CAIRO, Egypt — The desks are all now in place, the air-conditioning finally works and the gym equipment has even arrived.
The American University in Cairo (AUC) is at last fully operational, having realized a 15-year-old aim of moving its campus from an 8-acre plot in the heart of traffic-clogged downtown Cairo to a 260-acre site on a desert plain outside the city.
Go back to last fall — the beginning of the academic calendar — and the picture could not have been more different, with administrators, teachers and students alike struggling in their academic pursuits in less-than-ideal conditions.
With contractors significantly behind schedule, dorms were still under construction — the university put students up in hotels around Cairo. The Student Life offices had yet to open — they were given cramped office space in the corner of campus. And the promised world-class athletic facilities were just that — promised.
Undeterred, the institution forged ahead. Egyptians, after all, have thrived for millennia in one of the earth's most hostile environments, and this had been an ambitious project to begin with.
“It was a very complex project,” said Ashraf Salloum, director of the Office of Campus Planning. “No one had ever built a campus — all facilities — at once.”
AUC has long been viewed, along with its Beirut counterpart AUB, as the region’s premier university. But as universities around the world continued to expand and modernize, AUC found itself hemmed in by overcrowding in the downtown area of Africa's most populous city.
The university bought land to the east of Cairo in 1997. At the time, it was surrounded by the scrubby Saharan plains, but the land had already been marked as the site for a new satellite city, aimed at relieving Cairo of some of its congestion.
By 1999, 52 architecture firms had submitted bids to design the new campus. The list was quickly whittled to five firms, one of which was Egyptian. These five, university officials determined, would collaborate to build the project.
“We insisted on local architects in order to incorporate old Cairo to show the progress of time,” Salloum said. “We needed someone who understood the vocabulary of the architecture through the years. We wanted to take this vocabulary, translate it through our vision and use it to create a world-class learning institution.”
A decade later, AUC’s 5,500 students made the commute — which from some parts of Cairo topped an hour and a half — for the first day of classes.
The campus today is a tribute to Egypt’s vast historical legacy and to the university’s academic ambitions. The campus’ main thoroughfare is an open promenade, the academic buildings looming on either side.
Broad arches recall Cairo’s old city; black-and-white designs on the buildings represent a throwback to Mamluk architecture; the sandstone used in much of the construction was brought from Upper Egypt — a subtle nod to Egypt’s poorest region.
And construction of a satellite city around the campus, dubbed "New Cairo," is well under way.
With the creation of a new physical environment, at no small cost — the final bill is likely to hit $450 million, $100 million of which is coming from USAID — administrators are looking to boost the school’s academic reputation from that of a regional powerhouse to that of a world-renowned academic center.
“The new campus has given us the capacity to shake us out of our routine,” Provost Lisa Anderson said. “You sit in Tahrir Square [site of the old campus], you can’t see the horizon. You sit out here, you can see everything.” Behind her, miles of desert stretch out from the office window.
What really lights Anderson up is the topic of promoting greater interaction between AUC and Cairo. She has moved class schedules so that students will no longer have classes on Tuesdays, allowing them to spend one day a week doing fieldwork.
“We’re going to be thoughtful and self-conscious about what the American University in Cairo means,” she said.
The university is also hoping to improve campus life for students. “We’re still feeling our way and learning to spread our wings,” said Kim Jackson, a student representative.
Part of the effort was better integration of Arab and American students, many of the latter being enrolled in study abroad programs, and more participation in sports and athletics. The recently opened athletic facility features tennis and squash courts, an Olympic-size pool, a track and countless playing fields — all of which were absent from the old urban campus.
“We’re third on the pecking order. A lot of our athletes are contracted out,” said Director of Athletics Chuck Gordon, explaining how many AUC athletes compete primarily for professional or club teams.
With construction coming to an end, and last year’s controversies falling into the rearview mirror, the university’s prospects look bright.
But troubles persist: The university is in the midst of a $20 million dispute over construction projects delivered late or below standard. University officials hope the matter can be settled outside of court, though they acknowledge that international arbitration may be needed.
Despite such bumps in the road, the university is pressing ahead with several new programs, including a Masters degree in education by 2010, and the establishment of a business school and a school of public affairs.
More GlobalPost dispatches on Cairo:
A crumbling city
Cairo on $2 a day
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A library with great expectations
How to save an oasis
A tale of two lovers
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