AUC Board of Trustees reaffirms confidence in university administration against faculty, student vote

On Monday, the American University in Cairo’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously to reaffirm its “continued confidence” and “unqualified support” for AUC President Francis J. Ricciardone and his administration, less than a week after the university’s Senate voted in favor of withdrawing confidence from the president on February 5.

Eighty percent of members of the Senate — a body consisting of representatives for faculty, staff, students and the administration — who were present at the meeting voted to withdraw confidence from Ricciardone. The Senate resolution, which Mada Masr has obtained a copy of, cited contractual discrepancies for newly hired faculty and personnel, a pattern of discrimination based on nationality, a lack of information or misinformation provided by the Board of Trustees about the university’s situation over the last two years and a general compromise of the university’s independence.

Aside from demanding that Ricciardone’s term not be renewed beyond June 2020, the Senate demanded that two faculty representatives be appointed to the Board of Trustees with voting rights, a review of all contracts signed since 2017 and that the Senate be granted the right to evaluate all university policies.

But, according to university bylaws, the Senate’s vote alone is not sufficient to remove the president from his position — a power solely vested in the Board of Trustees. The bylaws also stipulate that the university president serves a four-year term, which can only be renewed once.

In its Monday statement, the board — which oversees the university’s mission, budget, plans and policy changes, as well as appoints the president — commended Ricciardone’s “leadership and decision-making,” which it deemed “essential to AUC’s present and future success.”

Two days after its decision, both the board and Ricciardone met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in which it praised the head of state, according to the presidential spokesperson.

Ricciardone, a long-time diplomat, formerly served as the United States ambassador to Cairo from 2005 to 2008, and was also the US ambassador in the Philippines, Palau and Turkey. His first term as AUC president is set to end in 2020.

The statement issued by the board, members of which arrived to Cairo last week in conjunction with the university’s 100-year anniversary celebrations, added that the university recently secured its re-accreditation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which is based on seven criteria, one of which is the “common understanding of how the university is governed.”

“Building on the cooperative spirit,” the statement proceeded, the board “expects the university administration, with the advice of the university Senate and the faculty at large, to clarify any ambiguity regarding governance.”

But university faculty who have fought to remove Ricciardone from his post continue to express outrage at the board’s recent move.

“What is happening is a direct blow to faculty members. The university staff did not even have a chance to express their views to the Board of Trustees,” Hanan Sabea, a professor of anthropology and a member of the Senate, tells Mada Masr. “This is a total disregard of the university community and their views about how this institution is run.”

“On what basis was this decision made?” she asks. “How can anyone think it is still possible to work with the university president and administration after all the crises we have been through?”

Two years of contention

Since Ricciardone assumed his position in 2016, the university has witnessed a host of controversies and protests against its own administration. Three weeks after his inauguration, tuition fees were hiked following the Egyptian government’s decision to liberalize the pound, which subsequently lost over half its value.

In July 2017, the administration decided to lay off 170 janitorial staff members and outsource the work to two private companies. At the time, workers in question went on a two-week strike, which only abated after the university administration threatened to involve the police, an unprecedented ultimatum at the time. Toward the end of that year, the administration declared that women in niqab would be prohibited from entering the university campus, a decision that sparked further outrage among students and faculty alike.

One source of ongoing tension between faculty members and the administration stems from an announcement in 2017 by the university administration that the Faculty Handbook — a document outlining faculty members’ rights and responsibilities — was no longer legally binding. Professors were especially alarmed after a number of new faculty contracts were signed this spring semester in contravention of the stipulations provided in the handbook.

“What really triggered the issue within the community of faculty members is that the administration issued a number of contracts with less benefits than the ones stated in the Faculty Handbook,” Amr Shaarawi, the former university provost and a professor of physics, previously told Mada Masr. “These included reduced tuition coverage for faculty’s children, a cap on the cost of home leave and another cap on tuition for schooling of children of relocated faculty. These changes were implemented without any consultation with faculty members themselves.”

“Without the Handbook, the university will lose its most mobile faculty members, who are essentially the youngest and best ones among them,” Shaarawi argued. “If these people feel that there is no future for them here, they will seek jobs in other universities.”

“AUC has severe competition — not from private universities in Egypt, but from the Gulf, North America and Europe,” he explained. “[Faculty] salaries, especially in the Gulf,  are twice and three times higher than what we have here at AUC. As former provost, I saw many of our best faculty leaving after 2011 and 2013, many of whom left because of the uncertainty of the political situation.”

Certain tenure cases have also created friction, a prominent example of which is that of Sean McMahon, an assistant professor of political science who, after nine years of teaching, two nominations for an ‘excellence in teaching’ award and various academic publications was denied a tenure position in 2017.

McMahon’s application was turned down by the university administration for undisclosed reasons. A source close to the case, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, says that the professor’s application was ultimately rejected by Ricciardone himself: Although the application was endorsed by the entire chain of academic reviewers up to the university provost, as stipulated in the Faculty Handbook, it was rejected after the president sought “independent advice.”

“The president said that he consulted ‘highly regarded professionals in the field’ to review the tenure documents. This is not part of the tenure process, and it is a violation of McMahon’s privacy and the confidentiality of his application,” the source says. “The president cannot just show the application to his friends.” 

The source refers to widespread speculations concerning potential motives behind the rejection, with people within the president’s circles saying that the decision to deny tenure could potentially be due to McMahon’s politics, especially “his stance on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, his critical political economy analysis and his activism within the faculty association.”

McMahon — who, in response to a question directed at Ricciardone inquiring about the reasons he was rejected, was told by president, “Sean, I don’t want to humiliate you in front of your peers” — now teaches part time in Canada.

Pascale Ghazaleh, the chair of AUC’s history department, says that negotiations between the Senate’s executive committee and the president have been ongoing for two years, but have yielded limited results and that the major issues remain the same.

“The campus has now become heavily securitized — security cameras have been installed everywhere, and we do not even know where exactly they are,” Ghazaleh adds. “The university is now being run like a company. There is an administrative body that makes decisions and implements them without consulting the faculty or the university senate.”

Heightened tensions

The discord came to a head at the turn of the new year, when an on-campus reception for US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was held on January 20, an event that angered many within the AUC community — including Ghazaleh, who sent an email to the president asking, “Were any of the members of our community consulted as to whether it was a good idea to bring a former CIA director, who has spoken in favor of torture, to AUC?”

“Was AUC’s standing in the wider community taken into account in this decision, and were all the implications of associating AUC with the US State Department understood?” Ghalazeh continued.

She tells Mada Masr that the “problem is that the visit was organized without the knowledge of the faculty members or the university Senate; the campus was simply given to the US embassy, which took responsibility for inviting whomever it wanted.”

During the Senate meeting on February 3, Ricciardone said that the invitation extended to Pompeo came from an “external entity,” without providing further clarification.

Nagla Rizk, a professor of economics and the director of the Access to Knowledge Center for Development at AUC, responded by saying, “With all due respect, sir, this is a pathetic excuse. ‏AUC has to have a say in who comes to its platforms. ‏[The] AUC campus is not a wedding venue.”

In the lead up to this stand-off, a number of faculty members sent a letter to the president on December 2, 2018, in which they expressed their grievances about the lack of collective decision-making and management, the absence of transparency, the undermining of the role of faculty members, the neglect of the voices of employees and a disregard for the university Senate and its decisions.

But Ricciardone had stopped attending weekly Senate meetings a year ago, and did not respond to the letter.

Two days before the Senate resolution was passed, faculty members held a preliminary vote in a public meeting on February 3, in which 90 percent of the attendees voted to withdraw confidence from the university president, paving the way for faculty to take the matter up with the Senate.

Ricciardone, however, seemed confident about the support he would receive from the Board of Trustees. A few hours after this vote, he sent out an email to the AUC community, saying, “I am certain that all trustees share my determination to continue with previously planned contacts with our faculty, staff and, as always, our students, in a spirit of mutual respect and candor on all matters.”

Before the Senate convened and voted, Ricciardone attempted to stop the meeting and appealed to Senate members to postpone the decision till after the Board of Trustees’ visit. “Before proceeding with the vote on any such resolution, I ask the Senate to reflect very deeply on the likely results of such an action, particularly if taken precisely on the eve of the annual visit to campus of the Board of Trustees,” Ricciardone said, according to The Caravan, a student-led newspaper.

Since the board arrived to Cairo last week, several meetings have been held with its members and those from the wider AUC community, including with the Senate and student representatives.

Mostafa al-Sadek, editor-in-chief of student newspaper AUC Times, who attended the student meeting with the Board of Trustees, tells Mada Masr that students raised a range of issues during these meetings, broaching their concerns about the declining standard of education, skyrocketing tuition fees, the lack of sufficient diversity in academic courses, the recent ban on the niqab, the increased securitization of campus and the bureaucratic hurdles that students face when organizing extracurricular activities on campus.

“I’m very disappointed [at the board’s decision to reaffirm confidence in Ricciardone], because it confirms the impression we have that the Board of Trustees only listened to students very superficially. None of what we or faculty members said was taken seriously,” Sadek says.

Another student who attended the meeting with the Board, and spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, agrees. “The Board of Trustees did not take enough time to reflect on what we told them. We met with them on Sunday, and on Monday, they issued a statement in support of the administration. This is what happens every time we discuss an issue with the university administration, but we expected something different from the Board of Trustees, especially since we were quite specific in referring to precise problems and facts.”

Following the Senate vote, the Student Union published a statement on its Facebook page in support of the resolution. “The current administration has proved its inability to cope with students and faculty needs, and accordingly must either change its actions or the administration must be changed,” the statement read.

But this hope appears to have been farfetched, Sadek laments, saying, “It seems that the decision to reaffirm confidence in the president was predetermined, and the purpose of these meetings was to just put on a show of dialogue.”

Mostafa Mohie 

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