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Building world- class bridges
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 18 - 09 - 2003

The school year has begun and the American University in Cairo has a new president. In his first exclusive interview in Cairo, David Arnold talks to Fatemah Farag about what it means to take on the post of 10th AUC president in these especially turbulent times
David Arnold
The United States has never been more entrenched in the region than it is today. For the first time in history an Arab country is under direct American military occupation. A right- wing administration in the White House is talking of changing the regional map and, in imperious tones, urging Arab regimes to reform themselves, their educational systems, media and religious discourse. That same administration, meanwhile, seems impervious to ever intensifying Israeli atrocities against the Palestinian people, and quick to identify Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's flagrant violations of international law with its own, apparently perpetual "war on terror".
Within the US, Arabs and Muslims have been frequent subjects of racial profiling and civil rights violations, while in the US media, entertainment industry and even within Congress, racist and bigotted slurs against Arabs and Muslims are tolerated to a degree that would normally trigger American public outrage had they been directed against any other community or religious group.
All of these and more have served not only to make the US much more visible in the region, but also to make it a foremost target of popular wrath. Pundits may disagree widely over the reasons behind the rising wave of "anti- Americanism" in the Arab world; few however would dispute its existence.
Not, one would think, a very propitious time for a high profile American educational institution to be functioning in Egypt, its campus lying smack in the very centre of Cairo, in Tahrir Square. Not true; for in the midst of all this turmoil, the American University in Cairo (AUC) continues to stand out as a harbinger of goodwill. Its administration and staff have always insisted that the role of the institution is to serve as a bridge of understanding between equals. And while anti-war demonstrators have been almost ritualistically targeting the American Embassy -- a few hundred metres away from the AUC campus -- with the brunt of their wrath, the AUC was immune. Indeed, its own students would come out in droves to join in the popular protests.
Against this tumultuous backdrop, David Arnold was selected for, and accepted, the post of 10th AUC president.
Relaxed and smiling in his Tahrir Square office in downtown Cairo, Arnold folds his long arms across his chest and suggests that to put the current challenges into perspective it would be useful to consider the institution's history. "I find it very useful to look back on how AUC developed and evolved in Egypt. One must keep in mind that AUC has been through World War I, World War II and the 1960s -- [the university] has been through challenging times before. A long-term perspective gives me confidence and hope that AUC will continue to be a vehicle through which a more positive relationship between the United States and Egypt can be built," explained Arnold.
His confidence must stem in part from his extensive experience in international education and service. A native of the Midwest -- a graduate of the University of Michigan with a masters degree in Public Administration from Michigan State University -- in 1997 Arnold became the executive vice president and chief operating officer of the New York-based Institute for International Education (IIE), the world's largest non-profit education exchange organisation. Prior to assuming this post, Arnold served as the Ford Foundation representative for India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, where he was responsible for overseeing the foundation's grant-provision and development progammes in South Asia.
His experiences in India in particular lead Arnold to believe that "Egypt has terrific possibilities to compete in the global market. It has great human resources" and this capital can be used to grow and expand.
He believes the AUC has a crucial role to play in development. "It is very important to keep in mind what our goals are: these are to provide a world class education for Egyptians to compete successfully in an increasingly global economy and become effective citizens. That is our focus and my aim is to keep us focussed; and for AUC to continue to be a bridge between East and West."
To date, the university has gone a long way to provide such a service. American and other researchers and academicians who have been affiliated with AUC have returned to US as well as other Western academic institutions and provided valuable insights into Egypt and the region, and the AUC's translation service and publishing house has made authors such as Naguib Mahfouz accessible to the English- speaking world.
But Arnold knows that it is not enough for AUC to educate the West about the region. "One of the things I am very excited about is the gift made by Prince Waleed Bin Talal: a new American Studies Centre," says Arnold, explaining that the concept behind the centre is not to provide an idealised version of US society to a local audience but "to help people in Egypt to understand the strengths and weaknesses of US society". He readily admits that the centre, which is expected to become operational in 2004, is a modest beginning and "certainly not enough. There is a greater need for communication and exchange".
He is hopeful that this exchange will be facilitated by the dissipation of the adverse effects of 9/11, such as restrictions on US entry visas. "My sense is that more and more students are going to the US. I believe that the reality [created by the 9/11 atrocity] is changing," explained the AUC president.
While maintaining an awareness of current AUC strengths, Arnold is also making plans for its future. "I think that AUC [provides] tremendous value for money. We compete with some of the best American universities," he states with confidence, going on to point out, however, that there is much room for development. "I adopt the vision of my predecessor [John] Gerhart regarding the development of AUC from a university of regional distinction to that of world class distinction. This summer I read a book on how to make a company go from good to great. And I think the same logic applies here," he added.
Arnold lists the components he believes will bring the university to a world class level. "First there is the new campus. We are currently working on creating a modern space which incorporates state-of-the art facilities. And I am totally enthusiastic about the plans. We are not just building structures, we are building a small city." A short visit by Al-Ahram Weekly several weeks ago to the site of the new campus revealed a long fence enclosing a large expanse of desert and a sign indicating this was the new AUC. "We are currently working on the infrastructure. When we initiate actual construction in 2004 I think the project will become more visible," assured Arnold.
The second component is faculty development. "I am very proud of the AUC faculty -- the calibre is very high and I particularly like the diversity. It is the diversity of an international faculty that makes AUC the exciting place it is," noted Arnold. He brushed aside criticism that AUC employs too many part- time local faculty personnel in an effort to cuts costs, pointing out that "in the United States the trend is for universities to take on more and more part-time and adjunct staff. This is not unique to AUC. But the standard of teaching is at the highest level -- whether the teacher be adjunct or staff."
In spite of his confidence in the university's current faculty, Arnold will be pushing through staff development plans. "A key part of this [faculty development] equation is to draw world class faculty to our ranks. And in November I will be discussing with the Board of Trustees how to build the faculty of the future," he said.
The final component for elevating the AUC to world-class standard relates to curriculum development, namely "the further development of an academic programme that provides a liberal arts education of the highest quality."
He recognises that part and parcel of these developments is ensuring that AUC students and faculty personnel enjoy a democratic environment. "I am a strong defender of academic freedom and freedom of speech. Both elements are a fundamental part of academic culture and campus life. And this is part of AUC's mission: to produce actively engaged responsible citizens. But in terms of peaceful protest and within the boundaries of the law."
And if these actively engaged citizens oppose US policies? "I am not here to defend US foreign policy," he states unequivocally, adding that, "active informed citizens will have different interests and values. The challenge is for us to reach common ground for dialogue. The fact that engaged citizens may not approve of US policy does not keep me up at night."
The key to Arnold's understanding of development is democratic practice. India comes up as a case in point. "India has a vibrant, active and noisy democratic system. My experience is that most results [with regard to democratisation] were achieved by working at the village level -- the level where people live. If space can be created at that level for people to participate in decisions that affect their lives, my sense is that then there will be potential for sustainability. My sense is that what AUC can contribute [to Egypt's process of democratisation] are students who practice democratic skills."
And while Arnold is comfortable with the fact that AUC is an "elitist" institution, he is also keen on making it accessible to more underprivileged students. "I do not think there is anything wrong with being an elitist institution and I am comfortable with the academic standard of our programme. Having said that, one of my major goals is to expand opportunity for students who do not have the means to pay tuition. Currently we fund 15 undergraduates every year. And I would like us to expand this funding to other less privileged students."
He also points out that to measure AUC's outreach based on its undergraduate and graduate programme alone would be shortsighted. "I am more excited about our adult education programme which now enrolls 30,000 students and offers courses in computer and management skills as well as English. These offer very practical and vocational benefits to an audience that goes well beyond that of the undergraduate/graduate programme."
Arnold says he could talk about AUC for days on end. "Why am I here?" he asks rhetorically, settling into the couch which sits in the arabesque salon attached to his office "Look at my career and background: I am not an academic. I did not grow up dreaming to become a university president. But I have known AUC for many years. And the potential of this university, at this place, at this point in time, all makes me personally and professionally very excited to be here."


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