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Ahmad Dallal Makes History At The American University in Cairo

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The American University in Cairo has appointed its 13th president, and for the first time in its 101-year history, he's an Arab. Until now, the storied university has always been led by white Americans, only one among them a woman. AUC, founded by Presbyterian missionaries, is one of the top-ranking universities in the region. And it's a place that's celebrated for cross-cultural learning.

This fall, accomplished Arabic and Islamic studies scholar Ahmad Dallal, who's Lebanese American, will take the helm at the American University in Cairo. He's currently the dean of Georgetown University in Qatar. Ahmad Dallal joins us now from Doha. Welcome.

AHMAD DALLAL: Good morning. Thank you for having me, Leila.

FADEL: So I have to ask, you're the first Arab president at AUC. How significant is it for an Arab to lead this institution?

DALLAL: You know, frankly, for me personally, it's - there is an added sense of responsibility when - and significance - personal significance. That said, of course, it is significant that I am from the region. I have an understanding of the region and a relationship with the region. But I also have - you know, I've spent 25 years of my professional career in the U.S. So I...

FADEL: Yeah.

DALLAL: You know, I think I understand the American educational system very well. And I'm able to mix the two, to combine the two sets of expertise, I hope.

FADEL: You know, AUC prides itself on being an intellectual hub and also a place for freedom of expression. But you're taking the helm at a time where freedom of expression in Egypt has been curtailed to a certain extent. Egyptian authorities clamp down on students, journalists, other free thinkers. And I just - I'm curious how you plan to navigate these challenges while maintaining the integrity of the university's mission.

DALLAL: I mean, first of all, I think that academic freedom is essential for creativity in any higher education institution for academic excellence. I think there is a margin of freedom that is given to AUC within which we can operate and we can solve social problems. I don't think there is any society - I mean, first of all, it's not just the region that's riddled with problems. I think right now the whole world is riddled with problems.

FADEL: The globe, yes.

DALLAL: The globe is riddled with problems. And there is no one who has - who's problems-free right now, unfortunately. And not only that, I think our issue, our problems are interconnected. So I think we need to work on securing and ensuring that there is a significant margin for academic freedom for our community so that we could be creative, so that we could serve our societies meaningfully and effectively.

FADEL: AUC has been a bridge - cultural, linguistically - in the region. And you said it's critical on the global stage. Under your leadership, what do you see as the role for the university?

DALLAL: I genuinely think that AUC should be one of the major interlocutors with the intellectual academic community in the world. I mean, AUC has graduated people who have very strong connections - and, you know, from all over the globe, who have very strong connections to AUC who continue to care about the university. I mean, when I was appointed, I received messages - when I saw on social media - messages from people that I don't even know. So AUC has a network of - you know, an existing network of global connection, of people, of scholars, of intellectuals, of academics who care about Egypt and the university. And it's not an accident. Egypt is the heart of the Arab world. That's the most important country in the Arab world. And it's very important regionally as well.

Now, that probably is one of the areas that we need to work on. In a competitive landscape, educational landscape, we're not the only university in the region, and there are other universities. There are universities that have vast (ph) campuses from Europe and from the U.S. and elsewhere, building vast (ph) campuses in Egypt and in the region. So we need to double our efforts to maintain the current links and even expand them and strengthen them. We need to think of creative ways of doing this, especially that we'll be doing it in a more competitive landscape.

FADEL: And is that the biggest challenge - the competitive landscape - when you talk about reestablishing?

DALLAL: I don't know if it's the biggest challenge. It's one of the challenges - it's one of the areas, you know, that I think we need to work. Another challenge is to think of new programs that are needed in the current environment. You know, there are things like environmental studies. There are things like artificial intelligence and its application within society, big data, and modeling institutional integrity. And there are many challenges that all universities are facing on this front. And that I think we need to work on - and providing a model at a regional level of how credible institutions with integrity operate.

FADEL: Ahmad Dallal is the newly appointed president of the American University in Cairo. Thank you so much for being with us.

DALLAL: Thank you, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENGUIN CAFE ORCHESTRA'S "NOTHING REALLY BLUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.