In a rapidly changing world faced with critical environmental and socio-economic challenges, Ahmad Dallal, president The American University in Cairo, sees interdisciplinary research and the liberal arts as essential in higher education’s response to our most urgent crises.
An accomplished scholar of Islamic thought,Dallal has held several academic and administrative posts. He was provost of The American University of Beirut from 2009 to 2015 and a professor of history there for two years after that. He has also taught at Stanford University, Yale University, Smith College, and Georgetown University in the United States, where he served as chair of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies from 2003 to 2009.
In an interview with Al-Fanar Media, Dallal talked about the need for universities to rethink academic programmes, better prepare graduates to meet the labour market’s needs, and focus on interdisciplinary collaboration to solve current problems.
The Liberal Arts Model Is Best
Amid declining interest in the humanities and graduates’ struggle to find jobs, many education policy makers have called for cutting funds for these programmes. Yet Dallal says there is global evidence that the most successful and creative graduates and the world’s top leaders are the products of liberal arts faculties, like Princeton University, Stanford University, and others.
“Think about environmental work. It is not just about the technical aspect. This is a very central piece; if you don’t have it, you will produce no solutions,” he said. “However, you need to take technical choices with no deterministic imperatives at the technical level. You make such choices based on economic analysis, feasibility, and social impact. There is an ethical, philosophical dimension to this conversation. When you have all these factors [through a liberal arts education], you will be in a much qualitatively different position to contribute to solving environmental issues.”
A mechanical engineer by training with a past career in the aviation industry, Dallal made a career shift and earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in Islamic studies from Columbia University. Thus he speaks from a rare vantage point with his unique blend of science and humanities.
“Humanities are so essential. I enjoyed my job as an engineer. Then I became a historian and enjoyed my job even more. I am a firm believer, not because of my own trajectory but because there is empirical evidence, that liberal arts is the best kind of education.”
“Humanities are so essential,” he said. “I enjoyed my job as an engineer. Then I became a historian and enjoyed my job even more. I am a firm believer, not because of my own trajectory but because there is empirical evidence, that liberal arts is the best kind of education.”
But rather than sticking to a single model, Dallal also calls for rethinking what the liberal arts mean today.
“We have to rethink everything. We need to be open and adapt to the needs of our societies and transform higher education,” he said. “There is always room to rethink what liberal arts curricula should look like, but we cannot give it up, for it remains, both logically and empirically, the most effective way of thinking to actually reshape the careers of students, enabling them to make an impact in their societies.”
Interdisciplinarity Is Also Essential
To better tackle today’s complex, interconnected problems, Dallal says there is a need for deliberate efforts in interdisciplinarity, yet he admits difficulties due to the academia’s conservatism.
“Talking about new interdisciplinary programmes is not easy, as academics are conservative and used to working within departments and very fixed models,” he said. “We need to take people out of their comfort zones, and incentivise and encourage them to think outside of these systems.”
By bringing people together, Dallal thinks there will be possibilities nobody can even imagine when they work in silos.
“The possibility of creating forward-thinking is tremendous when you have visual and even theatre artists working along with engineers and architects,” he added. “We have real examples when we approach the design. That’s to start by defining the problem and bring a variety of areas of expertise to solve it. You don’t start with discipline; you start with problems and engage everyone.”
This will train students to be researchers from the very beginning, he said. “After four years, you will already have a researcher. The youths are the energies. We are leaving to our kids a world filled with problems. The least we can do is equip them with the tools so they can unleash their creative energies and innovate solutions for us.”
Citing Egypt’s recent urban development, Dallal thinks Egypt is the right place to develop urban studies in an interdisciplinary way. “That is the deployment of artificial intelligence and data science in urban studies, the sustainable operation of cities, and thinking of smart cities,” he said. “We need urban developers who know economics, data science, and AI, and work with artists so they can contribute to the success of this model.”
Quality and Relevant Education
With the Arab world’s growing youth population, Dallal thinks there is a need to invest more in higher education.
Until recently, a lack of universities had been the region’s biggest education problem, he said. “Until the 1960s, there were only 50 universities in the Arab World. AUC was one of them. Legacy is something to build on, but also a platform to jump from to the future,” he said. “Now, there are close to 1,400 universities, if not more. That’s a good thing.”
“Education is changing very quickly after the Covid-19 pandemic pushed us to learn to use technologies. Education is very conservative. Without the pandemic, we would have learned such technologies in another 20 years.”
However, Dallal worries that this expansion addressed quantity without paying enough attention to quality. “Education quality and relevance is mostly missing,” he said.
“Education is changing very quickly after the Covid-19 pandemic pushed us to learn to use technologies,” he said, but “education is very conservative. Without the pandemic, we would have learned such technologies in another 20 years. We were forced to, and now we have this repertoire available to us.”
To remain relevant to the labour market, Dallal called for a new focus on what to teach. “Some programmes will become obsolete,” he explained. “We don’t need to change the name of the department, but what you teach there, since it is rapidly changing and we need to keep up with the trends, not in terms of pedagogies but in terms of content, relevance, and quality.”
Skill Gaps and Career
In a changing labour landscape, Dallal sees interdisciplinarity as a way to close the gaps between the skills that employers are looking for and those that job seekers possess.
“AUC’s primary differentiator, besides a handful of regional universities, is their offering of specialised programmes,” he said.
Most universities offer many major-focused programmes, but they’re unintegrated, he said. “So when you study engineering, you have very heavy engineering and other related curricula and nothing else. What distinguishes this American-modelled institution is that in addition to a solid grounding in these subjects to build your expertise, you study a range of other topics to enrich your knowledge and abilities to become a communicator, and understand ethical issues, even if you are majoring in a STEM discipline.”
“No real-life problem can be solved in one discipline,” he said. “Every day you will face a new problem. You need to be creative and find a solution, and have the tools to think creatively and outside the box to address real-life problems.”
To boost these efforts, The American University in Cairo is leading a USAID-funded project that has established over 27 career development centres in Egypt’s public universities.
“These programmes are extremely transformational. They change the lives of these graduates,” he said. “One of their goals is to further equip students to have a very strong foundation in a particular discipline and how to go out to the market, present themselves, operate successfully, and how to talk about their jobs.”
Dallal added that the AUC Venture Lab has been the region’s leading university-based business accelerator since 2013.
“We have accelerated 300 startups, if not more, not only in the AUC. We have programmes and proposals from students from other universities,” he said.
“No real-life problem can be solved in one discipline. Every day you will face a new problem. You need to be creative and find a solution, and have the tools to think creatively and outside the box to address real-life problems.”
He pointed to the success of Swvl, an Egyptian startup and a graduate of the AUC Venture Lab that is now listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange in New York. “Those who launched Swvl were not majoring in fields relevant to their work,” he said. “They came up with ideas, and led successful models.”
Feasible Green Policies
With Egypt preparing to host the international COP27 Climate-Change Conference, which starts November 6 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Dallal talked at length about The American University in Cairo’s decade-long efforts to combat climate change, which he described as “the biggest, most global challenge” that connects the world from end to end.
“AUC’s work to address climate change-related issues covers multiple areas of research, education, engagement, and interventions,” he said. “COP27 provides us with an opportunity to galvanise and focus our work.
“This year, we started the Climate Change Initiative, which brought together all the groups we already have at the university, creating a platform for all these to integrate and collaborate together, to provide a useful resource for the upcoming COP27.”
The initiative focuses on economic sustainability, which is a big question for the Global South, Dallal said.
“Everyone is looking to Egypt for its big role to give voice to this aspect of climate change, how to make it feasible, how to address climate challenges without undermining development efforts,” he said. This is especially a concern “in countries that have not contributed significantly to the climate crises they are suffering from today.”
Dallal spoke about AUC’s contributions to research on issues like green building design and construction, the employment of solar energy in desalination of water for agricultural purposes, the expansion of shrimp and fish farming to address food security issues, and the development of alternative energy sources and green hydrogen.
Developed countries have contributed the most to polluting the environment, Dallal said. Developing countries in the Global South cannot afford the customised solutions they need to adapt.
“Seawater desalination is quite expensive, so our researchers are working on developing affordable technologies so they can produce the diaphragms locally,” he said. “Another group is working on growing mangroves to address the effects of climate change and the damage on coastlines. Our work produced some prototypes and has been commercialised to be implemented on a commercial scale.”
In the end, Dallal emphasised the need to rethink university programmes, build new programmes and existing capacities, and constellate expertise.
“At a moment of comfort, you forget the purpose. Our purpose is to shape the career of students to enable them to make a difference in our societies, to produce the best students that we can,” he said, “besides producing relevant knowledge and creating an incentive environment that makes this possible.”
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To read more about sustainable development challenges in the Arab world and the COP27 climate-change conference, see Climate and Environment, an archive of Al-Fanar Media’s reporting on these issues.