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...