Sunday, November 9, 2008

Front page news

The October 31, 2008, edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a front-page article about the new AUC campus.

From the issue dated October 31, 2008

At American U. in Cairo, Pardon the Mess

It was sometime during the summer, when rumors spread through the city that the new campus of the American University in Cairo was infested with giant desert rats, that the sales job its administrators were trying to achieve fell off the rails.

They had already had a hard enough time persuading 6,000 faculty members and students to abandon the somewhat charming and relatively convenient campus the university had inhabited at the heart of the city for 89 years. Downtown Cairo is filthy and congested, but just about everyone at AUC was dead-set against relocating the campus to a sand-swept suburb an hour's drive from the banks of the Nile. Despite a full-bore public-relations campaign that led to many breathless news articles, nobody wanted to leave.

The naysaying might have ebbed if the rats, which were feasting on several hundred miles of newly laid fiber-optic cable, had been the only problem. But as August turned to September, desert rats were among the least of the university's woes.

The contractors hired to build the 260-acre campus — a partnership between the South Korean company Samsung and the Egyptian company Samcrete — had missed deadline after deadline. By the time everyone arrived in August, the university's $400-million showpiece ($100-million of it from the U.S. Agency for International Development) was still a dusty construction zone.

Now, in October, hard hats are still required on half of the campus. Instead of the buzz of excitement administrators had worked hard to create, the campus is noisy with the din of construction. And faculty members and students are not happy.

"We're peeved," says Joshua Middleman, who represents political-science students in the institution's recently revived Graduate Students' Association. "This has been a total disaster, and I wouldn't be surprised if we see AUC's international student body drop in half because of this campus."

Six months ago, a tour guide ushered her hard-hatted guests through a stretch of desert at the campus's edge, where she said shady palm trees would be planted to cool the hot desert breezes. The visitors passed under a massive dome, fashioned after that of the Great Mosque at C√≥rdoba, Spain, and onto a campus laid out along a curved central walkway. Courtyards and gardens branching off the central walk would feature 27 fountains and pools of water, the guide said. The planners and architects had used elements of traditional Egyptian architecture to create an atmosphere of comfort and calm — the perfect venue for higher learning.

Today, just outside the library near the end of that central walkway, workers saw, drill, and hammer their way toward finishing the athletics center, the 400 units of students housing, and the main cafeteria. Along with the theater, the laboratories, and the swimming pool, they are closed to students and faculty until, well, until further notice.

"It's been inconvenient to people, and annoying to people, and there isn't really any doubt about that," says Lisa Anderson, the provost. "On the other hand, I honestly believe that a lot of this was unavoidable." She has had angry phone calls, e-mail messages, and visits from dozens of frustrated, dust-covered faculty members. Her message to them, she says, has been: "Let's just do it. Let's just figure it out."

It became clear in August that the semester ahead would be rocky, at best. That was just about the time Ms. Anderson left Columbia University, where she was dean of the School of International and Public Affairs, to take her new post here.

But many faculty members and students believe AUC administrators' big mistake came in May, when they accepted the contractors' word that they would finish more or less when they had planned: June 1.

"Everybody said there would be some slippage, so maybe it's the first of July or even the middle of July, and we'll be fine," Ms. Anderson says.

But as any homeowner who has ever built an addition can attest, construction work often falls behind schedule. And the American University in Cairo's faculty veterans quietly say administrators failed to take into account the chaotic way just about everything happens in Cairo, Africa's most populous city.

"We also knew that holding back on the move until the contractor had achieved 'substantial completion' of the entire campus post-September would not serve our objective of getting us into our new facilities, simply because it would not have been possible to undertake and complete the physical move of the entire university during the academic year," explains Paul Donoghue, vice president of planning and administration, in an e-mail message.

By mid-July things were obviously off course when foreign students were told they would be housed in an army officers' hotel across town rather than in campus housing, which still isn't complete today. They were also given the option to defer their stint at AUC until next spring.

"This was a hint," says Phil Zager, a visiting student from the University of Southern California. "They were trying to discourage us from coming, but in the most polite terms possible."

The "disaster," as Mr. Middleman calls it, took full form on September 7, the first day of classes.

Faculty members moved into offices that didn't have locks, phones, or Internet connections — in fact, some didn't even have electricity. The classroom furniture hadn't been assembled, so many students sat on the floor for their first few classes, sometimes enduring 110-degree heat because the air-conditioning hadn't been installed. One student reported that the air-conditioning was working fine in her classroom, but there was no glass in the windows.

Some restrooms didn't have toilets. Others had toilets, but no water hook-up. And since there were no signs to stop people from using them, the restrooms became a fetid mess, made worse by the late summer heat.

It wasn't long before the simmering discontent bubbled over, and student politicians began to rail against the administration. Some students revived the long-defunct Graduate Students' Association, while others founded the Foreign Students' Association. In late September, a group of study-abroad students wrote to their home institutions. The 11-page letter chronicled a litany of complaints, but most seriously, it said several female students had been sexually harassed at the army officers' hotel. Ms. Anderson says the administration dealt with the harassment cases "swiftly and decisively," with criminal prosecutions.

Plumbing and other basic services are now established, but other nuisances continue to hamper the newcomers. Most taxi drivers have no idea how to get to the new campus. People who do find it discover it has no maps or signs. Calling ahead is nearly impossible as there is no directory of the new telephone extensions.

And then there is the problem of the files.

In his office at the center for electronic journalism, Lawrence Pintak's blinds haven't arrived, so a piece of red cloth is roughly stapled across the window.

"Reach down and slide that file cabinet open," he says. It's empty.

"Every file drawer on campus was built to fit American letter-size file folders. But in Egypt, all that is available is A4," Mr. Pintak says. That means every single piece of paper is almost an inch too long for the file cabinets, so offices and hallways are littered with stacks of file folders that don't fit in the drawers. "It's just idiotic," says Mr. Pintak.

Ms. Anderson says she has tried to keep faculty members focused on the reason the new campus exists: the possibilities it represents.

"You have an opportunity while people are out of the standard operating procedures to have them think in new ways about what they do, why they do it, who they do it with," she says.

Meanwhile, it seems as though AUC's experience with desert wildlife isn't over. This month a desert fox ambled in from the sand dunes, evaded a dozen security guards, and ran roughshod through the School of Business, Economics, and Communication before it was cornered in one of the computer labs.
Section: International
Volume 55, Issue 10, Page A1

Copyright © 2008 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

The thing about the filing cabinets is really annoying!


Anonymous said...

For people who don't have a subscription to the Chronicle:

irad said...

Thanks for the link--didn't know it was subscription-only.