Remembering Medhat

I had the good fortune to work with a man of great skill and quality of character who was an exemplary diplomat: Medhat Haroun, American University in Cairo’s provost, who passed away on October 18.

I have worked in foreign affairs for most of my life and, whether serving in Japan, the United States, or in Egypt, I discovered that the calling of international relations is far more than the pursuit of policy and strategic interest. Such concerns form a framework for the conduct of international affairs. Yet, diplomacy, at its heart, is about relationships—building bridges, not just between nations, but between cultures and individuals. After leaving diplomacy to become the dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo (AUC) in 2009, I had the good fortune to work with a man of great skill and quality of character who was an exemplary diplomat in that sense: Medhat Haroun, AUC’s provost, who passed away on October 18.

In paying tribute to Medhat, most will naturally recall a life marked by professional and academic success. He received his PhD in structural and earthquake engineering from the California Institute of Technology, and was a professor at the University of California, Irvine, for twenty years. He returned to teach in his native Egypt in 1999, initially as chair of AUC’s Engineering department, before becoming dean of the School of Sciences and Engineering in 2005, and provost in 2011. Awards and plaudits for excellence in teaching seemed to follow wherever his career took him, while his tireless dedication and optimistic vision enriched everyone he worked with. He generated millions of dollars in funding for undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral degree programs in such diverse fields as nanotechnology, biotechnology, and computer engineering. One of his proudest accomplishments was establishing AUC’s first PhD program in applied sciences and engineering.

Among his many achievements in the field of engineering was Medhat’s work as an expert in the construction of actual bridges. He was well known for his efforts to make them safe in the event of earthquakes. To me, his ability to build human bridges is what truly defined him. When I arrived at AUC, I quickly realized how little I knew about what it meant to be a dean of a school. AUC President Lisa Anderson, who was provost at that time, pointed me in Medhat’s direction, fondly describing him as “the real thing.” Medhat and his wife Rita immediately invited my wife and I for dinner at their home. We spent several hours discussing world politics, Egypt, and AUC. When I finally posed my mundane questions about the challenges of running a school, there was no lecturing, no condescension in his voice. He gave his advice freely and effortlessly in a manner that at once put me at ease and gave me everything I needed to know.

Medhat was a natural teacher and leader. He was a skilled communicator, who truly understood the wants and needs of others. Medhat’s gifts were once again on display when a student strike shut down AUC early in the Fall 2012 Semester. despite his worsening struggle with cancer, he remained at the forefront of negotiations with the students and efforts to re-open the campus gates. That was Medhat Haroun, a man dedicated to bringing people together and bridging the cultural, political, and ideological divides that separate so many. We will miss his energy, his passion in his work, and his overwhelming sense of fairness, which seemed to guide everything that he did.

Nabil Fahmy is the dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.

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