used to be that we had the market cornered on the talent pool of Egyptian scholars in various areas who wanted to be in Egypt or in the region for that matter and we are slowly losing the competitive advantage there because of many Western universities that have opened campuses all over the Gulf, as well as some private universities in Egypt that try to compete for the same talent pool.

I think AUC remains by far the premier institution in Egypt and therefore, other things equal, we are not worried about losing our best faculty to any other university in Egypt. But we worry about losing them to universities in the West or Western universities setting up shop in the Gulf.

I can’t help but wonder how much of the difficulty in recruiting or retaining is rooted in the political changes of the last three years.  

There are multiple factors. There are political factors. There are the security factors that accompany them and many faculty members may be happy with political developments but unhappy with the difficulty of moving from point A to point B. And it’s impossible to disentangle those two. And then, there are the economic conditions in Egypt that also have deteriorated because of some of the political and security concerns, so all three factors together have contributed to a decline of competitive advantage.

When you talk about security, are you aware of any concerns—and are they a factor in retaining or attracting faculty—about repercussions of doing research that the government may see as threatening or other issues that arise regarding academic freedoms?

There are two separate issues here: One is abiding by the laws of the land, so certainly we will not do anything or encourage any of our students or researchers to do anything that is against the law, whatever the law may be. It’s outside our control and we have to just abide by these laws and in many cases we have to abide by the provisions of the donor agency if we have funding from outside sources, and American standards of academic conduct, so we have multiple constraints on what we do. Then there is the issue of extralegal security that we have to also be concerned about. I’m hopeful that this last concern is becoming less threatening, if we have a restoration of law and order on a broader scale.

What do you mean?

In the past there have been instances where people who were conducting legal research were still possibly in danger simply because there wasn’t law and order in the streets, so that is more difficult to control because sometimes pedagogically you need students to go out and conduct their research and engage in community-based learning.

Are there any other challenges that AUC is facing or may face in the coming challenges that are important to note, and how might AUC work to overcome them?

Most of the challenges are external… We’ve had a hard time attracting foreign faculty in some cases, but we’ve had a much harder time in attracting foreign students. I think that’s a regional constraint that we can’t overcome. I think the economic conditions—we still have to compete for faculty on a somewhat international salary scale and yet our student body has to pay tuition that is in some ways restricted by the rate of growth of the Egyptian economy. That’s another factor that’s external to the university itself, but it hinders our ability to attract the best faculty.

The lack of scholarships is a problem… As a private university we need a much larger scholarship fund in order to be able to diversify our student body socioeconomically… We still have a somewhat privileged student body. We’re always going to be too small to really have a direct impact but as a catalyst we need to touch a larger segment of the population in order to really fulfill our educational mission and that’s a constraint.

Note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.


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