Is There a Future for American Universities in the Middle East?

Why the U.S. Model Is More Important Than Ever

At the American University in Cairo, Egypt, January 2019 POOL / REUTERS

On January 10, Mike Pompeo, the U.S. secretary of state, delivered a contentious speech at the American University in Cairo (AUC). He ridiculed former president Barack Obama’s Middle East policy, thanked Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for his “courage” in confronting extremism, and repeated calls for a tough stance against Iran. The university’s faculty were outraged, not only by the speech but also by Pompeo’s failure to engage with students. In February, the faculty voted to declare no confidence in the university president who had invited Pompeo, Francis J. Ricciardone, himself a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt.

The insurrection was not just a response to the secretary’s speech but an expression of long-standing unease about the direction of the university. The faculty’s concerns about academic freedom and governance also in part reflect broader alarm in the academic community in Egypt about the erosion of free speech and public debate. Although Pompeo urged the Egyptian government to “unleash the creative energy of Egypt’s people … and promote a free and open exchange of ideas,” crackdowns on universities and the media have dramatically diminished the arena of public debate. In 2016, Sisi’s government required academics to obtain approval from security officials for travel abroad, and Egypt is now ranked 161 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index. In this context, AUC faculty fear for the future of the unique model of American higher education in the region that the university represents.

The American University in Cairo is—as Pompeo said in his speech—“more than just a university.” The secretary called it and other American universities in the Middle East “symbols of America’s innate goodness … and of the better future we desire for all nations of the Middle East.” Most American higher education administrators will attest that simply being “just a university” is difficult enough in the twenty-first century without having also to be a symbol of America’s “innate goodness.” But Pompeo’s remarks

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