Change is not always an easy thing to embrace, even if it's change for the better. That's why many of the faculty, students and alumni of the American University in Cairo (AUC) are finding it hard to accept the drastic change of scenery this fall.
The move from Tahrir to Kattameya is a big one for an institution that has occupied the same urban campus for 90 years. Students, faculty and staff alike had grown accustomed to the cramped cacophony of buildings situated along a maze of noisy streets in the heart of Downtown Cairo — there was perfect order in the disorder. So it is not surprising that almost one month into the fall semester, the AUC community is still feeling a bit disconcerted as it tries (with a measure of chaos) to settle into its new $400 million home in Kattameya, regardless of how aesthetically pleasing it may be.
And with the new campus, AUC has hired a new chief academic officer who is trying her best to make the move as painless as possible.
Lisa Anderson, a renowned specialist on the politics of the Middle East and North Africa and the former dean of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), arrived in Cairo a little over a month ago to assume her position as AUC's new provost, a post occupied by veteran AUC professor Tim Sullivan since 1998. As provost, Anderson is responsible for shaping and implementing AUC's academic vision and continuing to build the size and quality of its faculty. She does so as Egypt faces increasing competition from the Gulf states —Qatar in particular — for the title of the Arab world's clear education leader.
"It's an ideal time for me to be starting here because the fact that I don't know what I'm doing will not be apparent to anyone — we are all in the same boat," says Anderson with a light-hearted laugh.
The sense of humor and enthusiasm with which she approaches her role in shaping the future of one of the region's top liberal arts institutions is immediately apparent as she easily brushes off recent criticism of the chaos that has characterized AUC's move to Kattameya.
According to Anderson, "a short-term period of confusion where no one quite knows their way around yet is perfectly normal and to be expected."
With a PhD in political science from Columbia University, an MA from the Fletcher School at Tufts University, a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an impressive academic career that has included a number of posts at Harvard and Columbia, Anderson is a top US expert on the Middle East.
The majority of her academic research has been focused on state formation and regime change in the Middle East and North Africa. She has written and edited a number of critically acclaimed books including The State and Social Transformation in Tunisia and Libya, The Origins of Arab Nationalism, and Pursuing Truth, Exercising Power: Social Science and Public Policy in the Twenty-first Century.
Commenting on the choice of Anderson as provost, AUC President David Arnold said, "We are fortunate to have attracted a respected academic and experienced administrator of her caliber as we embark on a second century of leadership in higher education in Egypt and the Arab region."
After 20 years at Columbia, the move to Cairo and AUC is a big shift for Anderson, whose name became publicly associated with the Middle East when she invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak at the Columbia World Leaders Forum in 2006. The controversial invitation — heavily criticized in the US and later rescinded by the university because of "security concerns" — illustrates Anderson's forthright personality as a leader who is not afraid of challenges.
Anderson's relationship with Egypt began approximately 30 years ago when she was a student at AUC's Center for Arabic Study Abroad.
"The current state of my Arabic does not reflect well on the program," she laughs, "but I had a really wonderful time. It was just one of those experiences that begins to change what you aspire to do. I ended up being a political scientist who works a lot in the Middle East."
In September 2007, Anderson was appointed to AUC's Board of Trustees along with Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and former US Assistant Secretary of State Dina Habib Powell.
"All along, I had been following AUC's ambitious fundraising efforts for the new campus. I remember coming to Cairo last February and walking around the new campus for the first time. I thought it was just breathtaking. So when I was given the opportunity to come out and put the intellectual and academic meat on the bones of this campus, it was just too irresistible to pass up," says Anderson. "The fact that AUC is undergoing this dramatic transformation was very much a part of the appeal for me."
Three weeks into the fall semester, many bewildered students and faculty are still left wondering if perhaps the move was "too much, too soon." The Kattameya campus, which in many respects is still a working construction site, has not received rave reviews from everyone.
Anderson, herself still settling into a new job, views the problems of the first few weeks as just a temporary setback.
"There are a lot of short-term adjustments that have to be made. This is a new experience for absolutely everyone and it's not easy," says Anderson. "Academic people tend to like their routines, so it's very disconcerting to have that routine turned upside down.
"Having said that, I also think it's a great opportunity for everyone to have a new beginning. We are always telling faculty that they have to ‘think outside the box' — well this is literally their chance to do that. As they start unpacking those boxes and getting their stuff out from the old campus  you want to get people to rethink everything from how they redecorate their offices to a sort of intellectual redecorating."
Anderson hopes to grow AUC to a new level by expanding the horizons of the existing faculty, recruiting new faculty and developing new degree programs. She feels that the outside world needs to be made more aware of the institution and its merits. The way to do that, she says, is to initiate a global dialogue between AUC and leading global universities.
For each incoming class at Columbia, Anderson estimates that there were between 90-100 different nationalities represented in the student body.
"Working with international students forced me to take a closer look at schools worldwide," said Anderson. "I wanted to see what kinds of educational systems produced the students that came to graduate school at Columbia, so I went to cities like Tokyo, Beijing, Singapore and Korea to see what their universities were doing."
One of Anderson's proudest achievements as dean of SIPA was setting up dual-degree programs both within the various faculties at Columbia and internationally with highly acclaimed universities around the world. She hopes to establish the same kinds of partnerships for AUC.
"I think there is a set of opportunities now to not only think internally about new ways of organizing curricular and research programs but to also begin to think about how to connect AUC with other institutions in the region and around the world," says Anderson. "It seems to be that there are going to be, over the course of the next 10-20 years, certain institutions that take advantage of inserting themselves into global networks of education and research. Universities that get in early on this are going to have an enormous advantage going forward."
If she has her way, AUC will become one of those institutions.
"We will continue to be an institution that serves Egypt," she adds, "but I think that in some ways we will best serve Egypt if we start thinking and benchmarking ourselves against what high-caliber institutions are doing in Singapore, Korea and Brazil."
Anderson already has ideas in the pipeline for interdisciplinary linkages and dual-degree programs at AUC, for example, creating dual degrees in petroleum engineering and business administration.
"I think there are many opportunities to take programs in engineering and link them to programs in business and public policy," she explains. "Many people out there today who have management responsibilities — whether they are in oil companies, regulatory authorities or government ministries — started out their careers as engineers and never took the management courses that would have benefited them in their current jobs."
The day after the collapse of Lehman Brothers caused financial markets worldwide to tumble, AUC's new provost contemplated the effect of the global economic crisis on the region, Egypt and the university that she now calls home.
"The collapse of the American financial system has changed everything.  I think that we are going to have to decompress a little bit and start thinking about a real economy again. People are going to have to start thinking about things that they should have been thinking about in the first place, like job creation," says Anderson. "So it's going to be a complicated period, no doubt."
She believes, however, that the crisis may not have as dramatic an impact on the Middle East as it will in other parts of the world. Still, Anderson foresees a period of remarkable uncertainty in the coming months.
"What universities will probably worry about most in the first instance is not being able to effectively start and finish capital campaigns. AUC has already done a remarkable job on the campaign for the new campus, but it needs to turn around and start another one," Anderson explains. "Most universities are in permanent campaign mode. It's a cliché: facilities, faculty, fellowships. We have completed the facilities very effectively without doing a lot of borrowing, now it's on to faculty, research programs and fellowships for students.
"I can't imagine that the professional fundraisers aren't concerned, but on the other hand the fact that AUC doesn't depend on alumni at Lehman Brothers, like a lot of other universities do, is a definite advantage," she adds. "In that respect there will definitely be some institutions that are more affected by all this than others. Everything is going to slow down, and people are going to stretch out their announced campaigns for a while longer, but I don't worry about this institution the way I do about universities elsewhere."
Once the dust settles, Anderson is of the opinion that the region will become "a magnet" for both talent and investment.
"I wouldn't be here if I didn't think so. I care about the region, I care about higher education — what better place to be? This is the future."