Upon entering the office of the American University in Cairo President Lisa Anderson, you’ll admire the beautiful colored globe prominently displayed on a table. But dozens of globes? There’s a collection of smaller globes on a bookshelf. There are bowls of tiny globes (key chains, actually) on a coffee table. Globes, globes, everywhere.
The globes capture some of the zeitgeist around AUC. Anderson brought them from her former office at Columbia University, where she served as dean of the School of International and Public Affairs. But their display in Cairo isn’t merely the standard décor for a political scientist, but Anderson’s idea of a subtle provocation. AUC, founded by American Christians in 1919, is commonly seen as a cultural bridge: between the United States and Egypt, and between the West and the Arab and Muslim worlds. As true and important as that may be, Anderson insists on highlighting AUC’s global vision and role. “We’re not just about East and West,” she says. “Because of our tradition with America, we privilege the U.S., of course. But that’s not all there is in the world. Don’t forget China, and India, and Brazil. We are just as much a window on what’s going on in Singapore and Japan as we are on what’s going on in the United States.”
“East and West is a twentieth-century way of looking at the world. Now we need to be thinking about what’s going to happen in the next twenty-five years on a global level.”
Not to mention, of course, a window on what’s going on in Egypt. Anderson along with everyone at AUC literally had a front row seat to history when young Egyptians launched a popular uprising on January 25 and toppled the thirty-year regime of President Hosni Mubarak eighteen dramatic days later. Many current and former students took part in the protests centered on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, site of AUC’s older, downtown campus. “Difficult as these days have been—and there may be more trials to come—all of us should be proud,” says Anderson, a Middle East specialist. “It is an honor and privilege to be witness to fruits of a generation’s investment in their children.” In her first month as AUC’s eleventh president and first woman to hold the position—she served as AUC provost from 2008 to 2010—Anderson thus contended with security forces and demonstrators using the campus as a battleground and held town hall meetings with faculty and students across the city. With the revolution still in full swing, she presided over AUC planning to recognize its achievements,commemorate those who died, assist Egypt’s transition to democracy and launch new research projects.
In Anderson’s view, AUC’s robust engagement with the historic transformation in Egypt and the Arab world will be another contribution to the university’s goal of becoming a global leader in education and research. David D. Arnold, president from 2003–10 and now head of the Asia Foundation headquartered in San Francisco, set the stage by constructing AUC’s new $400 million, 260-acre, state-of-the-art main campus in the eastern suburb of New Cairo. AUC has recently undertaken significant academic initiatives as well, such as the establishment of the new School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, and building partnerships with counterparts like Harvard University in the U.S., Oxford University and Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. AUC’s enrollment has grown from five thousand to more than six thousand students, including one thousand in the graduate programs.
Now under Anderson’s stewardship, AUC’s aim is to bolster its research capabilities through strategic investments, and thereby secure a ranking place in the emerging new paradigm of global education. Along with her successor as provost Medhat Haroun, Anderson shepherded the establishment of the first PhD program in the university’s ninety-two-year history—in the School of Sciences and Engineering—and believes that one of her mandates as president is to inspire AUC’s other five schools to follow suit. “Global reputations are made by graduate programs,” she explains. “You can bring in more research dollars and collaborations if you have graduate programs. We will be thinking of how we can build out our PhD programs without sacrificing the excellence of our undergraduate liberal arts mission.”
Anderson argues that AUC is well positioned to become a node in one of the networks of global research universities she believes are beginning to come into focus. “Within the next ten to twenty years, you’ll see the appearance of a set of institutions that are globally connected,” she says. “They will have networks of collaborations, of student exchanges, and faculty appointments. You’ll see some of the perfectly fine institutions in the U.S. fading because they can’t sustain a global reach, in favor of institutions in various other parts of the world. You can begin to see the privileging of what we used to call the periphery.”
Without a doubt, Anderson believes, aspirants for leading places in the evolving networks will have a significant advantage if they are located in “fabulous global cities”—for instance, fabulous global cities like Cairo. “As one of the provosts of
Columbia used to say, New York City is its shadow endowment—faculty and students want to come to Columbia because it is in New York,” Anderson says. “AUC has Cairo, both in its name and as a resource. The city is an integral part of the curriculum. People come to AUC because of where it is.”
In 1976, Anderson herself was one of those young students who trekked to AUC—to study Arabic for a summer. She would go on to receive her PhD in political science from Columbia in 1981, and to a career as a professor at Harvard and professor and then dean at Columbia. She has served as director of Columbia’s Middle East Institute, and is a past president of the Middle East Studies Association and former chair of the board of directors of the Social Science Research Council. She recalls, however, that her lifelong attachment to the Middle East and scholarly focus on North Africa began as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College when a professor assigned a research paper on Egypt. “I wrote eighty pages on the history of Egypt from Mohammed Ali to Nasser and just loved it,” she says. “As a result, I abandoned my aspirations to become a civil rights lawyer. I told myself I would study this region until I was tired of it.” She adds, “As you can tell, I have never gotten tired of it.”
Besides introducing Anderson to the Middle East, the professor also instilled in her a sense that education can change the world. The daughter of liberal parents who opposed the Vietnam War, Anderson went home during a school break as a supporter of the war after the professor forced her to question her unexamined assumptions. “I eventually ended up back in my parents’ camp,” she says. “But that professor taught me the power of critical thinking, that if you only believe in something because your parents told you, you need to question it.” That dynamic was evident, she points out, when so many young Egyptians decided to abandon the fearful conservatism of their parents’ generation and take to the streets on January 25. “A new generation has come of age that can be agile and imaginative and able to confront the problems–many of which we still cannot imagine–that it will inevitably face,” she says.
For Anderson, those challenges are less about a clash between the West and the Muslim world than they are about reconciling global and local interests. Returning to live and work in Cairo less than a decade after the September 11, 2001, attack on New York, Anderson says she’s been struck by how compelling other issues seem to be. “No doubt, in the U.S. there’s a lot of anxiety about the region, and in the region there’s a lot of anxiety about America,” she explains. “But some of this is manufactured on both sides, because people make reputations and money from it. I don’t think it’s the most interesting challenge of the future. If you think about the role that institutions like ours should be playing, I think it is in linking the local and the global. Some of this political tension is due to that struggle rather than a clash of civilizations.”
That brings Anderson back to perceptions of the “American” in AUC’s name. She prefers to emphasize AUC’s deep roots throughout Egyptian society and its growing international role, rather than the conventional view of AUC as an American outpost in Egypt and the region. “Honestly,” she exclaims, “that’s a little passé now. East and West is a twentieth-century way of looking at the world. Now we need to be thinking about what’s going to happen in the next twenty-five years on a global level, and about what role Egypt and the region will play there.”
Subscribe to Our Newsletter