CAIRO—After putting an end to headlines about political brawls at the university and raising his institution’s global ranking, Cairo University president Gaber Gad Nassar is leaving his post at the end of the month.
The dynamic law professor was elected by his peers on the faculty to lead Egypt’s largest and most prestigious public university during the tumultuous period that followed the 2013 overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi’s government.
Nassar confronted discrimination against Coptic Christian students, initiated programs against sexual harassment (see related article, “Cairo University Fights Sexual Harassment”) and, in a heavily politicized climate, tried to refocus students and faculty members on study and research. That led to a rise in Cairo University’s standing in the latest Quacquarelli Symonds’ (QS) World University Rankings, a measure of the university’s standing that is closely watched and always controversial.
He says that in his four-year term he transformed a polarized campus into a less political, more tolerant and rigorous institution. “When I came into this office, there was no government to allocate money [to us],” said Nassar in an interview, referring to the confusion that followed the military coup against ex-president Mohammed Morsi. “There was no security. There was terrorism and extremism.”
Nassar said he plans to work at his private law firm and will teach law-school seminars in the fall when he returns to the university’s faculty.
Whereas the faculty chose Nassar in 2013, Egyptian President al-Sisi will appoint his successor, due to a change in the law. A panel of advisors convened by Egypt’s education ministry has presented al-Sisi with the names of possible successors, according to government officials and university leaders.
Whoever gets the president’s job will have big shoes to fill, said Moataz Sayed Abdallah, a psychology professor and dean of the faculty of arts. “Nassar’s concern was the implementation of the law and adherence to the university’s core values and ethics,” Abdallah said. “He was keen on the interests of students and moved to solve their problems as soon as possible.”
In his first year, Nassar opposed partisan political activity among both faculty members and students.
“He didn’t stop at fighting Muslim Brotherhood students,” said Sameh Ahmed, an undergraduate engineering student affiliated with the liberal Dastour, or Constitution Party. “Nassar banned our student group, Al-Midan [The Square.] The issue was not just about suppressing the Brotherhood, but to suppress any political activity and to have a politics-free campus.”
The move was necessary, some leaders felt, because civil strife had paralyzed Cairo University, which has a student enrollment of more than 300,000.
“At that time, everybody was a political expert,” recalled Ghada Ali, an assistant commerce professor and deputy director of the university’s anti-harassment unit. “I could not even teach because of the loud voices and clapping on the university’s quads. The disruptions and the shouting of slogans needed to stop.”
Ali believes the next president of the university might be able to define new ways to allow for civil political expression at the university. “Gabber Nassar absorbed all the shocks inside the campus; as a result, the next leader can allow political activity,” she said. “Students and faculty are ready now.”
Another of Nassar’s legacies is his move to establish policies regarding religion at the university.
In September 2015, he banned female instructors from wearing the face-covering niqab. Later that year, he decided to close dozens of smaller Islamic prayer rooms across campus, even as he dedicated a refurbished Grand Mosque and ordered the construction of a new mosque for women.
The smaller prayer rooms had long been used, Nassar and other administrators said, as venues for students loyal to the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood.
“We obtained a fatwa [religious decree] from Egypt’s Mufti before beginning the process,” said Nassar, responding to accusations that the university was attacking religious expression by removing the prayer rooms.
He made it clear that Islam was welcome on campus. Nassar’s decision came after he inaugurated the university’s Grand Mosque in the presence of Grand Mufti Shawqi Allam and Religious Endowments Minister Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa.
Last year, Nassar made headlines in Egypt when he directed administrators to remove questions about religion on university documents, including admission forms, after Coptic Christian students produced evidence of a pattern of discrimination in admissions and assessment at the university’s Institute of African Studies.
“Any problem we face at Cairo University, we seek to solve it from its roots, and not just offer superficial solutions,” Nassar said, adding that he was proud of changing the university’s culture. “Unfortunately, many Egyptian state institutions have neither the desire nor the ability to reform.”
The university’s premier position in Egypt’s public higher education system gives its president a mostly free hand in running the institution. Cairo University is independent in its budget and management. The central government oversees the country’s 25 other state-funded universities.
“When I took this job, 90 percent of the budget was allocated to salaries and wages,” Nassar said. “But when we came to work on the development of Cairo University, we reformed the finances and took on administrative corruption. Now salaries account for 60 percent.” The university’s budget for the 2016-17 academic year was $77 million.
The funds from spending cuts in salaries and other areas were redirected to improve upkeep of the university’s facilities, update information technology, and improve campus life, including more arts activities and student counseling. Nassar also said he devoted more investment to faculty research and university-business partnerships that might generate revenues.
The QS World University Rankings listed Cairo University at 481 in its latest world report, compared to 531 last year. The private American University in Cairo, ranked at 395, remains the country’s top institution of higher education as measured by international reputation.
The outgoing leader said his main regret is that he leaves office without having sold the Supreme Council for Higher Education on his vision to allow the university to pursue an independent self-funding strategy that would help it expand. He believes Egypt’s education bureaucracy is deeply resistant, on principle, to privatization and public-private partnerships, and because it does not want to be accountable to a private or foreign entity. It opposed the medical school charging market rates for international students to generate new revenues, for instance.
“The medical school has significantly improved its ranking by reaching the 253rd spot globally,” Nassar said, noting that its ranking stood at 396 as recently as 2015. “We received 13,000 applications from 19 countries, but the rules keep us from accepting most of them. For four years, I have said we can self-finance, and no one in authority has accepted.”