Protests Elicit Pledges of Openness at the American U. in Cairo

September 20, 2011

A weeklong sit-in by students and workers at the American University in Cairo ended Monday with the administration meeting several of the workers' main demands and promising to hold more open, inclusive discussions of the university's finances.

Although the strike ended relatively quickly, it highlighted some key challenges facing the internationally known institution. Those include a lingering unhappiness with the decision to build a new campus on the outskirts of the city, away from Cairo's vibrant downtown, and a concern over how the institution manages its finances.

The conflict is also part of a larger wave of campus activism sweeping Egypt. At state universities, students and faculty are demanding the resignation of presidents and deans appointed during the Mubarak era, and the holding of elections to select their replacements. They are also demanding more openness and an end to security interference in campus affairs. The national Egyptian Student Union was reconstituted after a conference at the American University in Cairo in August. Its activities had been suspended 32 years ago by then-president Anwar Sadat.

"We're taking Tahrir to our campus," said Gigi Ibrahim, an alumna of the university and a prominent online activist, who supported the protests at her alma mater. "Students feel if they apply pressure from below then they can get results just like in Tahrir. This is happening all over Egypt."

Announcing the agreements in an e-mail to the university community, Lisa Anderson, president of the American University in Cairo, wrote that this was "the beginning of a new era of transparency and dialogue with the workers and their representatives to build together a more equitable workplace, and with the students and faculty to become the great university we aspire to be."

"We're pleased with the results we've reached," says Ahmed Alaa, the student-union president, "but negotiations will continue."

Protests broke out last week, as students began the fall semester at the university's sunny, wind-swept new campus. Custodians, gardeners, and security workers demanded raises, better working conditions, and greater job security. Students protested a 9-percent increase in tuition, which brings it to over $20,000.

The two groups joined ranks, holding regular boisterous rallies outside Ms. Anderson's office. "Hey Lisa, give us an answer: Where has our money gone?" they chanted.

The university's administration says the tuition increase is necessary to make up a budget deficit. Student protesters argue the university is misallocating resources, underpaying low-level workers and overcharging students while wasting money elsewhere.

A Financial Crisis?

While faculty have stayed largely silent, some have backed the students. There has been "a terrible mismanagement of university funds," says Sameh Naguib, an adjunct sociology professor. "Why is there a financial crisis in such an apparently rich university?"

The university is running an $8-million deficit on its $180-million budget. Its financial difficulties stem to a great extent from its controversial recent relocation from its historic downtown buildings to a $400-million new campus in a desert suburb of the capital.

"The deficit is in part the result of a failure to anticipate the costs of running an operation of this size," Ms. Anderson told The Chronicle. Transportation costs—the university operates a fleet of buses to ferry students and faculty to the new campus, where no public transportation is available—and electricity costs have both turned out to be much higher than planned for. The university's endowment has also reportedly been badly hit by the world financial downturn.

Tuition makes up 52 percent of the university's income, with the rest coming from gifts, research grants, endowment interest, and continuing-education fees. In addition to the tuition hike, the university has frozen new hires and is adopting across-the-board spending reductions.

The increase in tuition is unavoidable, says Ms. Anderson, who notes that universities around the world are doing the same and that the increase doesn't even keep pace with inflation in Egypt. But the administration will do everything it can to address students' "sense that they're not confident that they're getting their money's worth."

That sense stems in large part, says the university president, from growing pains associated with the move to the new campus. Administrative procedures have not been revised to keep pace with a larger, more complex institution, she says, leading to confusion and frustration on students' part. Student protesters also complained of expenses and inconveniences—parking fees, the dearth of food outlets, high costs for services like photocopying—associated with the campus's isolation.

Furthermore, students feel they are excluded from the university's decision-making process. As part of the agreement, the administration scheduled a forum to discuss this year's budget, and has agreed to take some financial recommendations from an ad hoc committee of students, faculty, alumni, administrators, and parents.

The university also granted workers raises and responded to their concerns: Among other things, it will provide management training to supervisors after complaints of "inhuman treatment of workers and abuse of powers." Student representatives will continue to push for a repeal of the tuition hike, says Mr. Alaa, and will suggest other areas in which the university might cut costs. "After what happened," he says, "now they will listen more."


More global news from The Chronicle

SIGN UP: Get Global Coverage in Your Inbox
JOIN THE CONVERSATION:    Twitter     LinkedIn