A city for learning.
The American University in Cairo (AUC) is a landmark institution. Since its 1919 founding in the heart of Egypt's capital, it has helped shape the city's intellectual life, in addition to its social and urban fabric. Last year, according to plan, the university pulled up its historic stakes and moved some 30 kilometres away, to Cairo's sparsely developed eastern desert outskirts.
Controversy still rages regarding the lavish 260-acre campus, billed as 'a city for learning' and built at a cost of some $400 million over the course of four years. Was it a visionary move, given Cairo's intense overcrowding and its ever-expanding perimeters? Or is the university a white elephant, an artificial environment robbing the student body of virtually all contact with the city after which it was named?
The new campus is certainly impressive, with its monumental neo-Islamic buildings, stone-clad midans, fountain-lined pedestrian avenues, spa-like sports centre, fast-food courts and ATM machines serving a student body of around 5000. Compared to its state-run counterparts like Cairo's Ain Shams University, built for 50,000 students but currently enrolling a staggering 190,000, AUC is a five-star facility that has ample room for future growth.
When students began attending AUC in 1920, downtown Cairo still smacked of the pastoral, its tree-lined streets more frequented by animal-drawn vehicles than automobiles. Yet by 1928, when the first woman student enrolled at the university, Cairo had a million inhabitants, and it has since grown exponentially. Living densities are high in the city centre surrounding the old campus. Traffic noise was so loud in some classrooms teachers had to shout their lectures to be heard. At the new campus, students can improve their minds in contemplative peace. What's more, they can breathe, since 'New Cairo', as the slightly-elevated desert plateau has been dubbed, enjoys a cooler climate and cleaner air, not to mention state-of-the art research and study facilities.
Founded by Americans who wished to foster the development of an English-speaking (and America-friendly) Egyptian and regional elite, AUC has been faithful to its mission. Famous alumni include Queen Rania of Jordan, Egyptian First Lady Mrs Suzanne Mubarak and her son Gamal, in addition to a number of successful entrepreneurs. But only a tiny percentage of Egypt's nearly 1.5 million college students can afford the standard of liberal education that AUC provides. Tuition fees amount to some $9,800 per semester (22 credit hours), and in April 2009, an 8% increase was announced. The additional expense of transport, off-campus housing and on-campus dining (at McDonald's and other local and foreign franchise outlets) all adds up.
The old campus was more accessible and economical to a student body that formed a major clientele for downtown shops and restaurants, creating a livelihood for hundreds of Egyptians. Scattered over several city blocks, AUC was situated within sight of the Nile and the Egyptian Museum, strolling distance from the medieval quarter's Islamic architectural treasures, a few subway stops from its Coptic Christian ones, and a relatively short drive from the pyramids of Giza and Saqqara, offering students a privileged, yet insiders' view of a multi-layered, 1,400-year-old city. Those enrolled for AUC's Arabic studies programme likewise profited from daily interactions with ordinary citizens.
University-sponsored cultural events including theatre programmes and lectures, attracted a varied outside public. Now, visitors without vehicles need a security pass to obtain a E20 [pounds sterling] bus ticket to the new campus, or else must pay around $10-15 for a cab ride, placing many activities out of bounds to all but the few. For students occupying the gender-segregated on-campus housing (accommodating 480 students), Cairo is more a field trip than an interactive resource. Those who live in the city-centre dormitory or rent flats around town must make the bus commute, which takes upwards of an hour depending on traffic, at least twice a day, leaving little time for exploring Cairo.
Critics say the new campus has isolated students from Egypt's realities, including widespread poverty and high unemployment. Like the gated residential communities sprouting in the surrounding desert, the luxurious new campus offers a spacious respite from Cairo's traffic and pollution. It also offers better security, a now standard feature of upscale developments, testimony to the growing tension between Egypt's rich and poor.
Yet Egypt's social inequities are not so easily escaped, nor do some AUC students wish to ignore them. The Caravan, AUC's campus newspaper, reported how university administration had issued $220,000 worth of free food coupons in response to student complaints regarding high-priced campus restaurants. Around $62,000 worth of coupons were never used. Meanwhile, custodial and security staff were contractually obliged to subsist on a monthly food allowance of $13. Thanks to student protests, the administration agreed to supply free meals to some staff.
Predictably, the strongest critique of AUC's new location comes from students and faculty accustomed to its old one, while freshmen are more apt to describe the place in glowing terms. Egyptians comprise 80% of the student body, while the balance is international, representing some 113 countries. More than 60% of undergraduates participate in financial aid programmes, including fellowships and full scholarships, extending AUC's educational benefits somewhat deeper into the community.
Egypt had many private schools prior to the 1952 revolution. The state subsequently assumed responsibility for providing free education to all citizens. The attempt to supply adequate schooling has, however, long since failed to meet demand and the private sector has recently become increasingly involved in establishing educational facilities.
To some of these investors and educators, the new AUC serves as an inspirational 'gold standard' for the kind of schools they are building or wish to build. Several newly founded private and state-partnered colleges have chosen Cairo's desert suburbs as their location. Likewise, the state has recently awarded land grants for campus expansions of Cairo and Ain Shams Universities on the capital's outskirts. AUG is among the first to have made what many see as a pragmatic, inevitable move.
An uninterrupted line of construction already flanks the highway nearly all the way to AUC, mostly residential buildings in varying degrees of completion. They are the homes of an upwardly mobile middle class, and their architecture reflects the optimism many feel in Egypt's future. Built side by side in low-cost steel-reinforced concrete and red brick, the facades are nonetheless spectacular essays in a kind of post-modern baroque, featuring towering pillars with Greek capitals, ornate stucco cornices, balustrades, balconies and parapets.
AUC's neighbours include the Mubarak Police Academy, located by the planned extension road to Cairo's International Airport, and the Future University of Egypt (FUE), founded by a former minister of higher education. FUE's shell-like facade is a replica of the Rome Colosseum wrapped around a modernistic chromeand glass-built core.
As long as Cairo's water supply holds out, its megacity sprawl will continue to stretch inexorably--and inventively--into the desert.
But the city that will one day absorb the new AUC campus will be very different from the one that surrounded the old.
Its history, distinct from 'Old Cairo's', is beginning today. In the words of one AUC alumnus, "Dude, you just have to make room for the new."
MARIA GOLIA REPORTS FROM CAIRO