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Lisa Anderson on the Value of Tumult

March 2014

By Joseph Yohe

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On January 25—the first day of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011—Lisa Anderson was in the 25th day of her presidency at the American University in Cairo (AUC). “We learned a lot in the 18 days that followed, when the university was closed and Internet access and mobile phone services were down,” says Anderson. AUC’s response? “We scrambled.” Admits Anderson: “No one expected the need to address an emergency on this scale.” The resulting unrest in the region marked the beginning of a new operational mind-set for the institution—one that has positioned AUC as a beacon of resiliency in Egypt. In this interview, Anderson shares lessons learned in the midst of turmoil.

How have the recent years of civil unrest in the Middle East affected AUC generally, and your academic endeavors specifically? 

For many years this had been an unnaturally stable region. As long as [Hosni] Mubarak, [Moammar] Gadhafi, and [Zine el-Abidine] Ben Ali were in power in Egypt and Libya and Tunisia, much felt clamped down. As a result, there wasn’t a great deal of outside interest in the region. All of this tumult has drawn the attention of the rest of the world to a place that is now in transition in significant and exciting ways. 

The day-to-day turmoil—particularly in the first year following the revolution here in Egypt—has produced an environment that most university presidents don’t experience or anticipate. I haven’t had a semester yet as president where we began and finished on time. Every semester we’ve had to close the campus or relocate some of our operations for a period of time. This past summer, we lost a few of our three-week intensive summer courses because we were closed for two weeks, but thankfully we have not lost any full semesters. 

Unfortunately, because of U.S. travel warnings on Egypt, we’ve essentially lost our study abroad enrollments. In fall 2010 we were the principal study abroad destination for American students in the Arab world, with about 550 students. This semester we have virtually none. 

In addition to changes in enrollment, what has happened with external funding and sponsored programs in recent years?

While it has become more difficult to transfer funds into Egypt, and while the cut in military aid by the United States has also impacted higher education, a number of donors and foundations have been generous with supporting our efforts to ensure that our degree candidates and the Egyptian public at large are exposed to some of the most interesting ideas about contemporary politics and economic development one could hope for. 

In some respects—not least because we are an American institution, incorporated in Delaware, and accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education—we are about as transparent a recipient of aid or philanthropic giving as you can find in Egypt. Overall, we’ve found that donors are quite good about standing by a quality institution and saying, “We know what you’re doing is important and we support it.”  

In the face of ongoing unrest, how have you changed as an institution from an operational standpoint? 

For certain, we have become much more nimble. We have about 6,800 students and 500 faculty members. We are a largely commuter campus in a place without good public transportation, so we run an elaborate bus system all over greater Cairo. In that context, what do you do if elections or demonstrations or other disruptions mean you can’t get all of your students and faculty and staff home safely? We’ve had to become extraordinarily agile to ensure that we can cancel a day of classes and then figure out alternate ways to offer those sessions. 

While it’s been something of a roller coaster, our faculty have developed approaches for staying in contact with students who must stay home due to events that make it too dangerous or problematic for them to come to campus. We’ve learned to use evenings and weekends and blended learning in ways that most universities don’t.

From the beginning we’ve been adamant that if we can’t ensure the safety and security of our people or our property, then we won’t operate. We now have a very routine emergency management protocol and checklist that helps us determine, for instance, whether we can suspend one of our bus routes but keep the rest running, or close the downtown campus but keep the New Cairo campus open. Compared to three years ago, we’ve become pretty flexible and creative with our emergency management response. 

How would you characterize the way in which the turmoil in Egypt and surrounding regions has changed AUC? 

Uncertainty has become part of our culture. At most universities it is pretty easy to get complacent. People know what’s going to happen tomorrow because it’s not that different from what happened yesterday. We’ve been shaken from that mind-set. In the long run, I think that will serve us well because we have become much more experimental and willing to try new things. We’re now considering how to incorporate these skills as part of our curriculum. 

If you think about the world our students will face over the course of their careers, they will confront uncertainty and novelty the rest of their lives. The better able they are to build that expectation into how they operate, the more successful they’ll be in whatever they do. From a strategic standpoint, I think we are much more interested in this issue of change management than are many institutions. 

How do you view AUC’s role in the rebuilding of Egypt and in reshaping the country’s political and economic systems?

I think it’s fair to say that AUC is already conveying in real terms the constructive role that higher education can play in society. We’re proud that our alumni are disproportionately prominent in public life, whether it’s in the business sector or the public sector or in media. We have produced many of the country’s leaders, both of the old regime and many of the high-profile media and advocates of the revolution. We also provide a lot of public programming. Our school of global affairs and public policy has been running practically nightly seminars and lectures on constitution writing, elections, public-sector reform, and other topics of interest and importance to the Egyptian public. 

Since the start of the revolution many more of our public programs are offered in Arabic so they are accessible to a wider audience in Egypt. We’ve also lent members of our faculty and staff to public service. The current foreign minister is on leave from his role as dean of our school of global affairs and public policy, and several of our political scientists are also serving in the government. 

In thinking about AUC’s future, do you envision doing anything differently to attract and retain students? 

Going forward we will probably look for a somewhat more internationally diverse student body of degree candidates. Most of our students are Egyptian. Since Egypt has 85 million people, we don’t need to recruit far afield. But, for the same reasons that American universities think that internationalization is a good thing, so do we. We want to develop streams of applicants outside of Egypt and start sending more of our students abroad so they get the kind of study abroad experience that Americans value. 

What must you do to ensure that AUC remains a dynamic force in this region?

We’re optimistic about the fact that 2019 marks our 100th anniversary in Egypt. There’s something to say for stick-to-it-iveness, which is a wonderful American value that our students and faculty and alumni take comfort in as well. 

When you say you want to work for the benefit of the community in Cairo, and in Egypt, and in the larger region, what does that mean? We are less interested in being a hotbed of theoretical research than, for instance, working on a diagnostic technique for hepatitis C, which is a serious problem here. So, we’re modeling how to take the inventions and discoveries of the university and make them commercially available so they can be put to use by the local and larger community.

Within the next six months, we will embark on a strategic planning process to determine how we can fulfill the founding purpose of the university in the 21st century. Some of that will focus on making the interesting and important work that is going on in Egypt in research and education more visible to the rest of the world. 

Ultimately, we believe we are and can continue to be a hinge for this country in a way that enhances the prospects for development and long-term stability in the region. What Egypt needed in the 1930s is not what Egypt needed in the 1960s, and it’s not what Egypt needs now or will need 20 years from now. Yet, throughout our history, AUC has been visibly dedicated to playing a public-purpose role and to working for the common good, and we remain serious about being of service to Egypt in ways that meet the priorities of the region.  

JOSEPH YOHE is associate vice president for risk management, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. 

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Ultimately, we believe we are and can continue to be a hinge for this country in a way that enhances the prospects for development and long-term stability in the region.