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 pointed to a facet of the United States’ influence in the Middle East that academics and policymakers often underestimate: the powerful allure of the American brand of higher education. In the words of John Waterbury, former president of the American University of Beirut (AUB), in the Middle East “the word ‘American’ is to education what ‘Swiss’ is to watches.” Like a Swiss watch, American education reflects a unique tradition; in the case of American universities, the quality is born of enduring respect for lively and open debate, critical analysis, and shared governance.


Private missionaries and philanthropists began exporting American “know-how” to the Middle East in the form of schools and universities as long ago as the nineteenth century. In 1863, American seminarians and philanthropists established Roberts College in Istanbul, the predecessor of today’s Bogazici University. The American University of Beirut began as the Syrian Protestant College in 1866. By the time AUC opened in 1919, the explicitly religious purpose of these universities had begun to give way to more secular commitments. A broad liberal arts education would promote moral character and enlightened citizenship, the thinking went.

Middle Eastern states soon had national universities as well, many of them established by governments after World War II in order to train the administrative cadres of newly independent states. Free public higher education was widespread and private higher education virtually unknown except in Lebanon. Private, and particularly American, education was suspect. The government of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser almost nationalized AUC in the late 1960s. Acting President of AUB David S. Dodge was kidnapped in 1982, during the Lebanese civil war, and his successor, Malcolm Kerr, was murdered two years later. But both universities survived and produced many of the late-twentieth-century leaders of the region, from presidents, parliamentarians, and diplomats to filmmakers, financiers, and industrialists. Through such figures, an American liberal arts education became associated with power, success, and influence.

Private universities alone cannot absorb the millions of students seeking places in universities in the Middle East.

After the Cold War, new kinds of American universities opened elsewhere in the region. Their spread reflected both the prestige of American schooling and the decline of the region’s national university systems. By the 1990s, national universities in the Middle East were widely acknowledged to be underfunded, inefficient, and unable to meet the needs of a booming youth population. By then, youth unemployment in the Arab states was higher than anywhere else in the world; today it is estimated at more than 30 percent. Education for the twenty-first-century knowledge economy’s labor market became a national priority throughout the region. Governments in the region turned to the private sector to fill the gap between the supply of high-quality programs and the demand for skilled university graduates. Seventy percent of the approximately 600 universities in the region today were established after 1990. About 40 percent of those are private, accounting for about 30 percent of the region’s university enrollments.

Many of these private universities cultivated links to global brands, advertising themselves as affiliated with, modeled on, or otherwise associated with international establishments. In the UAE alone, nearly 40 institutions bear names that are identifiably American, European, or Australian. Some, of course, are cleverly marketed vocational schools or training institutes—or diploma mills. But a substantial number—from the for-profit American University in Dubai to the government-sponsored American University of Sharjah—provide a reasonably good education, often drawing on the American liberal arts tradition. Similarly, branch campuses of American universities, such as Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar and New York University Abu Dhabi, claim to bring American faculty, curricula, pedagogy, and governance practices to education and research in the region. The trend is expanding beyond the Gulf, where it began, notably to Egypt, where branch campuses are planned for the new administrative capital.

Whether these new American-style universities will play the catalytic role their public and private sponsors envision for them is an open question. Private universities alone cannot absorb the millions of students seeking places in universities in the Middle East. (As an order of magnitude, approximately 6,500 students are currently enrolled at AUC; by contrast, Cairo University has more than a quarter million.) And American-style universities play only a limited role as models for local universities, since the barriers to transferring policies and practices between the two are high.

The language barrier is perhaps the most obvious. Classes at international universities are taught in English. This ensures that the universities can recruit distinguished international faculty, but it also limits the local student applicant pool. Moreover, those international faculty members tend to favor publishing research in English and keeping up with the demands of their disciplines over putting time into work that has immediate consequence for the host country. Since all of this is reflected in international rankings, such priorities make sense within the self-contained system of global higher education. But the result is a deep chasm between the institutions and the Arab societies they are supposed to benefit.

The autonomous, self-governing, not-for-profit university typical of the United States and exemplified by AUB and AUC is a rarity in the region—and as such it is easily misunderstood.

This gap is all the more apparent when it comes to governance. Most of the public universities in the Arab world were designed to serve explicitly political purposes, such as producing highly trained—and loyal—technocrats. Restrictions on political activity, censorship of research results, and controls on classroom syllabi are common; presidents and deans are typically appointed by the national government and student unions are closely monitored. In theory, the new private international universities enjoy more independence. But many of them (including many of the American ones) are for-profit enterprises, which makes them sensitive to the management of political risk. Others, such as the Egypt-Japan University of Science and Technology and the British University in Dubai, are linked to sponsoring governments and subject to other limitations as a result. Not surprisingly, none of the new international universities, including those branded as American, offer degrees in political science.

The autonomous, self-governing, not-for-profit university typical of the United States and exemplified by AUB and AUC is a rarity in the region—and as such it is easily misunderstood. Even before Ricciardone, a retired diplomat, was appointed president, many assumed that AUC was an arm of the U.S. Embassy. AUB is often supposed to be a family-owned business, so prominent are the children of former presidents and trustees on the university’s board. These assumptions are evidence of the distance between the way the universities are supposed to run and the way societies are primed to understand them. What makes these universities different—indeed, what makes them truly American—is not their names, their status as U.S. legal entities, their language of instruction, or even their commitment to civic engagement but the traditions of academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and shared governance they have embodied.

As Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote in 1957, “it is the business of a university to provide that atmosphere which is most conducive to speculation, experiment, and creation,” and in which “a university can determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.” For most governments—and indeed, most businesses—in the Middle East, the idea that “academic grounds” should outweigh political imperatives or financial exigencies in guiding, much less determining, decisions about admissions, curricular offerings, research initiatives, and faculty hiring is—well, foreign.

Painful as it may be, the spectacle of the AUC faculty disputing the judgement of a university administration and trustees is the best advertisement for exactly those norms and customs, policies, and procedures that have made American education such a powerful global brand. Pompeo was right to point to the astonishing symbol that the American university presents to the region. But it is less an emblem of America’s “innate goodness” than the product of a long and rich tradition of robust debate, critical inquiry, and participatory governance.

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  • LISA ANDERSON is James T. Shotwell Professor Emerita of International Relations at Columbia University and former president of the American University in Cairo.
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