Universities Are Places Where Everybody Has the Right to be Wrong
This interview is published in cooperation with Mada Masr.
Lisa Anderson, the president of the American University in Cairo, will step down at the end of this year, ending a five-year term. She has led one of Egypt’s most prestigious educational institutions at a critical time during tumultuous events in Egypt, with two changes in government. Before heading the university, Anderson served as the university’s provost from 2008. A political scientist, Anderson earned her doctorate from Columbia University in 1981 and later served as dean of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and as head of the university’s Middle East Institute. In Egypt, the gregarious Anderson has made a point of getting to know the heads of public universities and trying to find common ground with them. In her office at the university’s New Cairo Campus, Anderson spoke about her contentious term and reflected on the status of academic freedom and scientific research.
You have led a major educational institution during a very critical time in Egypt’s history. How do you evaluate your experience?
I became president on the 1st of January of 2011, and I’m actually very proud of how the institution has navigated through what for everyone has been a very complicated time. I think the resilience and capacity of people at AUC, including students, faculty and staff and everybody was tested as was everyone else in the country. I think for AUC it was more complicated because we had just recently moved to the new campus. Many of our rhythms and routines were not fully settled by the time we got to January 2011.
We knew that we reflected what was happening in Egypt and we were not isolated or living on an island.There were upheavals here in the campus just as there were in the rest of the country. In many respects, that was important, because it would have been odd if the campus didn’t reflect things that were important to people. But I believe we navigated through this in a way that was sensitive and thoughtful, we listened and yet we kept our eye on the fact that this is an educational institution and we cannot stop that just because there are other things that are stopping. People used to tease us about starting in the time when Mubarak stepped down, and the answer is that during that time we planned for how we would re-open. When we saw an opportunity we did. We knew we had a semester, we knew that we had students who were relying on us, and people were supposed to graduate.
That was the compass point. We educate people; we conduct research; we do service and that’s what we needed to do all the way through. How we did that at any moment might have changed. It would depend on whether there is a curfew or not and whether international students were coming or not. But all the way through we knew what our mission was.
You mentioned the upheavals. Most of them were against your own administration. How did you manage that?
I think there were times during the course of those five years where there were deep divisions. Again, this isn’t unlike the society we are in. There was not a consensus across the five years on the direction the country should be taking, and there was not a consensus here on campus either. Overall I think the overarching purpose of the institution prevailed. People sometimes displaced being unhappy with each other with being unhappy with the administration and this is part of what the administration is for.
So I don’t think that this was unusual. There has to be a way to have these debates that are constructive, and the only way to do that is to listen to people you disagree with.
You said that AUC is a community that debates, and you seemed happy about that. The situation in public universities was not the same, and it seems that the government wasn’t happy with the debate.
AUC is a model for how debate could be managed. Of course this is a little bit unfair because we only have 7,000 students compared to a quarter-of-a-million students, and it is a different scale. I would never presume to give advice to my presidential colleagues in the national universities. On the other hand, yes it is true that we were very adamant about how we are going to do this peacefully and we are not going to refer people to the police and we will not have police on campus. Free expression is the bedrock of education. One of the most important things people need to understand about university is that everybody at university has the right to be wrong, and you don’t learn unless you take the risk of being wrong. Nobody in scientific research can do anything unless they take risks.
I think that part of the problem for the higher-education landscape all across the region is that universities should be spaces in which people can take the risk of being wrong without risking their lives or their freedom.
What steps did AUC take to improve research across the last few years, and how do you view the situation of scientific research at large in Egypt and the region?
We have a lot of collaborations outside AUC and we are very proud of that. We have very good facilities. We have research teams that include people from national universities, and there are different institutions that use our facilities. We have done a lot to focus our own faculty on not simply doing research. One of the things about academics is that they do research and publish it thinking that it will speak for itself. In this modern world nothing speaks for itself. You have to deliberately disseminate it to the audience if it is going to have any impact in scientific development, in policy, or any field. That means that you have to publish in a strategic way. You have to think about where you want to be seen, whether you need to publish in higher-quality journals or you need to publish more online because it’s easier to access. We have encouraged our faculty to be more self-conscious and intentional not just with the research but how they disseminate it. I believe that’s what the rest of the academic community in Egypt should think about.
Obviously, AUC faculty members are advantaged by the fact that they typically publish in English, which is the global scientific language. The challenge for [many faculty members] is you publish in Arabic because this is your home language, or do you want a global audience for which you could sacrifice a local audience. In both education and research, a big part of the problem in Egypt is visibility. If it is not visible, it is not going to be funded, and students aren’t going to get jobs and researchers are not going to get support.
What about academic cooperation between academic institutions in Egypt, and within the region at large?
There is an opportunity, at least for some of the institutions here in Egypt, to get together and pick a set of domains where the work is particularly interesting or eye-catching and talk about education and scientific research in Egypt. You could do a website, a pamphlet, recruit international students, and do it together. I always use the example of Alexandria University, which has a master’s program in marine archeology that is the best in the world. Why don’t we just go out and say that? Each of us has some little niche in what we are doing that really is spectacularly interesting. Why don’t we make a list of those and go out to the world and say: You need more on marine archeology? Here is one of the most interesting programs in the world. If you look at the desk of the president of Alexandria University, this is probably not at the top of the pile, but if it could be, that would be great.
In such transitional periods, what is the social responsibility of universities? What did AUC do in this regard and how should universities carry out their social responsibilities?
I think there is a clear sense that no university really thrives or is really excellent by being removed from society. Until the middle of the 20th century at least, there was a vision that grew out of a monastic tradition that the university was separate from society. The question now is: If you believe that you have a responsibility to the community, how do you demonstrate that?
I think this can be varied, but for AUC there has been a strong continuing education operation, and this exhibited itself in many ways. Even at the height of the upheaval in the last few years, we would literally get tens of thousands of students enrolling in our continuing education courses in English, in business processes, human resources management, and computer programming. I think one thing that universities can do is to provide this kind of training. We can also encourage our students to be engaged, sometimes on campus and sometimes off campus. Most recently we started to think a lot about our impact on our neighborhoods. We own some of the most valuable real estate on the planet because it is in downtown Cairo. How should we deploy that? We are thinking about how we become good neighbors downtown and similarly around New Cairo, which is very different. We want the people who work and live around us to think of us as an asset.
What is your final message to AUC students, then?
I think AUC students are extraordinarily fortunate … especially those who have been here over the last five or six years. I came from Columbia, and it is a very good institution and I’m very loyal to it, but the education that AUC students are getting in the last five or six years in unparalleled. Partially this is because of what’s going on in the country and partially because of the commitment of the institution and its faculty to ensure that the students had an opportunity to be learning while they were in the midst of some of the most interesting and important turmoil in the history of the country.
[The students] should give back by continuing the commitment they had during that time to the betterment of the country. If this generation can come out and in 20 years we can say this is what they have done for Egypt, that would be fabulous. That would be the gift they could give to all of us who were here managing the institution for the last five years.
*The interview was edited for brevity and clarity.